The late American author Octavia Butler died nearly 15 years ago, but the disturbing plague year that is coming to a close has resulted in a renewed interest in her books. Her Parable books were especially popular in 2020, with the prescient Parable of the Sower landing on the New York Times Bestseller List for the first time since its 1993 publication.
The popularity of Butler’s speculative fiction isn’t a surprise to her longtime fans considering that she made uncomfortable predictions that are proving to be frighteningly accurate. Her novels projected a society breaking down due to the impact of climate change, crime, income inequality and inept corporate fascist governance.
Early days into the pandemic, I found myself returning to Butler’s Parable books for the first time in decades. Like many others, I was strangely drawn to dystopian literature. Recently, I ran across this essay that Butler published in 2000, in response to student questions about the Parable books.
“So do you really believe that in the future we’re going to have the kind of trouble you write about in your books?” a student asked me as I was signing books after a talk. The young man was referring to the troubles I’d described in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, novels that take place in a near future of increasing drug addiction and illiteracy, marked by the popularity of prisons and the unpopularity of public schools, the vast and growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the whole nasty family of problems brought on by global warming.
“I didn’t make up the problems,” I pointed out. ‘All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.’
“Okay,” the young man challenged. “So what’s the answer?”
“There isn’t one,” I told him.
“No answer? You mean we’re just doomed?” He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.
“No,” I said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”
She goes on to explain her approaches to writing about the future, which boils down to a few essential rules:
- Learn from the past
- Respect the law of consequences
- Be aware of your perspective
- Count on the surprises
So why try to predict the future at all if it’s so difficult, so nearly impossible? Because making predictions is one way to give warning when we see ourselves drifting in dangerous directions. Because prediction is a useful way of pointing out safer, wiser courses. Because, most of all, our tomorrow is the child of our today. Through thought and deed, we exert a great deal of influence over this child, even though we can’t control it absolutely. Best to think about it, though. Best to try to shape it into something good. Best to do that for any child.