Guest post: “Making America great again with Octavia Butler,” by Gerry Canavan

Today’s post is by Gerry Canavan, author of the new UIP book Octavia E. Butler. Canavan is an assistant professor of twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature at Marquette University, specializing in science fiction. He blogs at and tweets at @gerrycanavan.

canavanAs with similarly uncanny precognitions of Donald Trump’s unbelievable ascension to the presidency—a throwaway joke on The Simpsons in 2000, the terrible reign of the Trump-inspired bully Biff Tannen in the evil version of 1985 in Back to the Future Part II, the uncanny similarities between the Trump election and the fascist President Gentle in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 Infinite Jest—many were incredibly disturbed earlier this summer to recall the now eerily familiar slogan of the odious and dictatorial President Jarrett in Octavia Butler’s dystopian Parable of the Talents (1998): MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. Jarrett rolls into power on a wave of Christian ethno-nationalism, inspiring roving vigilante lynch mobs of genocidal supporters before, eventually, introducing formal concentration camps. Set in the 2020s and 2030s in a collapsing and crashed America, the Parables books (tracing Lauren Olamina’s development of a twenty-first century religion that has the power to inspire and console in the face of disaster) have always seemed incredibly and disturbingly prescient—and in the wake of November 8, 2016 they now seem downright spooky, the actual and accurate history of the future. “I have read,” writes Taylor Franklin Bankole, the character who eventually becomes Lauren’s husband, “that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as ‘the Apocalypse’ or more commonly, more bitterly, ‘the Pox’ lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos.” Well, here we go.

One can only begin to imagine what Butler would have thought of President Trump, much less what she would have made of this bizarre and sickening election season and its final, dizzying, almost incomprehensible transformation of American politics. But we can find in her books and manuscripts what she had to say about another president whose rise she found both inscrutable and utterly horrifying, Ronald Reagan (another unlikely president, who also promised to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN). As I found in my study of Butler’s papers at the Huntington Library, Butler reserved special contempt for Reagan in her personal journals and notebooks, not simply while he was president but over the course of the next twenty years. The Parables’ President Jarrett—a figure she refers to in her notes as “President Hitler”—is in fact described in her notes as “a Reagan, young, vigorous, and utterly unencumbered by conscience.” Another personal notebook containing sketches of “the basic character types” includes Reagan alongside the “intelligent monster” (Trump lawyer and mentor Roy Cohn) and “the semi-intelligent monster/betrayer” (Clarence Thomas); the Reagan archetype is “amoral, ambitious [….] Would sell his mother but then convince people she wanted to be sold.” A short, haiku-like poem from one of her journals, paralleling the ones in the Parables written by Lauren Olamina, is even more succinct: “Arrogant and Ignorant / Powerful and Stubborn / Ronald Reagan.”

As she frequently told interviewers, the election of Ronald Reagan was a partial inspiration for her Xenogensis books as well, which detail the first contact with an alien species following a nuclear holocaust:

I tell people that Ronald Reagan inspired Xenogenesis—and that it was the only thing he inspired in me that I actually approve of. When his first term was beginning, his people were talking about a “winnable” nuclear war, a “limited” nuclear war, the idea that more and more nuclear weapons would make us safer.(McCaffery and McMenamin)

The Reagan administration’s interest in strategic nuclear defense was even the subject of one of Butler’s frequent letters to the editor, published on May 24, 1981 in the Los Angeles Times, in which she argued that “anything that promotes a false sense of security with regard to nuclear weapons should be handled carefully.” Although the letter ultimately argued for new civil defense measures on the grounds that they were needed to combat rogue states and terrorist networks that might acquire nuclear weapons, the letter regrets this determination insofar as it could “encourage some people to see nuclear war as winnable, as a rational choice.”

In 1990 she sent a short letter to Essence about the lessons she’d learned from various recent presidents; here were the lessons from Reagan, which seem pretty undeniably relevant today:

  • People will pay any price for praise, reassurance, and an illusion of security.
  • It can be both expedient and easy to keep your enemies underestimating you.

The Reagan election and reelection seemed to Butler to be not just a pair of spectacularly bad decisions but to cast a sort of permanent doom over the future of the entire human race. Continuing the quote from the interview with McCaffery and McMenamin above:

[The Reagan election is] when I began to think about human beings having the two conflicting characteristics of intelligence and a tendency towards hierarchical behavior—and that hierarchical behavior is too much in charge, too self-sustaining. The aliens in the Xenogenesis series say the humans have no way out, that they’re programmed to self-destruct.

In an interview with Nibir K. Ghosh from 2004, she makes much the same point:

INTERVIEWER: Was your novel Dawn inspired by the Darwinian principle of fitness?

OEB: Not exactly. It was inspired by some very foolish things that Ronald Reagan and some of his supporters were advocating back in the early 1980s—like advocating winnable or limited nuclear wars. I decided that if so many people were buying into this nonsense, there must be something wrong with us—something basic.

Reagan makes two quiet appearances in Dawn. First, Butler’s notes indicate he is the original model for the character of Gabriel Rinaldi, described in his first appearance in Dawn as “an actor, who had confused the Oankali utterly for a while because he played roles for them instead of letting them see him as he was.” Her character notes from Adulthood Rites, the second book in the series, draw this comparison out in starker terms: “Actor. Handsome, commanding. A leader […] But not bright.” Not surprisingly, Gabriel is a rather sinister character in the novel, seemingly poisoning Lilith’s friendship with her friend Tate and ultimately verbally attacking Lilith (calling her the Oankali’s “whore”) and physically attacking her alien partner, Nikanj, with an ax.

The other appearance of Reagan in the book is both much more literal and much more subtle. We are told, briefly, that there was another class of people the Oankali rescued, beyond survivors like Lilith being Awakened far in the future: “Some of the people we picked up had been hiding deep underground. They had created much of the destruction.” These would have been governmental and military figures, overwhelming white and male especially in the context of the 1980s, living in underground bunkers, like Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House, the NORAD Command Center under Cheyenne Mountain, or the so-called “Site R” at Raven Rock Mountain. Depending the circumstances behind the war, included among these men would almost certainly be the president himself. Though hundreds of years have passed on Earth, some of these men are still alive; the Oankali have “used them slowly, learned biology, language, culture from them.” Indeed, part of the reason the Oankali treat Lilith so badly during her early Awakenings is that they mistakenly universalize these military leaders and think all humans are like them, as one of the aliens later apologizes to Lilith. The fact that humans have destroyed themselves and would have gone extinct without Oankali intervention is, undoubtedly, a point in the Oankali’s favor—but it is undercut significantly by the fact that their primary source of information about this event is via the very people who caused it. The idea that the Oankali first learned about humans from the madmen who destroyed the planet is a startling but undeveloped plot thread that threatens to cast the Oankali’s entire way of thinking about human beings into doubt. Perhaps the entire theory they’ve developed of humanity as fundamentally broken is scientifically unsound, like unreliable polls based on a very bad sampling error—if one can even imagine such a thing.

* * *

Decades later, in the 2000s, the plotting for one of Butler’s last unfinished works, Paraclete, would even derail altogether on the specific question of the Reagan presidency. Paraclete was one of several unfinished books that spiraled out of Butler’s frustrated inability to continue the Parables series with the long-awaited but never-completed Parable of the Trickster. One version of dozens of Trickster narratives she started and abandoned—rather hard to square with the otherwise mundane, down-to-earth speculations of the first two Parables books—was structured around ghostly possession following a murder, in which two spirits now inhabiting the same body write letters to each other during the period that each one is in control.

Butler was intrigued by this modification of the epistolary form and retained it even after abandoning that version of Trickster, imagining instead an entire book written in the form of a letter handed down as a legacy from a benefactor to their inheritor. Here the legacy becomes another strange power, a fantasy that Butler had had intimate acquaintance with over the course of her entire life via her rituals of self-hypnosis and daily affirmation: the ability to write down capital-T Truth, that is, the ability to have any statement you write down magically become a fact. The epistolary form of the novel would have been Sibyl August Baldwin, writing down the story of her life as the elderly bearer of this strange power to the next person to possess it; the character who would have been the main character in the Trickster book here becomes instead the off-screen recipient, the implied reader of the letters.

As befitting any of Butler’s narrative situations, the power would have been much more complicated than simple wish fulfillment; in fact, Sibyl’s power turns out to be as much a curse as a blessing. First there is the perhaps expected “genie’s curse” or “monkey’s paw” complications caused by the unforeseen consequences of inarticulate or insufficiently specific wishes, as when Sibyl writes down that a man will never again hit his wife: the man is in a horrific car accident and permanently paralyzed. How do you save a loved one from addiction—as Sibyl tries to—when you know that the wish “he never uses heroin again” could just as easily result in his sudden death as his going clean? When Sibyl is brutally attacked within her own home, in one unforgettable scene, she must write down the Truth of her own survival in her own blood before she passes out from blood loss—remembering to include careful codicils that she will heal completely and suffer no negative consequences whatsoever as a result of these events. (Surviving completely and perfectly, just as she said, she is then faced with the difficult ethical decision of whether and how to use her omnipotence to punish the people who had harmed her.)

The idea fascinated Butler; it reminded her of the Twilight Zone episodes she had loved in her youth. She returned to the idea of the novel again and again. But difficulties in the premise proved in some way to be insurmountable. She considered setting the book in the present, in the recent past, in the frontier past, and even the near future (“It’s now 2040—USA as Cuba—worn out, shabby, but hanging on, selling the furniture”), but each time period presented unique challenges that derailed the story. Setting the book in the future killed what was interesting about it to Butler; the story had no stakes unless we could see how Sibyl’s well-intentioned meddling actually creates our bad history in its misguided efforts to improve it. She imagined, for instance, that Sibyl could have tried to cause the breakup of the Soviet Union, inadvertently causing what else but the Reagan presidency in the process. But this proved an insurmountable narrative problem; she simply saw no way that someone with Sibyl’s power and political leanings would have allowed the Reagan administration to ever happen at all. She knew perfectly well that if she could have found a way to prevent Reagan’s presidency, she would have done so, even if it just meant using her powers to cause him to “hoot like a chimp during the debates or fall dumb or weep or wet himself or any number of public gaffes that would hurt him.” (“I thought of it then,” Butler writes mysteriously. “So would she.”)

Despite many attempts, she could find no moment in history to set Paraclete where the plot made sense both logically and emotionally. In the end the only version of the Paraclete narrative that saw print was “The Book of Martha,” a short story first published at in 2003 which has since been republished in the second edition of her short story collection Bloodchild. “Martha,” a wonderful story I’ll be teaching later this semester, is a fascinating if somewhat dyspeptic story interrogating the sort of power fantasy that structures the unfinished Paraclete. Indeed, in an interview with Susan Stamberg, Butler actually described “Martha” as a way of “ridding myself of the need to write” the Paraclete fantasy, which she says would have been a “frivolous” “break” between the grim Talents and the equally grim Trickster—though in fact she never dropped the idea of expanding any of the versions of the Trickster story into novels, Paraclete included. This week in particular I have found myself longing for the versions of Paraclete, “Martha,” Xenogenesis, and the Parables that Butler might have written in the Age of Trump, where, as we have all learned to our great shock and shame, no number of embarrassing public gaffes could ever have been sufficient to change a turn of events that has now, somehow, become unstoppable. As so often, I find myself wishing again that Octavia were here with us to write those stories, to cast some light in a time that suddenly looks incredibly, almost impossibly dark.