Octavia Butler’s Four Rules for Predicting the Future

Image by Niko­las Couk­ouma, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

If you, like me, often turn to sci­ence fic­tion to get more clar­i­ty about the present, past, and future, then you know you’re in good com­pa­ny with mul­ti­ple-award-win­ning sci-fi author Octavia But­ler. The nov­el­ist cast her gaze over it all, look­ing into the dark cor­ners of Amer­i­can life and human behav­ior and draw­ing out sto­ries that feel both shock­ing­ly new and famil­iar and true.

Some­times Butler’s truths are hard to hear, espe­cial­ly when we’re liv­ing in the midst of a time she fore­saw with such seem­ing accu­ra­cy thir­ty years ago in her Para­ble nov­els, two books meant to be the first parts of a tril­o­gy about America’s greed, cru­el­ty, and racism swal­low­ing up its good inten­tions and inflat­ed self-image.

Para­ble of the Sow­er and Para­ble of the Tal­ents are, as But­ler described them, “nov­els that take place in a near future of increas­ing drug addic­tion and illit­er­a­cy, marked by the pop­u­lar­i­ty of pris­ons and the unpop­u­lar­i­ty of pub­lic schools, the vast and grow­ing gap between the rich and every­one else, and the whole nasty fam­i­ly of prob­lems brought on by glob­al warm­ing.”

These prob­lems include the return of debt slav­ery, a par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty strain of Chris­t­ian nation­al­ism, and a vague but dev­as­tat­ing envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse from which there is no return. But these are also nov­els about hope: about sur­vival and adap­ta­tion and empa­thy. But­ler may have invent­ed the plots of her post-apoc­a­lyp­tic future, but “I didn’t make up the prob­lems,” she once told a stu­dent.

Sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers aren’t clair­voy­ant, they’re just bet­ter at mak­ing obser­va­tions and spec­u­la­tions. “All I did was look around at the prob­lems we’re neglect­ing now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged dis­as­ters,” said But­ler. A per­spec­tive that doesn’t also include the whole of human his­to­ry is bound to miss the mark, she sug­gest­ed:

Writ­ing nov­els about the future doesn’t give me any spe­cial abil­i­ty to fore­tell the future. But it does encour­age me to use our past and present behav­iors as guides to the kind of world we seem to be cre­at­ing. The past, for exam­ple, is filled with repeat­ing cycles of strength and weak­ness, wis­dom and stu­pid­i­ty, empire and ash­es. To study his­to­ry is to study human­i­ty. And to try to fore­tell the future with­out study­ing his­to­ry is like try­ing to learn to read with­out both­er­ing to learn the alpha­bet.

But­ler goes on to dis­cuss her method for pre­dict­ing the future—so to speak—which any­one can learn to do with enough study and insight (that’s the hard part). Thom Dunn at Boing Boing has help­ful­ly bro­ken down her essay’s main points into four con­cise rules:

  • Learn from the past
  • Respect the law of con­se­quences
  • Be aware of your per­spec­tive
  • Count on the sur­pris­es

You can read the full essay here and get to work on your own fore­cast­ing abil­i­ties. But in order to ful­ly under­stand Butler’s project, it is essen­tial nev­er to despair. “The one thing that I and my main char­ac­ters nev­er do when con­tem­plat­ing the future is give up hope,” she writes. In answer to her student’s anguished ques­tion, if things are going to get so bad “what’s the answer?” But­ler sage­ly replied, “there isn’t one…. There’s no mag­ic bul­let. Instead there are thou­sands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Behold Octavia Butler’s Moti­va­tion­al Notes to Self

Why Should We Read Pio­neer­ing Sci-Fi Writer Octavia But­ler? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopi­an Nov­el Fea­tures a Fascis­tic Pres­i­den­tial Can­di­date Who Promis­es to “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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