Earthseed: A New Path to God?
All that you touch
All that you change
The only lasting Truth
This poem introduces Earthseed: The Books of the Living, a fictional work quoted throughout the late (1947-2006) Octavia Estelle Butler’s science fiction novels The Parable of the Sower (1994) and the Parable of the Talents (1998).
These books are set in a post apocalyptic near future America where an authoritarian fundamentalist Christian government has come to power. Lauren Oya Olamina, a Black woman who suffers from a fictional hyper empathy syndrome (it causes the sufferer to believe that she feels the pain and pleasure of other people), is the creator of a movement she names Earthseed, a basic tenet of which is that the ultimate destiny of humanity is to "take root among the stars."
Lauren's father is a Baptist minister and teacher who tries to uphold traditional religious beliefs and practices, but Lauren rejects his approach. She ponders the nature and existence of God. She begins analyzing everything—herself, life around her, and history. She concludes that "God would have to be a power that could not be defied by anybody or anything. Change. Everything changes in some way." (Parable of the Sower, page 200)
Lauren jots down her meditations, often in verse form, in notebooks that she ultimately gathers into the book she titles Earthseed: Books of the Living. Lauren insists that Earthseed is not a religion and explains that her writings are not the product of divine revelation or visions; they come from logical analysis. She "finds" the name for her movement "weeding the back garden and thinking about the way plants seed themselves." (Parable of the Sower, page 71) Thus by observation and logical analysis she discovers that God exists and that God is not an omnipotent anthropomorphic supernatural being but is that natural process we call change.
Humans are not manipulated by but can manipulate God—indeed Lauren constantly exhorts her followers to "shape God" through the exercise of logical, action-based, rational planning.
Is Earthseed a mere plot device, or is it a new belief system—a new path to God?
Lauren is a teenager when she creates Earthseed. In an interview Ms. Butler gave to Amazon.com she stated that she created "something that I could have believed in and joined when I was 18."
Butler was no theologian. She was a science fiction writer. In the cold, super rational atmosphere of that genre, God is almost always absent or unmasked as a fraud or delusion.
Despite the predictions, explicit and implicit, of science fiction (and the proclamations, more than a century ago, of Nietzsche’s Superman) God has not departed from human affairs; in fact, lately it seems God has returned to the world with a vengeance.
Many readers of the Parables series marvel at how accurately Butler’s books have predicted current events: the rise of religious fundamentalism; its injection into politics, the public discourse and international affairs; and the subsequent effect this has had on the discussion and conduct of such issues as the teaching of evolution, the cloning debate and reproductive freedom—matters which might seem outside the purview of religious thought—its role in the clash of civilizations.
Science fiction writers have often addressed important social issues: overpopulation (Stand on Zanzibar), colonialism (War of the Worlds), overabundance created by technology (The Midas Plague), totalitarianism (1984, Fahrenheit 451), and war (Slaughterhouse Five).
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, held by many to be the first work of modern science fiction, warned that science unchecked, in that case creating Life in a laboratory—in effect playing God—might lead to disastrous consequences.
Could Butler, out of concern for the fate of humanity, have created Earthseed as a rational alternative to the fear and superstition that is the basis of fundamentalist religious belief?
"Fixing the world is not what Earthseed is about," Lauren says. But then she adds, "This world would be a better place if people lived according to Earthseed. But this world would be better if people lived according to the teachings of almost any religion." (Parable of the Sower, page 254)
In the conversation Butler had with Amazon.com the interviewer calls Earthseed a religion and Butler does not correct her. Some articles which discuss Earthseed also refer to it as a religion.
There is now a real sect based on Earthseed principles called Solseed, so at least some have found Earthseed principles serve as a viable base for a real religious system.
Sigmund Freud, psychologist (and atheist), supposedly said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Perhaps Earthseed was just a plank Butler laid over a plot hole, but she may have deliberately planted Earthseed with the intent that it grow into a new path to God; one based on observation, rationality, logic and science; a path leading humanity to survival and its rightful and ultimate destiny.
Copyright © 2006 by Chris Hayden
Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns by J. California Cooper
Doubleday, New York, 2006, ISBN 0-385-51133-7, 209 pages, $24.00
J. California Cooper has written a collection of stories that carry the theme of love and success with a strong dose of morality. All the protagonists are women who are seeking lives of prosperity and passion but in all the wrong places.
The book opens with "As Time Goes By," told in third person (I assume Ms. Cooper is the narrator) which is a story about a girl named Futila Ways. Yes, the name suggests a hardheaded young lady whose mentality is that of a sloth. Her sister, Willa Ways, finds an interest in botany as a child and pursues her interest as an adult by earning a Ph.D. suggesting a willingness to learn new things and to apply her intellect to a successful career. Unlike the irony in The Wake of the Wind (Cooper’s third novel) there are no surprising outcomes.
"The Eye of the Beholder" is a more substantial effort and the longest story in the book. This story has more depth as a homely little girl (Lily Bea) matures into a poised and desirable woman; respected and successful despite a lifetime of rejection and humiliation she endured from her mother and siblings. She does pay a hefty price, but I get the impression that Ms. Cooper considers this paid price as a stroke of good fortune.
Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns is a collection of Cinderella stories that result in either unhappy and/or unresolved endings. In the stories I mentioned previously, I took exception to the fact that the success of the two heroines was dependent upon white people. Granted, white people are no more or no less members of the human family, but the supernatural occurrence of white people changing the course of the lives of the women in these two stories is exasperating. One woman pursues her education with the assistance of her white friend and classmate. I did not find this to be as insulting as the other heroine who became no more than a "concubine" for a wealthy white man to find her success.
I think the Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns would be very dynamic presented as oral stories to young women. In these current times, many women find themselves setting superficial requirements as prerequisites for entering relationships that turn out to be dysfunctional. This collection of stories addresses issues of self-esteem illustrating the consequences of unprotected sex, the perception of inner versus outer beauty, the importance of education, narcissism and promiscuity, and last but not least, the insignificance of wealth and education without love and spirituality.
I recommend this book to young adult women (14 – 21), but if you are looking for the adventures found in some of Ms. Cooper’s previous works, you may be disappointed.
Linda Jo Smith reviews
Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Michael Eric Dyson
Basic Civitas, New York, 2006; ISBN 0465017614 (hardcover); 258 pages, $23.00
Come Hell or High Water is a well-documented account of the events surrounding the failure, or more accurately the refusal, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), state and local politicians from the State of Louisiana (Governor Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin) and the President of the United States, to take immediate proactive measures to rescue the predominately Black residents living in the Ninth ward of New Orleans.
Michael Eric Dyson’s citations are impeccably documented. He reminds us of the initial reporting of the pitiful responses and ineptitude of local and federal officials and their failure to take command of available resources before and after the storm hit. Dyson cites the fact there was ample warning from the National Weather Bureau that Katrina’s wrath would be devastating. The Army Corps of Engineers concluded years ago that the levee would be unable to stave off a level 4 hurricane (Katrina was a level 5). This conclusion was documented during the Clinton Administration. It was common knowledge that when (not if) the levee would break, it would wipe out the entire Ninth ward and a few parishes in the periphery.
Dyson cites how initial media accounts were augmented by the National Security Agency to deflect the truth with whitewashed reports of feigned concern.
Dyson indicts African-Americans with means by suggesting that they believe the victims of Katrina were too ignorant to be prepared to evacuate, therefore making themselves susceptible to being swept away. In this statement I find no credible documentation. Dyson continues to insert his obsession to malign Bill Cosby calling him too white to care about the less fortunate, uneducated African Americans. It is also disappointing that Dyson finds merit in the entertainers of the hip-hop genre making a sincere difference in the African American communities. Personally, I see no evidence of any consistent impact.
As an ordained minister, Come Hell or High Water: the Color of Disaster would be considered counterfeit without Dyson’s usual pontificating. He raises the moral issue that some believe that New Orleans, being the sinful city that it is, suffered from the wrath of God’s judgement. What do you think?
Come Hell or High Water is a worthy, well-documented read. Check it out for yourself!
Linda Jo Smith reviews
Riding Westward: Poems by Carl Phillips
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006; ISBN: 0374250030 (hardcover); 64 pages, $22.00
After reading and re-reading Riding Westward: Poems I finally got some semblance of coherence. At first, I blamed myself for being so structured in my poetic thinking…like is this a sestina or a pantoum? or am I just not deep enough to get it? or why are the lines in this poem indented without symmetry or fluency?
Carl Phillips is lauded for his imagery as he was a finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. I guess you have to be in the club.
There was one title I liked: "Radiance Versus Ordinary Light," but I didn’t find the poem illuminating. "The Smell of Hay" stimulated my memory of how hay smells but the poem makes no reference to hay, or the animals who eat hay, or what the hay (obviously, I didn’t get it). "Ocean" described obsession for a man so I was grateful that I got the redundant codependency message. "Bow Down" impressed me as a self-loather looking for the slightest hint of affection from someone who holds him in contempt as he bends over.
In conclusion, my impression of this book is that there is some sordid preoccupation of male genitalia masked in images of birds and their wings and their ability to elude tangible, confining relationships.
THE END (thank goodness!)
Copyright © 2006 by Linda Jo Smith
Linda Jo Smith is the book review editor for Sisters~Nineties.