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,
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,
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
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
"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
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.