“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”
—Earthseed: The Books of the Living
In the face of our current social and political climate, speculative fiction has been a way for me to see the world in a new paradigm than what is given to us through mass media. I have spent the past year reflecting on the Earthseed series and have been trying to figure out for a while now how to express the hope and change that author Octavia Butler has instilled in me.
Forewarning: if you haven’t read the series, this will contain some spoilers, but not so many that these books won’t still be worth the read. I am only focusing on some small portions of the novel that feed the story, not the entire plot.
Last summer I took a job as a custodian in order to make some extra money to pay for school and living. One of the few perks of the job was that I was allowed to listen to headphones while on shift, which was exciting for me because it meant that I could start to get through my ever-growing reading list via audiobook, and I had some Audible credits that had been stacking up recently. In particular, I had been dying to finally check out some works by Octavia Butler—multiple friends and professors who knew that I loved science fiction but was desperately in need of more writers of color had recommended her. I eagerly downloaded Parable of the Sower, the first of the two-book Earthseed series, and was not ready for what I was about to encounter.
Butler paints us a picture of the year 2025 in which the world is in economic crisis, jobs are nearly impossible to find and keep (and even if you have one it doesn’t pay well), everyone is in debt, education is so expensive that most can’t afford it, crime and drug abuse go rampant as the poor use them as a method to cope with the conditions. Any of this sound familiar to you?
I’ll admit it probably didn’t take much for Butler to predict how our world would look. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, meaning she started writing it during the late years of the first George Bush as president and the early years of Bill Clinton’s first term. While she overshot the timeline by nine years, Butler’s predictions on what the future would look like were eerily accurate.
But that seemed like nothing in comparison once I got to the second book in the Earthseed series, Parable of the Talents. At the start of this story, there is a presidential candidate named Andrew Steele Jarret who is a senator from Texas and a religious extremist. He has ties to a group that evokes the Ku Klux Klan, though he denies any affiliation. (Again, sound familiar?) He is interested in an imagined “simpler” time in American history when everyone was supposedly Christian, and his supporters have been known to form violent mobs and riots. This was only a little creepy until I got to a line that Jarret would use in his campaign speeches: “Help us to make America great again!”
I wish I were making this up, but it was too real for even the world we are actually living in. I screamed into the toilet I was scrubbing—“Octavia is warning us!”
Citizens in this hypothetical America have become apathetic towards voting. They realize that the goals of the government don’t align with the needs of the people. Those with the means to invest financially in politics usually buy more votes from the poor in order to secure the candidate they favor.
Spoiler alert: Jarret wins the presidency.
I know that I’m not the only one here who has felt like no matter whether we get Clinton or Trump this fall, there won’t be much of a difference. While Clinton’s racism is more subtle, she knows how to work the political system better than Trump. Trump, meanwhile, plays on fear—the fear that there is no way out of this decline we are in, the fear that white supremacists have of change to the status quo, the fear of terrorism and crime. While a strong majority of his claims are exaggerated or just plain untrue, that fear is a powerful motivator.
Irrational and blind,
Or fear looms,
Defiant and closed.
—Parable of the Talents
However, in desperation, many who oppose Trump are voting for Clinton not out of support for her policies but out of fear for what would happen if Trump were president. The one thing we can trust with Clinton is to know exactly what type of trouble we would be in once she is president; Trump’s is less predictable. However, I have to question the idea of voting for anyone—Clinton, Trump, Sanders, or even Stein—based solely on the motivation of fear.
How does that make us strong? How does this give us a voice? How does this make us a united people?
It’s so easy to lose hope and feel powerless when faced with the situations we have had all this election season so far. It’s easy me as a black trans person, who is seeing over and over a system of the same and not much of a system of change, to feel like things can never improve no matter who the presidential candidate might be.
“We go on having stupid wars that we justify and get passionate about, but in the end, all they do is kill huge numbers of people, maim others, impoverish still more, spread disease and hunger, and set the stage for the next war. And when we look at all of that in history, we just shrug our shoulders and say, well, that’s the way things are. That’s the way things always have been.”
—Parable of the Talents
Octavia Butler doesn’t leave us with this feeling of dread at the end of her novels, though. She gives us a solution to this problem we are all facing, and this is what I want us to cling to.
“In small communities, she believed, people are more accountable to one another. Serious misbehavior is harder to get away with, harder even to begin when everyone who sees you knows who you are, where you live, who your family is, and whether you have any business doing what you’re doing.”
—Parable of the Talents
In small communities, she encouraged education, sharing of resources, and helping those who may not be able to help themselves. Everyone has something to contribute, and that way everyone gets to have their needs met. There may not have always been surplus in the world of Butler’s books, but there was always enough. This was established in the community of Acorn, the first Earthseed community. Everyone learns together and cares for each other, and when the government isn’t there to help the people, the people step in and help each other. With this, we can overthrow the tyranny that a bigoted government could bring us; we could be stronger and happier than what we had set up for us.
I don’t want us to feel limited to these presidential figures who want us to feel powerless. We are more than ballots in a box. We are educators, healers, parents, partners, friends, cooks, artists, scientists, writers, mentors. Most importantly, we are leaders. Us. No president can replace the leadership that the people can embody.
Donald Trump might become our next president. That is a reality that we might have to face. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept him as our leader.
We need to refuse to be powerless no matter who is our president. We need to be adamant about having not simply a world we can survive in, but a world we can live and thrive in. That’s why the book of the Earthseed religion in Butler’s novels is called The Books of the Living. It conveys the idea that we will show our children that they don’t need to grow in fear and bend to government wishes out of fear but to think beyond government power and think, “Where am I still powerful? Where can I still create the world I want to live in?”
The last words of Octavia Butler’s I want to leave you with are a reminder of how we can push ourselves beyond the fear-mongering of our presidential candidates:
“Kindness eases change
Love quiets fear”