Thinking Parabolically: Time Matters in Octavia Butler’s Parables

From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies

Photo by David Revoy/Blender Foundation, licensed under CC BY.

Set in the 2020s, the novel Parable of the Sower and its sequel Parable of the Talents prophesize neoliberal and religious apocalypse. Yet by envisioning these works as “parables” and naming them after a biblical fable, the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler alerts us that they are also allegorical. Indeed, the parables have been read as realism (Menne 2011) and Afro-(near)futurist counternarrative (McCormack 2016). Their author wrote not only in but also about California in the 1990s: a time of economic distress, anti-immigrant ballot initiatives, circulating narratives of “stranger danger,” and urban divestment in neighborhoods of color. Influentially for Butler, the police assault of motorist Rodney King was captured on video, leading to mass racial unrest in Los Angeles. In her futuristic world, these realities have been transformed into authoritarian rule and an environment so violent that it paradoxically creates the conditions for Lauren Olamina, Butler’s teenage black female protagonist, to conceive and spread the Earthseed religion, not knowing—as in the Synoptic Gospels—whether it will land on fertile soil.

Though there is debate about whether Butler’s work transcends a neoliberal ideology of multiculturalism and entrepreneurship to offer revolutionary political theology (see Lloyd 2016), it retains its potential as radical social analysis. For anthropologists, Butler is an interlocutor who opens spaces for thinking, writing, and coming to terms with some of the underlying questions in our field. To see hers as the work of a contemporary is not a stretch if one considers that our present in 2018—with the ferocity of financial speculation, land and resource grabs, billionaire class power, and ethnonationalist resurgence—exists between the temporal brackets of Butler’s present and that of her characters. Reciprocally, our current conditions either portend the future or relay the past of Butler’s fictive reality.

In the parables, time matters, and it is entangled with ethical matters, as it has long been for anthropologists concerned with issues of power, political economy, imperialism, and representation. In the parables, time is also relational. Like Lauren Olamina’s God, it shapes and is shaped by social relationships and the material world.

We might imagine this dialectical relationship mirroring the geometric properties of a parabola, that symmetrical arch-shaped curve or conic section introduced in grade-school math. Because all of the points on a parabola are equidistant from a focus point and a fixed straight line, a multiplicity of nonarbitrary relationships exist between tangents (lines passing through a single point on the parabola) and secants (lines connecting two points on it). The infinite triangles that crosscut a parabola have distinct properties, which illuminate the relationship between points and other points as well as points to the whole. These triangles have been used to explain wonders of natural and social phenomena—for example, the path of a tossed ball due to gravity, or how two people of unequal weight can balance on a seesaw (Bonsangue and Shultz 2016).

Likewise, for readers simultaneously immersed in Butler’s worlds and their own, the parables present multiple, overlapping, intersecting triangles that indicate the movement of time and social life. This movement is not random, not circular, not spiral, not progressive, not inevitable. Rather, by slipping between the past, present, and future, or the future-past, the future-present, and the future-future, it stitches a relational fabric among people and places. In the first parable, verb tenses shift based on Lauren’s circumstances, actions, and psychological state; here, we learn that Lauren’s illness of hyperempathy (she viscerally experiences others’ pain) is likely the outcome of her mother’s addiction to a drug that boosts efficiency in the neoliberal university. This psychosocial porosity wrenches her far enough from social convention to see the wisdom that “God is Change.” In the second parable, Lauren’s young adulthood and that of her daughter unfold simultaneously as Lauren’s former journal entries interweave with her daughter’s current experiences—entangling their estranged relationship and national politics with Earthseed practices and philosophy.

Emulating how the parabolic curve opens out onto infinite but not limitless possibilities, Butler’s parables offer a vision of individual and collective agency that does not rely on easy fixes or blind hope. If walls cannot protect Lauren’s community, there are no safe havens outside. People must forge trust through actions in the immediacy of circumstances, overriding the power of abstractions or stereotypes. Lives unfold through constellations of practical and moral decisions situated in a larger agentive web. Remarkably, in a parabola, any light ray parallel to the central axis bounces off the shape and passes through the focus; inversely, rays that pass through this focus reflect in parallel lines. The focus of Butler’s novels are Earthseed verses: timeless and universal yet, simultaneously, situated and particular because they are written or interpreted at specific moments by people, in places, for reasons, with effects. The rays reflect as unsettled ethical questions joining the writer’s, readers’, and characters’ worlds.

In six years, the Gregorian calendar will turn to the year that opens Parable of the Sower. As our time-traveling author astutely envisioned, wildfires blaze through the U.S. West with increasing ferocity and environmental calamity is colliding with authoritarian politics. So what lessons can anthropologists glean? Perhaps that the (hyper)empathic qualities of ethnographic methods reflect the launching place, not the limit, of our discipline’s intervention in the violence of our world. Even from inside the neoliberal academy, we must move beyond discrete accounts of moments, groups, struggles, and places. We must work to reveal how socioenvironmental relations interlock in an extending curve in which each of us is implicated. To think parabolically means to recognize that our work is a collective project undertaken in solidarity with fellow knowledge producers whose insights, like ours, spring from situated and relational points in the historical trajectory of racial capitalism (Robinson 2000). And, as Lauren illuminates, to redraw the contours of that trajectory is a project that requires a profound and bold transformation in how we conceive of both time and the self.


Bonsangue, Martin V., and Harris S. Shultz. 2016. “In Search of Archimedes: Quadrature of the Parabola.” Mathematics Teacher 109, no. 9: 712–16.

Lloyd, Vincent. 2016. “Postracial, Postapocalyptic Love: Octavia Butler as Political Theologian.” Political Theology 17, no. 5: 449–64.

McCormack, Michael Brandon. 2016. “‘Your God is a Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, and a Misogynist . . . Our God is Change’: Ishmael Reed, Octavia Butler and Afrofuturist Critiques of (Black) American Religion.” Black Theology 14, no. 1: 6–27.

Menne, Jeff. 2011. “‘I live in this world, too’: Octavia Butler and the State of Realism.” Modern Fiction Studies 57, no. 4: 715–37.

Robinson, Cedric. 2000. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. First published in 1983. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.