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As Hoda M. Zaki notes, the seeds of utopian feminism are being sown in the world of science fiction, most notably in the novels of Octavia Butler, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Zaki maintains that "Butler is part of the post-1970 feminist and utopia SF trend which emerged when writers who were deeply influenced by the second wave of the feminist movement began to use SF to explore issues from a feminist perspective."

In Butler's The Parable of the Sower (1993), for example, Lauren Olamina leads a rag-tag group of vagrants, vagrants without hope, through post-apocalyptic America into the hopeful future embodied in her religious community: Earthseed.

Only fifteen-years-old (part of Butler's utopian vision is to empower the adolescent girl), Lauren loses her entire family to postmodern confusion. Her world has obeyed the theory of entropy and disintegrated into chaos like that of Mad Max; it's a dystopia, a landscape, as Dorothy Allison explains it, on the "hard edge of cruelty, violence, and domination."

The government has all but collapsed; only a select few can find a job; food and gas are outrageously expensive; drug addicts wreak havoc wherever they go; people are shot and slashed on every street corner, but Lauren, undaunted, dresses as a man and heads north with two other survivors from her neighborhood, Henry and Zahra, in search of a better life.

In Butler's novels, states Allison, those "who surrender die; those who resist, struggle, adjust, compromise, and live by their own ethical standards survive" to make "the next generation--literally to make the next world." Lauren, Henry, and Zahra are part of this latter group.

Ironically, their ethical standards are primarily formulated by the younger Lauren who writes verses for their new kind of Bible: The Book of the Living. These verses, indeed Lauren's entire Earthseed religion, inspire and lead the lost souls they find along their way. Verses, like the following, are sprinkled throughout the novel and evince the positive qualities and essential nature of Earthseed:

We are Earthseed. We are flesh-self-aware, questing, probing, problem-solving flesh. We are that aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing, Earthlife preparing to fall away from the parent world. We are Earthlife preparing to take root in new ground. Earthlife fulfilling its purpose, its promise, its Destiny.

God is change and shaped by our perceptions, beliefs, values, Lauren argues. We quest, probe, prepare, take action, accept a changing God and thus move ourselves toward our purpose, promise, destiny.

As Lauren travels and picks up more followers, she preaches and teaches her Earthseed beliefs, a mission she started many years earlier as she gathered inspiration from watching her Baptist preacher father speak on Sundays and from watching other inspirational women like Alicia Catalina Godinez Leal, an astronaut who died in space:

And I'm sorry that astronaut will be brought back from her own chosen heaven. Her name was Alicia Catalina Godinez Leal. She was a chemist. I intend to remember her. I think she can be a kind of model for me. She spent her life heading for Mars-preparing herself, becoming an astronaut, getting on a Mars crew, going to Mars, beginning to find out how to terraform Mars, beginning to create sheltered places where people can live and work now . . . .

Lauren can pattern her life after this great woman: Leal was heading for Mars, and Lauren is heading for northern California; both women undertake the process of preparing personally and then going to a new place to create a world where people can live and work. Lauren is figuratively following in Leal's footsteps.

Our young protagonist arrives at the name Earthseed "as she is working in her garden and thinking of the way 'plants seed themselves, away from their parent plants'." The adults in her home community of Robledo retain their older ethos and sensibilities. They are "still anchored in the past, waiting for the good old days to come back." Lauren's father has "blind spots" while her best friend Joanne insists, "We can't do anything."

According to Madhu Dubey, this blocked thinking prevents "them from reckoning with the many changes that [had] already occurred and from imagining social transformation." They ignore Lauren's warnings and calls for survival preparation. Once these two and many others are destroyed, Lauren creates a new belief system to help the survivors, to "pry them loose from the rotting past" and, in Dubey's words, "push them into building a different and better future."

Lauren sees Earthseed as "Earthlife . . . preparing to fall away from the parent world," as "earthseed cast on new ground." As Ruth Salvaggio said of another Butler heroine, but with words that apply equally as well to Lauren, "By finding her way through that great obstacle course, she is able to bring her best qualities--healing and loving--to a world that would otherwise be intolerable."

Her obstacle course consists of dead parents, siblings, and friends, near starvation, constant attack from gangs, as Michael Levy phrases it, "driven to pyromania and murder under the influence of drugs," cannibals, killer dogs, and so forth, but beyond these obstacles she faces one more personal.

Lauren herself suffers from a serious disability. While pregnant, her mother took the so-called Einstein drug and birthed a child with an organic delusional syndrome called hyperempathy which causes Lauren to feel the pain of others. When she must kill an attacker, she literally falls to the ground; she is crippled by the pain she shares with the victim.

Metaphorically, Butler delivers a heroine who must think of the pain she causes others--because she will literally feel it herself--and a heroine who must overcome a disability in order to succeed and survive. As an empath then, Lauren must be empathetic, but she must also work through the process of overcoming this empathy. Butler here teaches us to think of the pain of others but to insure our own survival as well.

Like Ana Castillo's Sofi in So Far from God, Lauren dreams of founding a new kind of community away from the hollowness of the current urban American landscape. During her travels north, she muses:

But we must have arable land, a dependable water supply, and enough freedom from attack to let us establish ourselves and grow. It might be possible to find such an isolated place along the coast, and make a deal with the inhabitants. If there were a few more of us, and if we were better armed, we might offer security in exchange for living room. We might also provide education plus reading and writing services to adult illiterates. There might be a market for that kind of thing. So many people, children and adults, are illiterate these days. . . . We might be able to do it--grow our own food, grow ourselves and our neighbors into something brand new. Into Earthseed.

Not the shrinking Ophelia, this teenage girl, now eighteen, attacks the future and makes hard, pragmatic plans: they need arable land, they need water, they need freedom from attack, they can offer security, they can offer reading services, and they can offer writing services. She is already formulating a working solution to their problems.

Fortunately, she meets an older man named Bankole who decides to travel with this hearty band. Soon the two fall in love, and Lauren learns that he owns land, but, when he asks Lauren to come with him and settle down, she replies, "I need you to understand me. I need you to take me the way I am or go off to your land yourself." Bankole answers, "You need me to take you and all your friends off the street so you can start a church." "That or nothing," the sassy Lauren answers, and of course Bankole capitulates.

The band begins to make more plans as they move to this new promised land. Like early American pioneers, they brave the wilderness, Joan Gordon observes, "collecting acolytes, fending off marauders," and arrive on Bankole's property. Unfortunately, his estate has been burned and his relatives massacred, but the band still decides to stay and try this new life.

"We can build a community here," Lauren implores as one by one the members agree to stay. In the face of Bankole's incredible pessimism, Lauren slips her arm through his and says simply, "We've got work to do."

They decide to call the place Acorn, a name with enormous symbolic potential. After all, an acorn is a seed that takes hundreds of years to reach its fruition, but, when it does, it makes a strong and sturdy oak that offers plenty of shade and has roots reaching far into the ground.

In creating this new community, they also reject the corporate alternative, Olivar. Dubet explains:

Olivar, a city bought out and controlled by a multinational company, offers its citizens employment, a "guaranteed food supply," and security from the "spreading chaos of the rest of Los Angeles County." But the safety of a company town like Olivar is based on a system of labor exploitation that seems "half antebellum revival and half science fiction." Corporations pay their workers wages that barely meet living expenses, forcing them into a cycle of debt slavery that perpetuates their dependence on the company. The order of this privatized city is maintained by the suspension of "'overly restrictive' minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws," so that corporations can do away with money wages altogether and hire labor in exchange for room and board.

The workers find themselves exploited and virtually enslaved in the manner of garments workers like those found in El Monte, California, just a few short years ago. Either their wages cannot cover their expenses or their wages are waived altogether. Lauren and her followers escape this safer alternative of the corporate privatized city and opt, instead, to create their own shining city on a hill, a city in which they will be free and not enslaved to corporate America.

Lauren, finding herself in Fanon's zone of occult instability, a zone in which change finds potential and indeterminacy disturbs meaning, rebels against the culture of her Baptist father, the culture of urban decay, and the culture of corporate exploitation and, instead, sows her own acorn seed into the ground. Indeed, Butler ends her novel with the Biblical parable of the sower. In that parable, we know that some seeds fall by the wayside, some are trodden down, some are devoured, some fall on rock, and some on thorns, but others fall on good ground and spring up and bear fruit an hundredfold.

When we close Butler's novel, we know that Lauren Olamina's acorn seed will be among the last of these.

June 2001

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