Last year I read a lot of newly published books on Climate Change and Psychology. This takes patience on many levels, not least of all due to the fact that I have mild dyslexia. While I may not read as fast as most people, in some ways it feels like a secret superpower because I retain the majority of what I read and can expand upon it endlessly.
By the time this past holiday season rolled I was burnt out on real life doom and gloom and petty manipulations. I needed a return to a familiar space, Science Fiction, but more specifically, Octavia Butler’s familiar writing. I consider Octavia Butler “light reading” much to the amusement of my spouse. Her writing style is crisp and clean. She has the ability to say a lot in so few words and I feel her presence in her words. I get her. I get where she is coming from. I discovered her writing much too late though. If I had found her sooner, I could have potentially met her in person, she only lived 20 minutes away from where I live now.
She’s one of the few dead people allowed to life rent free in my brain. She sits at the kitchen table writing and thinking while William Morris paces back and forth on an ornate blue and cream rug practicing his speeches in the adjoining living room. High up in the corner of a bookcase Ryunosuke Akutagawa curls up like a cat watching everything below and taking notes. My brain is a proper Craftsman-style house. Writers, artists, thinkers, historians, and long-dead family and friends pass through for a visit now and then. Occasionally, the random stranger wanders through too. Only Ryunosuke is amused.
It’s always a party when Kurt Vonnegut shows up. Pat Frank and George R. Stewart prefer coffee on the veranda, but I’m getting carried away.
Where were we?
Oh yes, what can we learn from fiction and in particular Science Fiction. Well, who isn’t familiar with Gene Roddenberry? George Lucas? Or Stephen Spielberg? Can you seriously say their scripts, movies and show have had no influence on the art of science? That they do not act as muses for scientists and engineers? Many of us are still waiting for hyperdrives and holodecks! Do you want to make a Computer Engineer swoon? Discuss The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein or the short stories of Isaac Asimov.
When considering the offerings of Robert Heinlein one has to chew through the sexism. I’m not going to excuse it on the faulty argument that he was “a man of his era.” He wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1966 and there were plenty of men “of his era” that were not so blatantly sexist. Still, putting that aside we have a framework offered to us on how to build a resistance movement with minimal causalities and disruptions. By working in “cells” what is similar to creating “partitions” in a computer to keep data corruption and bugs from causing a full-scale shutdown. Redundancy in technical writing is bad, but redundancy in organized systems is good. What else works with cells, bugs and partitions? Trees! Let’s say a branch gets broken and damaged in a windstorm. If the tree cannot adequately thicken the cells in that area to help heal it over, it effectively self-amputates or “partitions” the branch from the rest of the body to prevent the spread of infection by cutting off supplies to the affected area. By reserving its strength, the tree lives another season and regrows the start of a new branch the next Spring.
I once read an article in an Architectural e-zine where an Architect proposed that perhaps the best way to “save” a building in a major earthquake might be by designing rooms(cells) of it to fail. (Presumably, this would help dissipate the force of energy produced by the earthquake upon the total surface area of the structure.) I appreciate the “out of the box” thinking, but how big is this man’s house? How many people have “spare rooms” to let collapse in the event of a major earthquake? I think if you have a bunch of unused rooms in your house it’s too big, and you should consider downsizing.
Octavia Butler imagined our current climate crisis in a book published in 1998 called Parable of the Sower and the sequel Parable of the Talents. Her story takes place in the early 2020’s and fortunately our here-and-now is not as terrifying as the one she wrote about, but some of the themes are eerily similar. We’re all aware of how politics impact our lives. What I focus on though is how individuals and communities shape the impact they have on the world around them. We have within the psyche of the American mind this image of “Rugged Individualism.” It’s represented in the notion “survivalist man” who can do everything and brave all challenges alone. I used to work very hard towards the idealism of the survivalist (wo)man but reading Science Fiction helped me understand that no person can be an island unto themselves for very long. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much of an introvert or anti-social being you thought you were. By the end of any lengthy stay alone in the mountains or in your head you’ll find yourself ready to make friends with anything not trying to eat you.
Science Fiction at its root is a cautionary tale of the successes and failures of individuals and groups. A forest and it’s trees. Sometimes the people are represented as alien races or other types of lifeforms, but it is in our human nature to find commonalities in order to relate to things no matter how alien it may appear on the surface. Octavia Butler worked hard to push this boundary to see where our tolerances might lie. Read her short stories Blood Child, Amnesty or the book Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis 1-3). Whenever I think my writing or ideas are getting “too weird” Octavia Butler challenges me to make it weirder.
Pat Frank wrote Alas, Babylon in 1959 and gave us an alternative history novel before all the cool kids started doing it. He showed us what living in Florida might have been like had the cold war been a hot one. Like Octavia Butler his writing is crisp and clean. A lot said in so few words. The imagery from some of the scenes in this book still put a smile on my face. I love this book so much that in the twenty years I have been with my spouse only once have I ever threatened him with a tomato, no sorry, ultimatum. “Read this book or divorce me.” He read the book in an afternoon. I made brownies and coffee. Crisis averted.
Finally, let’s close this post with an honorable mention, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart published in 1949. Yes, I know all the books and authors I’m mentioning here are old and dead, but that’s part of the beauty of it. To survive the future, you have to understand the past! A serious disruption in our ability to maintain our resources can put us back by ages. Fictional stories give our minds a playground to explore different theories and ideas of how to solve problems. Some of those solutions are found by going back to the basics and other solutions require us to unhinge our brains like a snake’s jaw and consume ideas we once thought too big to swallow.
There’s a scene in Earth Abides that made me laugh out loud and that is a very rare feat for any book! (I also dare you to make me cry too, while reading David Brin’s The Postman I was mad that I wasn’t more upset about a particular death.) What’s interesting about Earth Abides though is that there is an interracial relationship and a character with Down’s syndrome. It’s the only fictional novel where I can distinctly remember a character with a developmental disability and again, this book was published in 1949!
Whether it’s a Science Fiction, Romance or any other genre the one thing I can’t abide is when an author takes over two pages to describe a computer console or a room. I’m looking at you George RR Martin.
A24 Is Adapting Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower | Tor.com (July 26, 2021)