Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) begins in July 2024 on the fifteenth birthday of Lauren Olamina, a Black girl living near Los Angeles. The city and nation have been shattered by environmental devastation and economic collapse, and chaos reigns as residents compete for dwindling resources. After her neighborhood is destroyed and her family is killed, Olamina travels north in search of safety and autonomy, eventually establishing a new religious and social movement. (In the book’s sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), however, the community Olamina builds is threatened by a fundamentalist Christian sect and its demagogic presidential candidate, who promises to “make America great again.”)

I began assigning Parable of the Sower in my undergraduate urban anthropology courses nearly ten years ago. The book has always been a useful way to open up conversations with students about racism, sexism, and inequality and to address the intersections among a broad range of topics, including housing, education, and drug policies, police militarization, and neoliberal privatization.

But while the issues that Butler highlights are not new, I have found myself returning regularly to her work over the past several months, struck again and again by her prescience and the power of her narrative. Speculative fiction opens new pedagogical possibilities and can be an important complement to the theoretical and ethnographic perspectives we most often include in anthropology courses. Butler’s work is not simply a warning about potential dystopia; it offers an essential opportunity to encourage students to engage with the present by envisioning a more just future.

Further Reading

Imarisha, Walidah and adrienne maree brown, eds. 2015. Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Oakland, Calif: AK Press.

Pasco, John Carlo, Camille Anderson, and Sayantani DasGupta. 2016. “Visionary Medicine: Speculative Fiction, Racial Justice and Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild.’Medical Humanities 42, no. 4: 246–51.