Category Archives: Literature

Book Review | Earthseed Series | Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

I first heard about Octavia Butler in early 2014 on Twitter, I think originally from Danilo and/or Holly. I saw allusions to something called Earthseed, to humanity’s destiny in the stars, to the idea that “God Is Change”.

Two years later, with fascism on the rise and afrofuturism enjoying a moment of popularity, I went to a Fusion-backed symposium about Butler’s work. ((I learned about this from Alexis Madrigal’s newsletter Five Intriguing things which I’ve previously pluggedAlexis, formerly at the Atlantic and now Editor in Chief at Fusion, is one of the most interesting writers I follow.))  At this event, I was delighted by the idea that all progressives, all activists, are engaged in acts of science fiction; they imagine alternate worlds that could branch off from this one in a plausible way, societies like ours except governed by different principles of the physical or psychological universe.

Sower and Talents, published in 1993 and 1998 respectively, look more prescient by the day. Butler saw the future with great clarity and with a sense of resignation to the hate, destruction and degradation our world would suffer. In the Parable series, environmental catastrophe and economic inequality have created a desperate underclass driven to violence and drugs, whose life is of no value to a police force interested in protecting the property of the rich. In this fertile ground a white supremacist Christian paramilitary organization flourishes with the winking support of Presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarrett, whose ascendance tears apart the vanishing middle class between liberal values and a frantic need to protect their families and communities from the predations of those even a little less fortunate. Kashmir Hill has already written about the uncanny similarity of this campaign to Trump’s. By the late 80s our future was not murky  to a thinker of Butler’s diagnostic precision.

The series follows Lauren Oya Olamina, a teenage girl who shows us the imagination and empathy and ambition that we will need to survive this bleak world. As a teenager in a middle-class enclave in southern California, Olamina begins to develop a practice called Earthseed, rooted in strong communities, individual self-sufficiency and an embrace of the universe’s ever-changing nature. Earthseed demands resilience and adaptability, with a sort of scientific and moral pragmatism, and points humanity towards the stars for its own survival. As she develops her philosophy it is eventually collected into The Book of the Living, which is “excerpted” heavily in the two books.

In these two books we don’t see anyone leave Earth — we are not given the pleasure of Butler articulating what it would be like for a whole society to live by these principles. We see small communities struggle to adopt these practices. We see them try to integrate new members who are grateful for food and shelter and company but skeptical of any indoctrination. We see major setbacks and minor accomplishments.

When we are defeated by Moloch our devastation is global and absolute and permanent. Our victories are usually are messy and local and temporary, a momentary respite from an ancient foe that is only getting stronger. If we are to survive, we must connect our small patches of humanity into a resilient and adaptable network. Our power is weak and our time is short, but our destiny is in the stars.

 

I wish I had read this at last night’s open mic

This is a poem I wrote months ago on a scrap of brown paper grocery bag, on the hood of a stranger’s car parked on Paris Street in San Francisco:

Any poem can sit unfinished in a typewriter for hours,
days.
Sometimes you wait for the next word to strike.
Sometimes you sit down and think,
hard,
about what to do next.

The back of this scrap of paper has the name Michel Bouquet, who I saw in the film Manon. I don’t remember why I wrote down his name.

P.S. a good find from the forementioned open mic is filmmaker Arthur Valverde. I especially liked this film.

The Genius of Peanuts

In the NYRB of 1985, Umberto Eco explores Peanuts (and Krazy Kat, which I’ve never read).

I find that literary criticism is at its worst when it makes an argument from authority and deep knowledge: “I am right because I am important and by the way look at this list of books I’ve read!”

Brutal.

On the other hand I love literary criticism which argues out of a sense of intimacy. Umberto Eco wrote this essay because he really loves Peanuts and it’s important to him that you come to love Peanuts, and for the right reasons. This kind of enthusiasm is infectious, which is why Harold Bloom’s Anatomy of Influence inspired my new Shakespeare book club. All of which is to say I want to go read some Charlie Brown adventures.

You should read the whole review but here are some fun parts:

 

The poetry of these children arises from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings of the adults, who remain offstage. These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of industrial civilization…

Charlie Brown has been called the most sensitive child ever to appear in a comic strip, a figure capable of Shakespearean shifts of mood; and Schulz’s pencil succeeds in rendering these variations with an economy of means that has something miraculous about it…

Aware of his vocation for the abyss, Pig Pen turns his plight into a boast; he speaks of the dust of centuries, an irreversible process: the course of history…

Snoopy knows he is a dog: he was a dog yesterday, he is a dog today, tomorrow he will perhaps be a dog still. For him, in the optimism of the opulent society in which one moves upward from status to status, there is no hope of promotion…

In this encyclopedia of contemporary weakness, there are, as we have said, sudden luminous patches of light, free variations, allegros, and rondos, where all is resolved in a few bars. The monsters turn into children again, Schulz becomes only a poet of childhood. We know it isn’t true, and we pretend to believe him. In the next strip he will continue to show us, in the face of Charlie Brown, with two strokes of his pencil, his version of the human condition.

But It’s Also a Sex Manual

I was flipping through the Kama Sutra yesterday and turns out to be much more than a sex manual! It’s a guide to etiquette and custom in many areas of life and offers really interesting glimpses into a culture very different from ours. Though some of it is practically timeless, for example:

The following are the kinds of friends:

  • One who has played with you in the dust, i.e. in the childhood
  • One who is bound by an obligation
  • One who is of the same disposition and fond of the same things
  • One who is a fellow student
  • One who is acquainted with your secrets and faults and who’s faults and secrets are also known to you
  • One who is a child of your nurse
  • One who’s brought up with you
  • One who is a hereditary friend

I hadn’t realized, but it’s also very Talmudic in its approach.

  • Here is the rule or custom.
  • The followers of X add an interpretation.
  • The followers of Y disagree.
  • [a digression about the theory and history of the legal principle used by the followers of Y.]

Highly recommended. The edition linked above is especially nice and uses the Richard Burton translation — I’ve also enjoyed Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights which is a book you can dip into again and again as you please, all through your life. John Barth is a big fan of the Arabian Nights as well.

Words, Feelings, Memory, The Thing Itself

A whole canefield of words has grown up between La Maga and me, we have only been separated by a few hours and my sorrow is already called sorrow, and my love is called love. . . I shall keep on feeling less and less and remembering more and more, but what is memory if not the language of feeling, a dictionary of faces and days and smells which repeat themselves like the verbs and adjectives in a speech, sneaking in behind the thing itself, into the pure present. . .

A Wrongness You Can Never Fix

He began to forgive the chill of this Northern city. He thought about the…blood running in his own veins. He watched himself being consoled by literature and history, and, observing how much he’d changed in one year, he wondered what kind of person he was ultimately meant to be. But there was still that hopelessness or sorrow right beneath the skin of his afternoons.

From the novel Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen. The protagonist is a 23-year old named Louis. Have you ever read a novel where the main character shares your name? I have found it strange, but less strange than I expected.