Butler, Dystopia, Propaganda, and a Way Through?

This is an excerpt from a book I started in 2008. I wanted to take a more academic approach to afrogeek and afrofuturist culture and cultural artifacts. I felt this section was important in the present, in light of our new political reality. The books is done, but I’m not sure how I feel about publishing an academic text in a time when we need information to be as clear as possible.

sower talents

The Parable series: Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) are trans-generational novels that follow Lauren Olamina as she attempts to make sense of an America on the verge of economic, environmental, and social collapse. Many critics and scholars have labeled this series as dystopian. This research would like to argue against this sole interpretation of the text as it demands a more complex reading of the material, in the form of race and gender and how they intersect with the binaries of utopia/dystopia and how these concepts interact on internal and external levels.


Many science and speculative fiction texts are situated between three aesthetic and social poles: dystopia, utopia, and, post-apocalyptic. Fredric Jameson (2007) cautions against the over and misuse of the word dystopia. He argues that the idea of dystopia should be bifurcated into two separate meanings: dystopia and anti-utopia. These terms will be used thusly: dystopia posits the scenario, “if this, then that.” In example, if the world’s resources continue to be depleted and our population swells, our society will crumble and, as John Brunner (1968) states in his novel Stand on Zanzibar, “will become a map of hell” (p. 198). A classic and contemporary vision of a dystopian city is Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982).

Anti-utopian texts act as something of a counterpoint to this idea. These texts usually characterize losses of freedom and individual will. George Orwell’s (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the prime literary examples of a reaction to the good intentions of utopia creation and implementation. In Orwell’s story, the grandiose creation of a better and more efficient society can only be accomplished by the subjugation of a certain strata of the population. H.G. Wells (1895) The Time Machine further illustrates this idea by placing the deformed Morlocks in a subterranean workspace; their only job is to ensure that the elite and above ground Eloi want for nothing (Jameson, pp. 199-202).

20151117 morlocks y eloi.jpg

Modern science-fiction readers and viewers are more familiar with post-apocalyptic fiction. Films such as Mad Max (1979), its sequel The Road Warrior (1981); Cormac McCarthy’s (2006) Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Road, and anime such as Toyoo Ashida’s (1986) Fist of the North Star are all readily available and popular windows into the fictional post-apocalypse. However, purely utopian speculative/science fiction texts are a less prevalent.


In the modern iteration of the word, utopia has become associated with Stalinism and is a mode of life that can only be achieved (and enforced) through violence. This violence is necessary to make “reluctant and imperfect subjects” buy into the dream of a better society for all (Jameson, 2007). Utopia is a highly political idea as it is a form of societal triage: this stays, and that goes. Utopias and utopianisms are the specters in the texts being discussed in this research, as they can be read as urges or yearnings for a utopian existence, but the idea is never actualized. The costs are too great for utopia, so the protagonists always fall short of their dream. What usually occurs is a homeostatic society, as exemplified by the conclusion of the Wachowski (brothers, then, now sisters) (1999-2003) The Matrix trilogy.

At the end of the final film, Matrix: Revolutions (2003), the Architect (representing the machines) and the Oracle (representing the humans) agree to unplug[1] any human who wants to be freed. This is their version of peace, which they state will “last as long as it can.” While the freeing of the humans and the emergent better world scenario can be read as utopian, the conflict narrative is only paused until the need to engage reveals itself. However, in the Parable series, Lauren Olamina’s world is dystopian — her body is a slave to this dystopia as exemplified through her pseudo-disease of hyperempathy.

When Sower beings, Lauren is a fifteen-year-old African American girl who lives in a walled enclave in Southern California. Her enclave is attacked, burned to the ground, and her family is killed, forcing her and a group of survivors to travel north, to a plot of land owned by Taylor Franklin Bankole, a doctor who Lauren marries later in the book. This traveling from south to north echoes the journey made by slaves who wanted to escape their heinous conditions. Another slavery parallel — and a nod to the neo-slavery narrative of KindredSower is written as diary entries, a kind of epistolary, giving the reader a chronological accounting of Lauren’s narrative arc.

At the beginning of the novel, it is learned that Lauren has hyperempathy — a delusion that causes the sufferer to believe that they actually feel the pain of others. In that sense, Lauren is a prisoner, entrapped to the conditions of her immediate environment and those around her. She cannot help but feel the pain of others, and in a dystopian context, her very survival is uniquely tied into the well being of those around her. But it is somatic dystopia that forces her to attempt to carve utopia out of an untenable social milieu. While Sower is a work of fiction, it is also subtle propaganda meant to affect the real world. By setting Sower in a dystopia, and having Lauren physically feel the dissolution of her society, Butler personalizes the horrors of ecologic collapse, rampant patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, and a devastated economy. Having Lauren Olamina’s body become another site through which to experience the horrors of her existence, links the broader narrative trappings directly to the body, thus making the story more accessible and the protagonist more sympathetic. In propaganda technique, this is dubbed transfer — linking two subjects in the mind of the observer in order for the two subjects to become inseparable. In this instance, Lauren and her world become one and the same and the reader has a difficult time separating them, so the pain of the world becomes (quite literally in Lauren’s case) the pain of the person (Bernays, 1928, pp. 129-134 and pp. 161-168).

Butler effectively coalesces the various real social and environmental traumas, and ignites them as a warning to the reader. Butler’s project is not just to present an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novel, or to present a not too implausible America in crisis. What Sower does is to paint something akin to a frightening social inevitability and, through Lauren and her mission to reinvest American society with dignity and peace, show a possible pathway to halt the crises of the post-modern era.

[1] Humans are used as power sources for the machines.

2 thoughts on “Butler, Dystopia, Propaganda, and a Way Through?

  1. reminds me a bit of a reading i was assigned in school on Toni Cade Bambara; i think it was about how her writing rejected traditional western utopia/anti-utopia and the inevitability of dystopia in favor of characters in communities finding the strength to challenge the status quo

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