“Harvest of Survivors”: 30 Years After Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”

Into the HistoFuture Butlerverse

By Ayana Jamieson

February 22, 2023

Octavia Butler

Portrait of Octavia Butler in Central Park, New York. | Photo by Miriam Berkley

“We humans never get to know one another as well as we know fictional characters,” Octavia E. Butler wrote in notecards preparing for a 1998 speech on the impact of media on her and her writing. “Human beings are complex ridiculous, joyous, wretched . . . fascinating,” she told the same audience. Using the broadcast and print news, cartoons, public radio, good old-fashioned library research, intuition, and experiences growing up in Jim Crow California, Butler and her characters remain intimate mirrors of our inner and outer lives—past and futures. She passed away on February 24, 2006, but her stories continue to resonate and persist to this day; they anticipate a world increasingly burdened by climate and social crises.

The story of one of her most acclaimed novels, Parable of the Sower, published in 1993, takes place in a familiar timeline for our generation: 2024. Sower also reached the New York Times bestseller list at the height of the pandemic on September 2, 2020, a full 27 years after its publication. Butler’s lesser-known novel Clay’s Ark, of the Seed to Harvest Patternist series, actually features a global pandemic: An extraplanetary microorganism brought back to Earth by an astronaut spreads as if the contagion has a rudimentary intelligence of its own. Clay’s Ark, published in 1985, takes place in 2021. 

Parable of the Sower is Butler’s full turn toward climate change and its implications. At times a grim cautionary tale, the story begins from the perspective of 15-year-old Lauren Oya Olamina. Lauren writes epistolary prose from a publication called Earthseed: Books of the Living, which articulates the tenets of Lauren’s Earthseed religion. Lauren, her family, and neighbors live on a walled-off cul-de-sac in the city of Robledo, a Los Angeles suburb analogous to Butler’s own Pasadena, California. Their makeshift wall is patrolled by armed community members to keep the hordes of sick, often starving, injured, and desperate encampments of uneducated poor people and addicts out of their enclave. Students in Butler’s novel have to be educated via computer at home, and Lauren’s university professor parents teach remotely. In Robledo, middle-aged people born in the late 1960s and ’70s long for the “good old days” of default middle-class services they used to enjoy like free police, plentiful water, and ample gasoline and electricity so prominent it drowned out the stars. “Things are changing now, too. Our adults haven’t been wiped out by a plague so they’re still anchored in the past, waiting for the good old days to come back. But things have changed a lot, and they’ll change more. Things are always changing. . . . People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.”

Butler’s vision of a world beset by disease, climate crisis, and social injustice is now taking shape beyond the richly depicted fictional characters in the original novels, or the gorgeous, award-winning graphic novels adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. There is now a Parable of the Sower opera by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, and more recently the television show Kindred (2022), adapted by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for FX. Like the graphic novels, both productions are beautifully rendered as chronicles of American history, crafted with care, situating them in the time/space they occupy in this world, testing the limits of our own imaginations. The opera not only stretches across genres of hundreds of years of Black sacred music, but cements Butler’s writing in the context of the Black Arts Movement, freedom movements, and beyond. It also enlists audiences into the present moments in which the fourth wall is shattered. Spectators become participants in the call-and-response, theater-in-the-round, and congregational opera. Like the opera, the Kindred television show follows in the tradition of Butler herself—an unapologetic and unflinching rendering in which viewers must examine their own assumptions. 

With NASA naming the Octavia E. Butler Landing on the planet Mars on March 4, 2021, including an inscription inside the Perseverance rover of her most well-known verse (“All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change.”), and new media exploring her writing, Butler’s works continue to gather us like seedlings, continue to inspire generation upon generation of scientists, speculative fiction authors, activists, and readers of all kinds: “We are a harvest of survivors. But then, that’s what we’ve always been,” Butler writes as Lauren Olamina. 

Her published fiction, interviews, and essays are only a sliver of her life’s work. Beyond her published works, the Octavia E. Butler papers contain over 9,000 individually cataloged items at the Huntington Library, which became available in late 2013, including nearly 400 boxes of archived items. The collection consists of hundreds of pages of personal journals, notes, drafts, letters, manuscripts, research materials, and more. Her papers reveal a writer trying to get by financially, struggling at times to believe in her writing and vision, thinking carefully about her legacy, but also envisioning herself as an active participant in world events shaping and being shaped by her narratives, decoding what she saw in books and media, observing and studying human behavior—what she referred to as the “Human Contradiction,” the conflict between hierarchical behavior and intelligence. Her project was to extrapolate from known realities and project them out into possible futures—both eventual and preventable. 

I read her oeuvre as interconnected and overlapping meditations on the archetype of Change, a survival apparatus, the ultimate organizing pattern and prototypical nucleus in all her work. Butler is deliberate and steadfast in her use of imagery around seeds, growth, and collective liberation balancing hope and despair toward the immediacy or our present challenges beyond trite utopian solutions. She called herself a HistoFuturist in a journal dated November 14, 1981, over a decade before the term Afrofuturism was coined: “A HistoFuturist is my invention. An historian who extrapolates from the Human past and present as well as the technological past and present.”

While award-winning speculative fiction writer Octavia E. Butler transitioned in 2006, her fictional characters have become fixtures of our collective imaginations. I get questions about how she so astutely predicted the future in almost every public talk. Her protagonists, like Shaper Lauren Olamina, reluctant time-traveler Edana “Dana” Franklin of Kindred, Lilith Iyapo of Lilith’s Brood, body-snatching Doro and shape-shifting Anyanwu of Seed to Harvest, and human-Ina hybrid vampire Shori stay with us. All these characters and more have inspired writers, artists, activists, scholars, filmmakers, and readers all over the globe throughout Butler’s career and with even greater frequency as we’ve marched toward the future. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, high oil and gasoline prices, water scarcity, and climate change, Olamina and her disturbingly familiar world seem like predictions rather than “if this goes on” cautionary tales.