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Octavia Butler, November 2016 LAMP Luminary - The LAMP

Octavia Butler, November 2016 LAMP Luminary

By November 15, 2016 News No Comments

Octavia Butler November 2016 LAMP Luminary
The one piece of media I can’t stop thinking about since last week’s election isn’t news coverage, political analysis, or even late-night satire (brilliant though many hosts have been lately). It’s a work of fiction by an author who died ten years ago.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents is a science fiction novel set in 2030s USA. The second in Butler’s “Parable” series, Talents follows protagonist Lauren Olamina, a young black woman, during the rise to power of Christian fundamentalist president Andrew Jarret. The America that Butler imagines in Talents is bleak: highly militarized, severely impoverished, and decimated by climate change. It’s a future in which Americans live in perpetual fear behind weaponized walls.

In the run-up to the election, Jarret’s candidacy leads to a series of uncoordinated attacks on Olamina’s community and many others. The attackers resurrect outmoded symbolism and tactics of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and even the Crusades. Jarret outwardly denounces the violence of his supporters, but does nothing to stop it. Soon, even some members of Olamina’s community begin to seek comfort in Jarret’s promise to restore law and order if elected. Insisting that Jarret cannot be separated from the hateful acts his rhetoric inspires, Olamina warns her community:

“You take Jarret and you get beatings, burnings, tarrings and featherings. They’re a package. Jarret’s supporters are more than a little seduced by Jarret’s talk of making America great again.”
-Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents, 1998

Writing ten years before the creation of Twitter, Butler describes how Jarret’s election is aided by the replacement of “real news” with “news bullets” of 25-30 words (ie. approximately 140 characters). Olamina laments how well-made news is expensive and difficult to come by, while news bullets “purport to tell us all what we need to know in flashy pictures and quick, witty, verbal one-two punches.”

Even more chillingly familiar is Jarret’s media slogan—the fictional demagogue’s repeated appeals “to help make America great again.”

“Jarret insists on being some throwback to some earlier, ‘simpler’ time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time…There never was such a time in this country.”
-Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents, 1998

Butler eventually abandoned her plans to write a sequel to Parable of the Talents, stating in interviews that she became overwhelmed and depressed by the process. Before her unexpected death in 2006, at the age of 58, she had published over fifteen other books, including the best-selling novel Kindred, and the acclaimed short story Bloodchild. Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Genius grant. She won scores of other accolades, including the prestigious PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, and handfuls of Hugos and Nebulas — among the highest honors awarded to science fiction and fantasy writing.

Octavia Butler was deeply opposed to hierarchies. She was a self-reflexive writer, often switching perspectives and narrators in order to examine and critique the views of her protagonists — particularly those of more autobiographical characters like Lauren Olamina. Butler forged new pathways in a field traditionally dominated by white men, using the power of fiction to explore radical alternatives to the systems of oppression found in her own time and on her own planet.

In the tribute Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, published in 2014, co-editors adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha write: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction.” The authors credit Butler with helping evolve the field of science fiction by “exploring the gray areas of race, class, gender, sexuality, militarism, inequality, oppression, resistance and most importantly, hope.”

Octavia Butler’s work continues to inspire generations of writers as well as activists. It does so not only by transporting us to imaginary worlds, but also by helping us unearth important truths about ourselves. And in a media climate where fantasy fiction can prove more factual than news coverage, imagination and speculation are necessary, even liberating, political tools.