Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler's Parables. (Essays on Octavia Butler)

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler's Parables. (Essays on Octavia Butler)

Article excerpt

LIKE OTHER DYSTOPIAN WRITERS, Octavia Butler perceives dangerous tendencies in contemporary society and intensifies them in her imagined futures in order to forewarn of the perils latent in the present and to encourage readers to think and act to prevent possible dystopian futures. Using a traditional dystopian strategy, she seeks to "map, warn, and hope"--where "to hope" includes to suggest directions towards a better world (Sargent 7-9). In her Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), the first two books of her new Parable series, she portrays two dystopias in the United States in the years following 2024, displays their power, pervasiveness, and devastating effects, and suggests new, utopian alternatives.

Butler presents the reader with "mental images" (More 106) or "cognitive maps" (Jameson, "Cognitive Mapping") of future dystopias. Weaving together the imagined future development of contemporary tendencies such as increasing social divisions, economic inequality, global warming, and the political fantasies of the anti-government right (in Sower) and the religious right (in Talents), Butler generates detailed depictions of "social totalities" that contextualize the tendencies into concrete institutions, practices, and personal experiences. She sketches individuals' lives and relationships at the local, state, and (to some extent) international levels. Butler links dreams and nightmares, showing how future dystopias result from current utopian dreams (and political power) of certain segments of American society; and she then shows how the dystopias limit the lives and twist the dreams of the many: their everyday life is tenuous and insecure, their possibilities for a better way of life are constricted, and their alternatives in dystopia are grim, doomed, or self-destructive.

Butler's dystopian images or maps serve as a warning to the present because she ties her images to existing problems and ideologies. Each Parable text evinces Butler's feel, insight, and prescience about American politics. In Sower, published in 1993, she maps a United States where governments at all levels have lost even the minimal ability to maintain order, defend human rights, and protect the environment; where multi-national corporations act freely and repressively without fetters; and where extreme income inequalities exist. That dystopia of eviscerated and impotent government reflects the realization and intensification of the dreams of the Republican right in the Reagan years, dreams that were proclaimed again, in strident and apocalyptic terms, by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in his 1994 "Contract with America," which promised lower taxes, less governmental regulation and other "interference" in the market, lower levels of aid to the poor, and a general reliance on the market to reward and penalize.

In Talents published in 1999, Butler maps a reaction to Sower's governmental disintegration: the rise to power of an activist, moralistic religious right. A born-again Christian politician from Texas becomes President of a disjointed country, uses the rhetoric of (the Christian) religion to return morality to American life, engages in foreign adventures and wars to mobilize and pacify the population, ignores environmental problems, encourages faith-based organizations as the chief means of aiding the poor, and imposes his ideas and policies by theocratic state power and by tolerating Christian activists even when they are outside the law.

Butler's perspicacity about the federal government is equalled by her penetration into other levels of government and social and economic developments. She ("How I Built," 14) writes that she is inspired by "the news. The ugly things in the novels happen because today's dangers--drug use, illiteracy, the popularity of building prisons coupled with the unpopularity of building and maintaining schools and libraries, the yawning rich-poor gaps and global warming--grow up to be tomorrow's disasters. …

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