Books

Why In the Making host Sean O'Neill loves Octavia Butler's unfinished Parable series

Sean O'Neill describes the 'beautiful lessons' Octavia Butler imparted through her protagonist Olamina.
CBC host Sean O'Neill is a big fan of American fantasy writer Octavia Butler. (CBC/Cheung Ching Ming)

In the Makinga new CBC documentary series that takes you inside the artist's creative process, premieres on Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. (9 p.m. NT). Hosted by Sean O'Neill, In the Making will feature Canadians like Lido Pimienta, Dana Michel and Chilly Gonzales, who each explore what it means to be an artist in the contemporary world.

We asked O'Neill to recommend a work of literature that is important to him. He chose Octavia Butler's unfinished Parable series, which includes the books Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Trickster.

Her influence

"I like to think about the ways that art can imagine and call forth futures. Art brings into focus things we cannot yet see and thoughts we cannot yet think. This comforts me, somehow, and feels true — the idea that art shapes and changes us and our world. Many people have written about this (José Esteban Muñoz, Timothy Morton, Wanda Nanibush and others) and, of course, it's there most literally in speculative and science fiction, which is where Octavia Butler's Parable books enter this conversation.

"Butler, if you're not familiar, is a towering figure in science fiction, and she also happens to be the first Black woman to come to prominence in the genre. She won the MacArthur 'genius' grant and both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her work, the highest honours in science fiction writing. This pair of extraordinary books was intended to be a trilogy, but the planned third volume, Parable of the Trickster, was unfinished when Butler died in 2006, at 58.

"These two books, though, published in 1993 and 1998 respectively, are, for me, more than enough." 

Her key messages

"Butler's hero is Lauren Oya Olamina. When Parable of the Sower opens, it's 2024 in California, and the United States is in the midst of a breakdown in law, education and climate, sparked by decades of unceasing prioritization of economic gain over human and inter-species wellbeing. It's dire. But Olamina, 15 years old and a 'sharer' — Butler's term for an at-times debilitating syndrome of hyper-empathy in which one physically experiences the pain and pleasure of those near — is realizing quickly that the gated community in which her parents have built their home will not survive the increasing and encroaching dangers of invasion, robbery and violence. And so, she plans her escape, but, being our hero, she also plans a future for humanity encapsulated in a philosophy she calls 'Earthseed,' which is based around the concept that God is change. Verses from the book Olamina eventually writes, called Earthseed: Book of the Living, precede every chapter. Here is its central teaching:

"All that you touch
You Change.

"All that you Change
Changes you.

"The only lasting truth
Is Change.

"God
Is Change.

"This, and many of Olamina's ideas, are, for me, beautiful lessons for coping with a world that so often feels devoid of empathy, compassion and rational thinking. A future that, for many, has already arrived in 2018. The plot of both novels is gripping and masterfully structured, but it is Butler's ideas that took hold for me, and deeply. She writes our way through the increasing devastation spurred by climate change. She writes our way out of the grip of tyrants and thieves and poverty and ignorance. She shows what happens when the pursuit of capital trumps a framing ethic of mutual care. The novels are difficult and stunning, with passages that can destroy you and put you back together in the span of a single sentence."

Her continued relevance

"I spent the summer in Vancouver, reading these novels as the smoke from the more than 500 wildfires burning across British Columbia and Alberta turned the sky yellow and the air thick and heavy. There were days it was hard to breathe. At one point, in the second novel, which takes place in the 2030s, I came to a passage that describes a new presidential candidate in the United States, Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, who is campaigning using xenophobic, war-mongering, anti-poor rhetoric, and inciting violence against those who are different from his predominantly white, Christian constituencies. His central campaign promise? To 'make America great again.'

"That third book, the one that Butler left unwritten, is the one I'm thinking about today."

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