Thinking with Octavia Butler: Prophetic Parallels between Parable & COVID-19

Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel set, Parable of the Sower (1993) in the 2020s, uncannily parallels our current sociopolitical reality. Based in California, the narrative centers teenage Lauren Oya Olamina living a world devastated by the environmental, economic, and political consequences of neoliberalism. Water is costly and scarce, all public services are privatized, and racial tensions segregate the population behind walled neighborhoods. Navigating a world of routinized robberies, violent attacks, rapes, slavery, and cannibalism, Lauren is further disadvantaged by a condition called hyper-empathy. As a hyper-emphath, Lauren shares others’ physical and emotional pain and pleasure. With little hope, except in Earthseed meditations on power, humanity, and the mercurial nature of God, Butler cautions readers about an inevitable apocalypse, not unlike the COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing now.

Some of the societal deterioration witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic are seeds for the chaos and calamity Butler outlines in Parable. Reminiscent of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign, Parable’s initial portrayal of Christopher Donner’s presidential campaign is noteworthy as he promises to cut back government programs. Despite being in an unprecedented national health crisis, the Trump administrated wanted to lower taxes, repeal the Affordable Care Act, and overturn Roe v. Wade. As indicated by Parable and the events such as the 2021 Texas abortion ban, these austerity measures may only be the first set of reforms creating a domino effect that bury the United States deeper in the neoliberal hole.

Instead of the threat of zombies as in many apocalyptic novels, for Butler privatization is the monster that destroys civilization. Foreshadowing a plausible future, Parable shows how extremely conservative legislation can eradicate the social safety net that promotes public health. Instead of answering the call to defund the police, police and fire departments may become privatized as they are in Parable. As a consequence, poor neighborhoods would be left to fend for themselves when thieves and murderers strike and troublemakers commit arson as in the novel. Butler portrays the compounded harm this would cause in scenes where people have to sacrifice property – such as a garage that doesn’t contain food or inhabitants – to conserve limited financial resources and avoid purchasing expensive water.

Additionally, all education is privatized in Parable, even though attendance is mandatory by law and wealth disparities are stark. While the majority of people are homeless, those who can afford it invest in home insurance creating the illusion of security. By repeatedly showing how characters cling to normalcy (even as the evidence all around them says otherwise), Butler reveals how passivity and wishful thinking achieve a false sense of security while society unravels. Butler meticulously depicts the downfall of neoliberalism and people’s apathetic response to illustrate how easily Trump, like President Donner, could “set the country back a hundred years” (93).

Despite Butler’s bleak vision, her afrofuturistic work at least provides hope that Black people survive. As opposed many works of the horror and sci-fi genres that kill off the little Black representation they have, many of Butler’s characters (including the protagonist Lauren) are Black. By giving a Black young woman a leadership role in the story, Butler flips the current power hierarchy on its head. Instead of total annihilation in the midst of adversity, she envisions how Black people building their own communities, planting their own Earthseeds, and forging their own futures.

While showing the hope of Black futurity, Bulter doesn’t fail to theorize the politics of race which threaten social solidarity. In dialogue with the racial uprising and Black Lives Matter protests during the pandemic, Parable elucidates the human tendency to make alliances based on perceived similarities and provides a framework to understand how racial tensions are further pronounced in a dystopian world. In Earthseed: Books of the Living Lauren writes, “When no influence is strong enough to unify people they divide” (175). After Lauren leaves her family’s walled neighborhood she finds other Black allies and mixed-race couples since they are all likely to be the targets of white violence. She states, “People are setting fires to get rid of whomever they dislike from personal enemies to anyone who looks or sounds foreign or racially different” (246). Lauren deduces that feelings of powerlessness inspire actions where people regain control by creating chaos in other people’s lives. In another Earthseed passage she shows the senselessness of human conflict stating, “All struggles are essentially power struggles, and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together” (164). In the midst of a televised Black genocide and racial revolution during the pandemic, Butler’s counsel to “embrace diversity or be destroyed” is particularly chilling (337).

Further revealing human nature, Butler explores the dangers of denial. Parable sets up the sequel, Parable of the Talents, which more extensively explains why a refusal to face the facts (like those of the COVID-19 pandemic) could lead to society’s demise. In Parable of the Talents, Bankole says the Apocalypse, more commonly referred to as The Pox, “was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems… We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises” (8). In Parable of the Sower Butler shows how apathetic humans are towards the planet and thus, holds them responsible for its decay. For instance, in an exchange with Lauren her friend, Joanne says, “People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back” (98). As space programs aim to find a habitable planet outside Earth, the death of astronaut, Alicia Leal, who made it to Mars is symbolic of our own refusal to take responsibility for ensuring Earth remains habitable. In death, Alicia is denied of her wish to be buried on Mars, her “own chosen heaven” (40). Thus, Alicia’s death and descent to Earth implies that heaven could be a place on Earth if only we’d invest our resources into preservation instead of destruction.

In the dialogue between Lauren and Joanne, the reader learns that denial is such a strong force it takes monumental disruption for society to function beyond the status quo. Joanne says of the bubonic plague, “it took a plague to make some of the people realize that things could change” (98). However, both the novel’s dystopia and the coronavirus pandemic reveal the limits of even a plague to catalyze rapid societal change that mutually benefits humanity and the environment. It is for this reason that Butler presents Lauren as an exemplary survivor, soberly assessing the climatic, economic, and social situation and anticipating danger before it strikes. Initially unable to convince her family and friends of the need for survival skills, armed defense, and go bags, Lauren learned “how dogged people can be in denial, even when their freedom or their lives are at stake” (208). Instead of believing in ideals or adult authority, she rationalizes that “suspicion is more likely to keep you alive than trust” (209). Ironically, the denial in Parable mirrors behavior observable during the pandemic, such as the resistance of a sizeable population of citizens to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and acknowledge structural racism in law enforcement.

The challenge to encapsulate the breadth and depth of anarchy detailed in Parable parallels chaos of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the shorthand “Pox” reminds me of the way the horrors of illness, isolation, disenfranchisement, and death can be condensed into “COVID.” As both real and fictive worlds present an uncertainty about when the calamity will end, I wonder if there is such a thing as a world post-Pox or post-COVID when this crisis has done is reveal the cracks in the neoliberal system. Butler’s work attempts to shake us from our denial,  implying that even once the coronavirus leaves, wealth inequality, hunger, climate change, privatized social services and Big Pharma which will remain threats to the fabric of society.

Image Description: Art from the1995 edition of Octavia Bulter’s Parable of the Sower in which a light-skinned Black woman meditates against a moonlit night sky elevating planet Earth with the energy between her hands.

One thought on “Thinking with Octavia Butler: Prophetic Parallels between Parable & COVID-19

  1. I was literally just thinking of you, Nadia, and boom—up comes a notification for this blog post.

    You’re such a brilliant, innovative thinker. love the images you create which accompany your posts.

    I look forward to catching up with this blog very soon!

    Take care, & have a great weekend!

    Dyane 🙂


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