Octavia Butler's Earthseed series (Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents) paints a grim near future. Protagonist Lauren Oya Olemina fights to survive and prevail in this hellscape America plagued by religious extremists, rampant illiteracy, intense violence, and more. Lauren has found the true form of god, that of change and seeks to share the words of Earthseed: the books of the living. Butler's work is a harrowing tale of a world, though alien to us isn’t too hard to imagine. It is the exaggerated, horrifying outcome of our current actions, almost a promise. But she also offers an answer to these horrors, a comfort in the form of Earthseed; of community and resistance. Gabe breaks down the books and their themes. Kat explains the scary motivations behind Butler's series and where we are now. What can we learn from the Earthseed series?
Sources in this Episode: Why So Many Readers Are Turning to Octavia Butler's Apocalypse Fiction Right Now Parable of the Sower study guide Illiteracy is costing America — here’s why https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/state-county-estimates.asp thinkimpact https://realtimeinequality.org/ Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Year-End 2021 Update
Ways to Help & Things to Learn: Kat found a website that allows you to search by area what plants are native to where you live, to make sure you’re working with your environment instead of against it: This also helps climate change. There are also places that teach about foraging and herbalism https://theherbalacademy.com/herbalism-courses/In foraging be mindful of the environments around you and your impact on them. Learn about the ways in which different plants grow, and the importance of not over foraging or damaging local ecosystems: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-to-forage-wild-foodsThe Gathering Basket Cookbooks - Rooted in the cultivation of Indigenous food sovereignty and elevating and preserving Indigenous Narratives, I-Collective is developing a Cookbook and Webinar Series to assist in strengthening the connection of our people to their food. Indigenous food sovereignty is critical because many health issues are tied to colonialism and the exploitation of resources, land, and people: https://www.icollectiveinc.org/
Media from this week's episode:
Parable of the Sower (1993)
In 2025, with the world descending into madness and anarchy, one woman begins a fateful journey toward a better future. (First of an unfinished trilogy).
Writer: Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Talents (2001)
Continues the story of Lauren Olamina in socially and economically depressed California in the 2030s. Convinced that her community should colonize the stars, Lauren and her followers make preparations. But the collapse of society and rise of fanatics result in Lauren's followers being enslaved, and her daughter stolen from her. Now, Lauren must fight back to save the new world order.
Writer:Octavia E. Butler
What We Learn from Octavia's Parables: God is Change & more by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
“In order to rise
From its own ashes
The Earthseed series follow Lauren Oya Olemina, a young empath living in an apocalyptic world of unrest and hopelessness. In Parable of the Sower, Olemina is young and growing in this bleak landscape. She introduces her complicated world, the only one she’s ever known. This world, though alien to us isn’t too hard to imagine. It is the exaggerated, horrifying outcome of our current actions, almost a promise.
Let’s glimpse into this world. Olemina lives with her family in a walled town where outside the walls is pure danger and chaos. People fight, steal, murder, and intoxicate themselves to survive. Cars are rare because gas is impossible. Food is limited due to climate change and unsustainable farming practices. Climate change also results in rampant forest fires in California where Olemina lives. The police force is small and privatized, catering to the upperclass, are incredibly expensive and entirely unhelpful. Special drugs have corrupted the mentality of entire communities of people. One drug, parateco, dubbed the ‘genius drug’ results in children like Olemina, known as “sharers” who physically feel what others feel, having been born with this trait after their mothers abused the narcotic. Other drugs like pyro inspires an intense delight for fire and flame. Olemina describes the sensation as “better than sex” to watch a fire burn. Education is no longer free but mandatory by law. Schools have shutdown and families are now expected to educate their children or they are sent to neighborhood classes. Slavery has resurfaced with a new face, with such a pathetic workforce many are forced to become laborers who work not for money, but creds they can only use on the compounds of the company. Later, we learn about the cruel practice of collaring people into working for free. These collars are controlled by a device on a belt by the captor who can send terrible, mindbreaking pain to the wearer. Children are murdered, made into workers or sex slaves, uneducated, and lost. The bleak world has inspired fear and hopelessness, making room and inspiring the rise of religious factions that seek to make America great again. Desiring to return to an impossible time that never existed. Without acknowledging any of the real issues that brought us to this point, these radicals work to cleanse the country of the broken, damned heathens that have destroyed the greatest country in the world.
Olemina’s world is dropped into further hell when her home is attacked by pyromaniacs who deemed this vulnerable community the villain, the rich, for having anything of substance even though it is barely enough to survive. (isn’t it so that the rich sit atop their castles while we fight amongst ourselves for scraps?). Her family is taken from her and she must walk north to survive, in the hopes of finding somewhere to be safe and heard. Parable of the Sower shows Olemina as she begins to find her tribe, slowly through her journey accumulating strays and the needy. She finds love and community on the road and seeks to build a stable home.
But there is more to Olemina and Parable of the Sower than a simple too-close-to-home apocalypse because Olemina doesn’t only work to survive and build a community. Her greatest desire is to spread the word of Earthseed, to share the knowledge, hope and destiny of a religion she found within herself. Earthseed: the books of the living, are Olemina’s understanding of god, of humanity, and of hope. Having been raised by a Christian pastor, Olemina never felt Christianity was correct. Later, seeing how the twisted version of Christian America could not just corrupt but destroy the country further only solidified this notion. For Olemina, Earthseed is truth. It is the answer. Throughout her life, she begins to right down these thoughts that she knows is true. At the heart of these text is this understanding of god. God is change.
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Is both creative and destructive,
Demanding and yielding,
Scultpor and clay.
God is Infinite Potential:
God is Change.
Olemina forms her community around these ideologies and eventually finds a home on the land of her love, Bankole. She dubs this community Acorn, it is a seed she intends to grow. A seed that is taken for granted and misunderstood. Olemina had grown up making and eating Acorn bread, simply bread made from acorn flour. This practice learned from the ways of indigenous peoples who sought to usilize all of our environment, was unknown to others but helped make their world sustainable.
In Parable of the Talents, Olemina’s Acorn has grown into a wonderful, family-driven community of survivors. After the rise of a monstrous political and religious figure, Jarret, Acorn is assaulted and destroyed leaving Olemina without her partner, her child, or her community. She takes to the road once again and in this journey finds that Earthseed could never grow to its full potential in the one community she had had, but rather needs to be spread. Other than change, there is one other important factor to Earthseed and that is the destiny.
The Destiny of Earthseed
Is to take root among the stars.
It is to live and to thrive
On new earths.
It is to become new beings
And to consider new questions.
It is to leap into the heavens
Again and again.
It is to explore the vastness
It is to explore the vastness
For Earthseed to reach the stars, Olemina will need to transform it from one small faction to something countrywide, smart and strong.
Our Incoming Apocalypse
“I have read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climactic, economic, and sociological crises,” Bankole writes. “It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises.”
Much of the Earthseed series is unsettlingly realistic. From the words of the corrupt and problematic president, Jarrett “We’ll make America Great again.” His existence is an eerie parallel to the Trump presidency. At one point, when Olemina is old enough to vote she explains that her and her people did not vote for Jarrett but instead for a former vice president that they didn’t really like. Rather that he was a safer bet, better to vote for a man with “nothing in his head” than for a man who could cause irreparable damage to the country. Sounds a bit too familiar for my taste. Nods to our ecological and economical disasters throughout the series also sparks distaste and fear for the future, as we are on this very path to destruction. In Octavia’s world, we’ve ignored these warnings and live with the consequences. In our world, we still have time to change our fate.
In the dark, we find light in found family, community, and care
Despite the bleak, horrifying world Olemina and her community live in, there is still hope. The hope lies much in the pages of Earthseed but also in the actions of this community. Olemina’s daughter Asha Vere (or Larkin), explains how her mother’s philosophy, the understanding of god as change, allowed her and her follows to accept the changing world they live in. The inevitable shift of power, dismantling and reassembling of society, death and birth of human life all fit perfectly into this perception of god. God is change. Change is not always good, but it is always happening. We are always affected by change and though we can expect the horrors to come with that change, we can also hold out knowing that those horrors will not last forever.
I have always believed in this balance and changing nature of the world. Olemina and her people got through some of the darkest of times including imprisonment and abuse, intense traumas that suffered alone could be detrimental to any emotional growth (we cans ee this outcome through her brother Marcus). But because they had Earthseed and each other, they are able to rely on one another even after surviving the hell of Camp Christian. In Parable of the Talents, the second book of the series, Acorn is labeled a heretical cult of heathens and witches. They are collared, forced to work, stripped of their loved ones, and assaulted. Olemina’s daughter and all the other children are stolen away, moved to “good, Christian homes.” First, this idea came from the need to help children who were already in need but has since been corrupted into stealing children from homes deemed unfit. Despite the horrors Acorn suffers, when they eventually find freedom they are still able to hold on to their humanity, their compassion for one another, to heal and grow. It is believing and understanding the change that is God that allows them to bounce back so effectively.
Some might find the idea of a god as uncaring as change to be dismaying but I found it inspiring. It was a relief to not have this burden of expectation. In Parable of the Talents, Olemina explains another verse of Earthseed that releases us from the weight of sin and instead gives the power to shape your own potential and purpose.
We are born
Not with purpose,
But with potential.
The Double-Bladed nature of Religion
Religion is such a big theme explored in the Earthseed series. It can be a tool for hope or oppression. We see how religion reshapes the country, turning it ugle (or uglier) and vile. But we also see how Olemina succumbs to it. Her daughter often chides her in the second book, angry with her love of Earthseed. Asha refers to Earthseed as her mother’s most favorite child. It steals her mother from her. She sees her mother not as a cult leader, a corruptive force not too far from the likes of Christian America, another forceful shadow to live under. And so, Butler offers us the true face of religion, multifaceted. A changeling that takes a new shape in different hands can be used to harm or elevate people.
Even the titles strengthen the morals of the series. In the biblical Parable of the Sower, the man represents God and the seed is His message. Just as a planted seed starts to grow, the word of God starts to deepen and grow within a person.
In the biblical Parable of the Talents, the moral lesson of the Parable of the Talents is that we are to use and grow our gifts from God (blessings) for His glory.
Even though Olemina does not believe in Christianity. It is not the God she believes or understands to exist, she still respects the power it can hold. These lessons can be used, even now, to shape our world into something less bleak.
So what do we learn?
In an article on Slate titled, Why So Many Readers Are Turning to Octavia Butler's Apocalypse Fiction Right Now writer Rebecca Onion explains, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents contain many plot elements that seem to have “predicted” our current circumstances. But because Olamina’s story is also the story of a prophet—and because Butler is interested in how people might retain their humanity and direction through conditions of extreme chaos and change—the Earthseed books are instructional in a way that other apocalypse fictions are not. They are not prepper fiction, though reading them will teach you a thing or two about go bags and the importance of posting a night watch. According to people who love the books, myself included, they offer something beyond practical preparations: a blueprint for adjusting to uncertainty.
I had tried to read Parable of the Sower when I was younger and couldn’t get past the beginning. The world was so terrifying and horrific that I couldn’t continue with it. I had been interested in Lauren Oya Olemina immediately. I identified with her empathy, though mine is not as severe, I could relate to that feeling of connection, of understanding, and thought. Furthermore, like Olemina, I too was disappointed and unfulfilled by Christianity. It seemed to be missing much and inspiring nothing good. So Earthseed and the idea of god being change, not a man, not even a creature but the act of change, the guarantee of change was interesting to me. For me, it means we are full of infinite potential. That our world is too. It can be terrifying at times. After all, Chaos, Is God’s most dangerous face—. But there is hope for we can Seize Change. Use it. Adapt and grow.
The Earthseed series equips us with some practical skills as Rebecca Onion explains. I now am assembling my own go-bag and looking up indigeonous sustainability gardening. (If anyone has a good acorn bread recipe, I’d love to try it). But more importantly, Butler instills in us powerful, hopeful prose that can protect us further than a go-bag can. Because once we’ve survived an initial assault, we need to sustain ourselves and persevere. Butler teaches us lessons about empowering our communities. With lines like,
Or be divided,
By those who see you as prey.
Or be destroyed.
Or to protect ourselves even within those communities. To accept that not everyone can be saved and our strength comes in educating each other. That Drowning people Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers. To evolve past what we’ve known and pursue our personal destinies. A tree Cannot grow In its parentsʼ shadows.
But ultimately, we learn that the Destiny of Earthseed Is to take root among the stars. This world is not all that we have left but rather is the beginning. We can strive for more, for better. We can hope for it but also expect it to be true.
It’s quite apt that the Earthseed trilogy remains unfinished. We leave off right before the destiny is realized, colonizing the stars. A ship is sent to space without Lauren who is too elderly to embark on the journey to our future. She has led us this far, instilling into us the possibility, the hope, and the necessity for growth and expansion. Just as our narrator and shaper, Lauren is gone, so is Octavia. She will not be traveling to the stars with us, but she has made it possible in her ways to get us there. Octavia has sown the seeds and provided us the talents, we only need now to use our gifts to grow, to realize her hopeful future.
–For more deep dives into Octavia’s Parables, check out Octavia Tried to Tell Usby Scholar and minister Monica Coleman and Afrofuturist author Tananarive Due. These were monthly webinars that explored the work through our current lens of the pandemic world. There’s also, Octavia’s Parables, a podcast by Toshi Reagon and activist adrienne maree brown. This podcast aims to read through all of Butler’s work and features music from the Parable of the Sower opera which Reagon co-wrote with her mother.
Octavia Butler's Predicted Apocalypse: Where Are We Now & How to Survive by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
First I wanna talk about how much I loved this book. I read this book quicker than I’ve ever read any other book in the history of my entire life. I literally felt like I couldn’t put it down. What was so stressful and satisfying about these books is that when I was reading them it was almost like I was achieving something tangible. The world inside Parable of the Sower and Talents felt so close to ours, so eerily similar that it almost felt like it was providing an answer to a question that internally has been repeating in my head for a few years now. What, if anything, can I do to prepare for the inevitable chaos that is building and building? What, if anything, can I do to stop it? Even through a work of fiction, this book gave tangible next steps to help with the anxiety surrounding that feeling of not being prepared. However long we may have before things get worse, this book provides ways to cope with that inevitability. Earthseed being a practical and logical way of understanding the world around us and its ever-changing ways. There’s a lot of comfort in the ideas that Octavia Butler proposes, as a way to deal with reality. Ways to make sure you survive change, adapt to change, and while doing so help others. It seems that in the many years since the publishing of Parable of the Sower (1993), and Parable of the Talents (2001) much of the country has not changed for the better in addressing these serious concerns. Time has made many of the problems addressed in these books even more prevalent, closer to the dystopian and that is part of what makes the book so impactful. Octavia’s perspective and foresight on the state of the US is hauntingly accurate, and many of us in our current lives can relate to the characters within the story in very visceral and real ways.
Some Historical Context to Parable of the Sower:
Parable of the Sower was written in the 1980s-1990s, and the influence of those time periods is clear in reading the book. To provide some historical context, the big concerns of the 80s were illiteracy, wealth inequality, crime, homelessness, and climate change. These are actively present themes throughout the book that tie together, in that these issues are intersectional. Illiteracy ties into wealth inequality, as well as crime and homelessness, and all these factors influence the prevalence of illiteracy in a cyclical way. Additionally, all of those impact climate change and our financial barriers to making a positive impact on our climate. Thank you to A-Study-Guide-for-Octavia-Butler-s-Parable-of-the-Sower which provided a nice overview of the Influences for the book.
Illiteracy: In 1989, it was estimated that 13% of 17-year-old Americans could not read or write, and that twenty million Americans had problems with literacy. For Octavia’s lens in writing this book, literacy levels were an important piece to the puzzle that led to the world Lauren lived in. In the 1980s according to the study guide mentioned previously - 96% of those between 21 and 25 years old had basic reading skills, but less than 28% were capable of reading a map well enough to use it properly. By 1993, it was estimated that over 40% of the adult population fell short of the literacy skills needed to succeed on a day-to-day basis. So where are we now?
In an article from USA Today titled Illiteracy is costing America — here’s why: The U.S. reading crisis is 20 years in the making; 130 million read below 6th-grade level. Written by Nick Gaehde, president of Lexia Learning. They speak on the current literacy situation in the US. “According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 130 million American adults read below a sixth-grade level. Now, consider how that number represents more than half the adult U.S. population”. The cause of these illiteracy rates is similar to the ones in the 1980s, listing poverty and wealth inequality as major causes. The history of redlining and discriminatory education funding also add to this issue, and these things have only been more drastically impacted by the pandemic. The issues of the 1980s have not seemed to improve much despite the recognition that it’s a national problem. I am not a data person so I’m just going to have to assume that the math I found was accurate, but if you are a math or data person and want to fact-check me and make sense of it the link can be found here: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/state-county-estimates.asp. BUT according to thinkimpact about 21% of US adults are considered Illiterate, meaning they score a level 1 or below in 2022. Literacy impacts many areas of life, but especially income, meaning that low literacy rates, especially if more than half of US adults read below a 6th-grade level, mean that poverty is inevitable according to our current societal structure. The low literacy rates also impact wealth inequality, and the way our country is organized, this won’t likely improve.
Wealth Inequality: Income inequality is a somewhat background theme in the book, but the biggest way it influences the characters is that the perception of wealth to the poor is vastly different than the perception of wealth to the middle and upper middle class. The vast gap between the 0.01%, and the 0.1% and everyone else also influences the perception of wealth, which is something we’ve seen in the Parable of the Sower and Talents, that self-sufficiency is equated to the rich within the “Eat the Rich” mantra, because we are so far away from the very rich. Income inequality largely contributes to this, in that the top 0.01% and 0.1% are so far above us that they’re nearly inaccessible. I found a fun chart that shows this in a somewhat understandable way: https://realtimeinequality.org/
Look how fun: Most of us are the depressing green line, that goes so low off the chart that you can’t even see it sometimes. The middle 40% are doing just okay, with some self-sufficiency but likely a layoff away from joining the green line. The top 10% are a few fire humans away from joining the bottom 90%. The top 1% that is often talked about as the enemy is closer to the bottom 50% than the top 0.1% or 0.01%. In comparison to the 0.1 and 0.01%, the top 1% isn’t even that rich, but still far enough above the top 10% to manage a somewhat safe situation for a time within the Parable of the Sower dystopian world. This is my interpretation of where we currently stand. What is interesting is that the divide when Octavia was writing this, was still relatively small, but growing. What we see today is a drastic increase in wealth inequality.
Crime: Crime is a very prevalent theme in the book, and the fear of crime was something very prevalent in the 1990s, even as crime statistics went down, the fear of crime increased largely due to the news and political climate. The majority of Americans viewed crime as a serious issue in need of attention, but simultaneously misunderstood the actual causes of crime. This meant “the solutions” that were sought out, funded, etc were influenced by this skewed perspective that was influenced by racism, capitalism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. This fear of crime is what influences the push for a traditionalist white Christian America, in the book as well as in our actual real-life country because there is a fundamental misunderstanding on the causes of crime. That crime at large stems from the lack of funding for education, social programs, and housing support. This misunderstanding is prevalent today in the current political climate, as well as the pandemic. Increased poverty results in more desperate populations, and an increase in crime. According to a study Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Year-End 2021 Update indicates that crime has increased in all areas from 2019 - 2021, largely due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Especially homicides, aggravated and gun assault, and domestic violence. The only statistic that seemed to go down was Burglary, larceny, and drug offenses between 2020 and 2021. However, car thefts increased by 14%, which considering the prices of cars and gas, makes sense. The feeling of a lack of prospects and economic growth is something many Americans feel, especially in finding jobs that don’t actively put you in harm's way, or finding jobs at all. Our prison industrial complex is already using slave labor for companies, so the world described in the parables is very close to reality already.
In the time Octavia was writing Parable of the Sower homelessness in America had impacted an estimated 2 million people in 1989. According to the study guide, this was largely due to the Reagan administration's massive cuts to welfare programs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budgets. The situation was exacerbated by the poverty rate, and the increasing gap between the rich and poor. These problems of homelessness continue to exist today, largely impacting LGBTQIA youth and adults, veterans, and individuals living with disabilities and mental illnesses, as well as people dealing with substance abuse. California specifically has the largest population of homeless Americans, and as Octavia was a California resident, it makes sense that homelessness would be such a prevalent theme in Parables. Today about 552,830 people are homeless in the US, so the number has decreased, but still remains a consistent problem in the US.
Climate change and its impacts were prevalent in the book, in the warming of the north, the erosion of the coastlines, the lack of rainfall and the ease of fire starting. In the time the book was written, global warming was being talked about. The increase in gas prices and impact of fossil fuels was also a prevalent theme in the book, and we are seeing the impacts of nongreen energy now. As we covered in our Environmental Horror series, things haven’t gotten better here either. In fact many of the issues proposed in the book are coming to pass today.
What can we learn from these books and the life of Lauren Oya Olamina?
The biggest takeaway that I got from the Earthseed series was to learn as much as possible while you can. Learn about the land you live on. Learn how to utilize and cultivate plant life native to your area. Learn to decolonize your view of this land and how, if necessary you will need to survive on it in a way that you’ve never considered. Learn recipes and methods of cooking from scratch, that don’t depend on stores, or capitalism. Learn skill sets that are practical and life-saving, like first-aid, reading a map, self-defense, gardening, carpentry, electronics, etc. Even if just as a hobby, learn things that will not only be useful as points of knowledge to save yourself, those you love, or will come to love. Prepare for change, by being mindful of the world around you, and what it’s capable of. Prepare as much as you can, and accept that no matter how hard you try there will always be things that surprise you. Doing these things not only will help you in the long run, in surviving an unexpected and chaotic situation but will also help the environment around you.
In addition to just attaining knowledge, prepare yourself in other ways by making go-bags, hidden caches, and organizing yourself are ways that can support you in dealing with change. The book offers suggestions for stocking go-bags too: accumulating cash, maps, medical supplies, seeds, tools, and survival items like water tablets, quality pieces of clothing, etc. will also be an essential piece to surviving in an unexpected situation. It’ll also help alleviate anxiety and give you a feeling of control.
Things you can Learn:
I found a website that allows you to search by area what plants are native to where you live, to make sure you’re working with your environment instead of against it: v
This also helps climate change. There are also places that teach about foraging and herbalism https://theherbalacademy.com/herbalism-courses/
In foraging be mindful of the environments around you and your impact on them. Learn about the ways in which different plants grow, and the importance of not over foraging or damaging local ecosystems: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-to-forage-wild-foods
The Gathering Basket Cookbooks - Rooted in the cultivation of Indigenous food sovereignty and elevating and preserving Indigenous Narratives, I-Collective is developing a Cookbook and Webinar Series to assist in strengthening the connection of our people to their food. Indigenous food sovereignty is critical because many health issues are tied to colonialism and the exploitation of resources, land and people: https://www.icollectiveinc.org/