Writer in Residence

The Most Important Books in the World

By Irfan Ali


If you pick up Octavia Butler’s 1998 novel Parable of the Talents for the first time right now, you’ll share a moment with everyone else who’s only read it recently. It happens early in the book. Butler is describing Andrew Steele Jarret, a right-wing senator who, within the book’s dystopian universe, leads a hardline religious movement committing acts of terrorism against the populace. As she describes the man and his goals, the now-infamous phrase “Make America great again” appears. You’ll pause, perplexed; then flip to the copyright page to double-check the date of publication. It’ll still say 1998. You’ll wonder if there isn’t some mistake. Maybe Butler revised the earlier editions to include that phrase. But a cursory Google search will confirm she passed in 2005, more than a decade before Donald Trump would campaign using that slogan. You’ll flip back and continue reading, but not before an eerie shiver crawls up your spine.

Good dystopian fiction functions as a kind of early warning system, forcing us to confront the brutal realities of those distant disasters we can only comprehend in our day to day lives as abstractions. Yet even within that crowded marketplace, there are perhaps no books more prescient than those in Butler’s unfinished Parable saga: the aforementioned Parable of the Talents and, arguably even more so, its 1993 predecessor, Parable of the Sower.

Part of what makes Butler’s books so compelling is the plausibility of their universe. In Parable of the Sower’s 2032 America, climate change has become a reality. However, it doesn’t manifest in the hyper-dramatic cliches of apocalyptic storms and earthquakes. It appears instead in gradually eroding coastlines, the slow deaths of historic redwood forests, and patterns of crop failures leading to Dust Bowl-like mass migrations of workers. Also unique to the series is its depiction of its crumbling society. The most common trope of dystopian fiction is the breakdown of the social contract, displaced by either Japanophile corporatism in the cyberpunk subgenre or outright savagery in novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Yet the Parable universe gives us a window into this breakdown as it happens. Protagonist Lauren Olamina’s father is a professor at a functioning college. There are still police, though they are accessible to few and trusted by even fewer. There is still a government that purports to govern the entire country, but it’s clear that, in practice, it either isn’t able or doesn’t care to look out for the majority of its citizens. This vision of a crumbling world won’t seem unfamiliar to anyone who’s watched the slow fraying of social bonds in our own societies.

The other facet of the Parable saga’s significance, especially right now, is the more hopeful stance it adopts compared to most others in the genre. The experience of reading dystopian fiction can often feel akin to watching a torture porn movie like Hostel: a descent into the most depraved and monstrous parts of humanity, safe in the knowledge that afterwards we can retreat back into our comfortable existence. But that couldn’t have been the case for Butler. As a Black woman who lived much of her early life in poverty, she must have known that the dystopian world she was painting wasn’t much of an extrapolation from the lived realities of many Black and Brown people. Creating worlds without hope would’ve seemed an exercise in futility and a betrayal of the way these communities have always been resilient and thrived in spite of these challenges.

Hope in the Parable series manifests most clearly in Earthseed, the religion devised by protagonist Lauren Olamina. The central tenet of the faith, invoked as a sort of mantra throughout both books, is “God is change.” In essence, Olamina recognizes the brutal indifference of whatever forces govern the universe, noting that the only meaningful truth is the inevitability of change. But, while this chaos is inescapable and leaves permanent marks on us, she realizes that we can, through intentional thought and action, also guide it: “Beware: / God exists to shape / And to be shaped.” Far removed from the benevolent faith of her family, Earthseed is better suited to the realities of Olamina’s changing world and is what allows her to persevere through the overwhelming horror she faces.

For many fans of Butler’s work, especially those struggling with constant instability in their own lives, “God is change” has taken on a much deeper significance than a mere quotable. It’s become a guiding principle through which they’re able to generate hope in spite of uncertainty. 

It seems all of us are now in that boat, even those whose access to wealth made them feel their comfortable lives would continue in perpetuity. A miasma of paralytic ennui has settled over us as we’ve watched the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbate the underlying issues within our societies and hasten their descent towards dystopia. Butler’s work is more timely than ever in this moment. Through it she shows the grim realities of what awaits us over the horizon, but encourages us to meet it with our heads raised. There is no doubt that change is coming, but, like Olamina, we should know it need not be for the worse. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.