One of the silver linings to the very strange pandemic year we've all lived through, 2020, was the Octavia Butler renaissance. People woke up to the fact that she was a brilliant writer, and her book "Parable of the Sower" shot to the top of bestseller lists. The book was eerily predictive for 2020, in a lot of ways.
My name is Kimberly Hatch Harrison, and I’m the co-founder of Socratica.
We make futuristic learning videos. What do I mean by that?
We teach math, science, and programming that will take you into the future. Your future.
You may think you can’t see your future, but you can. Maybe not with perfect clarity, but you can LEARN to speculate in a powerful way. You NEED to envision your future, to know what you have to do to get there. Unless you’re okay just living your life like you’re floating in a river, being carried helplessly to some unknown destination.
This is what I’m doing in this podcast.
I’m focusing on what we read at Socratica that helps us think this way.
It’s mainly science fiction.
Sci Fi has an undeserved reputation as being lightweight reading, and Sci fi authors as being lightweight writers. As if just anyone could make up a picture of the future that is compelling, and possible, and internally consistent, and TRUE.
I have enormous respect for Science Fiction writers. They have to capture the truth of our society, our technological capabilities, as well as our human psychology, and then they have to imagine what would happen to our society if something were tweaked. How would we respond as human beings. What would happen next.
These people, these Science Fiction writers - there’s a certain wizardry to them, to be able to envision the future so well. You may really think Octavia Butler was psychic, if you’ve read Parable of the Sower, which she wrote in the early 90s. This book has surged in popularity this year, since we’ve been living in PandemicTime, because it captures so much of the strange collapse of normal life that we are experiencing.
I feel a certain kinship with this author. Octavia Butler was born in Pasadena, like me. She was an only child of an impoverished family, like me. She LIVED at the library, like me. We were both determined to succeed. But she also saw a different side of Los Angeles that I did my best to avoid and turn a blind eye to. She was keenly aware of the frailties in the system, and she captured the frayed ends in her work.
This book starts in Los Angeles in the 2020s. There’s been a sad slide of American society into disrepair and crime. It’s not completely spelled out, but you get the impression that the environment has suffered a radical change. It only rains once every six or seven years in LA, and water is a very expensive commodity. The main character lives in a kind of constant lockdown, in a gated community. Not because they’re wealthy - it’s just too dangerous to go outside. The kids haven’t gone out to school for years. Her father takes his life in his hands to go out to work. Fire is a constant threat. A lot of this feels like our year 2020.
I’m going to read you a couple short passages from the beginning of the book. Notice how Butler investigated this very thing that has preoccupied our thoughts so much this year: what changes will this experience cause in all of us? And are we prepared to change? When put to the test, what would we quickly give up, and what would we think is essential.
Are you ready? Let’s begin.
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
God Is Change.
EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING
Each chapter of the book starts with a quote like this from the main character and her new spiritual practice she calls “Earthseed.” She experiences a call to create this new religion, even though she’s raised by a Baptist minister. This next passage is what she says right after they all risk their lives to leave their safe compound and go a few blocks away to get baptised in a real church:
A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of.
Some say God is a spirit, a force, and ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you’ll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected?
There’s a big, early-season storm blowing itself out in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s bounced around the Gulf, killing people from Florida to Texas and down into Mexico. There are over 700 known dead so far. One hurricane. And how many people has it hurt? How many are going to starve later because of destroyed crops? That’s nature. Is it God? Most of the dead are the street poor who have nowhere to go and who don’t hear the warnings until it’s too late for their feet to take them to safety. Where’s safety for them anyway? Is it a sin against God to be poor? We’re almost poor ourselves. There are fewer and fewer jobs among us, more of us being born, more kids growing up with nothing to look forward to. One way or another, we’ll all be poor some day. The adults say things will get better, but they never have. How will God - my father’s God - behave toward us when we’re poor?
Is there a God? If there is, does he (she? it?) care about us? Deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson believed God was something that made us, then left us on our own.
“Misguided,” Dad said when I asked him about Deists. “They should have had more faith in what their Bibles told them.”
I wonder if the people of the Gulf Coast still have faith. People have had faith through horrible disasters before. I read a lot about that kind of thing. I read a lot period. My favorite book of the Bible is Job. I think it says more about my father’s God in particular and gods in general than anything else I’ve ever read.
In the book of Job, God says he made everything and he knows everything so no one has any right to question what he does with any of it. Okay. That works. That Old Testament God doesn’t violate the way things are now. But that God sounds a lot like Zeus - a super-powerful man, playing with his toys the way my youngest brothers play with toy soldiers. Bang, bang! Seven toys fall dead. If they’re yours, you make the rules. Who cares what the toys think. Wipe out a toy’s family, then give it a brand new family. Toy children, like Job’s children, are interchangeable.
Maybe God is a kind of big kid, playing with his toys. If he is, what difference does it make if 700 people get killed in a hurricane - or if seven kids go to church and get dipped in a big tank of expensive water?
But what if all that is wrong? What if God is something else altogether?
Next we learn something significant about what else is happening out there:
One of the astronauts on the latest Mars mission has been killed. Something went wrong with her protective suit and the rest of her team couldn’t get her back to the shelter in time to save her. People here in the neighborhood are saying she had no business going to Mars, anyway. All that money wasted on another crazy space trip when so many people here on earth can’t afford water, food, or shelter.
This looking towards Mars is really the essence of Earthseed, and you’ll learn more about this idea throughout the book.
Sometimes when we read dystopian fiction, or science fiction, we have to suspend our disbelief. We have to accept that things are really that bad, or that certain technological wonders are really possible. Do you find it believable that in the face of this sad state of affairs that they would still be going to Mars? If you think this is unbelievable fiction, I would remind you that the same year that China set off a global pandemic, and kept 11 million people in Wuhan locked in their homes, they went to the moon to gather rocks. More than 4 million acres burned in California this year, but we also had SpaceX launching astronauts twice to the international space station. Here in the real world, in 2020, our lives were a mix of devastating loss and sublime achievements.
I wonder how readers today will respond to the spiritual roots of this book. I will say I’m very grateful to have read the Bible as a work of literature when I was in high school. You may or may not be religious, that’s your personal business - but if you read much of anything, you’re missing a lot of references if you don’t have a grounding in this fundamental work.
The title of Butler’s book, Parable of the Sower, comes from the New Testament. There are versions of this story in three of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus draws an analogy between the farmer’s soil and the human heart. The seed is the Word of God. He says there are four different reactions to the word of God, like there are four kinds of soil.
First, the hard heart, where the seed will fall along the roadside. The seed can’t even start to grow here.
Second, the shallow heart. Superficially, it looks like the seed will grow, but just below the surface are stones. The plant will wither.
Third, the crowded heart. There’s a lot going on here - thorns, weeds - lots of other things growing that will choke out the seedling and prevent it from thriving.
And finally, the fourth kind of soil, the fruitful heart, where the message can take root and flourish. The soil is receptive.
Which of these will you be? Will you be able to receive the message we’re getting from living through the Pandemic? I feel like I’ve been all four, at various times. Be well, Socratica Friends.