A dystopian California: not unimaginable

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler book cover on andreareadsamerica.com

After writing about my avoidance of dystopian fiction, and subsequently reading dystopia-lovers’ reasons for reading post-apocalyptic novels (e.g., to caution us against our gluttonous ways and to prepare ourselves for Armageddon), I decided to read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a dystopian novel set in the years 2024-2027 in southern California. A recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Butler was among the few African-American women writing science fiction in her time, and she was the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award; if I was to attempt another post-apocalyptic novel, I wanted it to be one of hers.

In Parable of the Sower, there is not a clear indication of what has happened to produce the horrifying state of the US in the year 2025 – it hasn’t rained in southern California in years, nobody uses cars because fuel is prohibitively expensive, clean water is as precious as money, middle-class citizens live in walled communities and must arm themselves when they venture outside their walls, and a drug called pyro, which makes fires more enjoyable than sex, has metastasized in the outside world like a cancer – but the implication is that we consumed and cleared and polluted beyond a critical point, and chaos has ensued as once-civilized populations revert to the more animal nature of kill or be killed.

This world that Butler portrays is not unimaginable, especially in light of the 1992 L.A. riots that surely informed scenes in this book. As any good dystopian novel will do, Parable of the Sower made me think outside of my comfortable box, outside my regular assumptions of the middle-class world: we can currently leave our homes without guns; we have ready access to food, fuel, and water; we don’t have to know how to survive in the wilderness or travel hundreds of miles on foot to try to find a safe place to hide and settle. We don’t have to worry yet, not on an on-the-ground in-the-now way, about having used up our planet and its resources. It made me think about a world without clean water or transportation or police and government who protect and defend, a world where violent death is an ever present threat, even to the currently insulated middle-class America.

It is not a comfortable place to be, outside my cozy middle-class box, but it makes me think, if all of it were stripped away, would I be able to survive? If I couldn’t buy food at the grocery store, if clean water did not stream from my tap, if drug-ravaged hooligans burned down my neighborhood and then came in for the kill, would I despair and give up or would I, like heroine Lauren Olamina, learn how to defend myself, accept and embrace change, and band together with other survivors to plant a new community? The world Butler imagines in Parable of the Sower is not unrealistic; her prediction could easily happen if we continue to consume and pollute unchecked. The threat in the world right now is not immediate to me like it is to Lauren in Butler’s story, but it makes me want to get a little closer to the land nonetheless. Just in case.


Dystopia – to go or not to go?

Les deux Magots painting by Houmeau
Les deux Magots painting by Houmeau

“In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock.” – Ernest Hemingway

I was talking books with my roller skating friend, Dee, (I know – isn’t she awesome? She likes books AND roller skating) and I told her about the latest book I quit on.  She asked what made me put it down – the characters, the setting, or the plot?  Then she said, “Setting is a big deal for me.  I don’t want to read a book that’s set in a place I don’t want to be.”

Whoa.  That seems so obvious now – when you immerse yourself in a book, you are there, wherever it is set, so why would you voluntarily go someplace you don’t want to be?  She dislikes dystopia, “Huh-uh, no end of the world for me, thanks,” and I am right there with her.

After she said that – “I don’t want to read a book that’s set in a place I don’t want to be” – I thought about how many of my book choices have been based on setting.  I wanted to go someplace cold, so I grabbed The Tricking of Freya, set in Iceland.  I wanted the jungle, so I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.  I wanted the South, so I read The Color Purple.  Likewise, many of my favorite books become beloved because they transport me to a place I want to be – the red earth of Georgia in Gone With the Wind, among fragrant blooms in The Language of Flowers, by an Alpine stream so cold you can chill wine in it in summer in The Sun Also Rises.

Have I ever quit on a book based on its setting, though?  Not that I can recall.  But that’s probably because I never started it.  I often won’t pick a book up if I’m not interested in the place where the story unfolds. A post-apocalyptic future. Space. Even though dystopia is a hugely popular, and I have read a few dystopian novels that I very much enjoyed (Ready Player One, The Forever War, The Hunger Games, The Giver), it takes a lot of convincing to make me give them a try.  I don’t like bleakness and destruction and all that.  That being said, dystopian fiction makes me think about things I wouldn’t otherwise think of, about our future instead of our past.  What will rise out of our destruction?  Are my friends who are preparing for the zombie apocalypse – stockpiling antibiotics, amassing survival gear – maybe onto something?  I wrote several pages in my journal about memories and dreams, and gathering wisdom from them, after I read The Giver.  After The Age of Miracles, I spent days thinking about the ripple effect, how changes in our solar system – in the case of Miracles, a lengthening of the day to 50, 60 hours – would have tremendous implications for our survival, from something as seemingly mundane as school and work schedules to issues as large as world food supplies.

But still, despite all that learning and thinking, when I read I like to curl up in bed and immerse myself in a setting I want to experience – Newfoundland winters, or summer in Appalachia.  If I can’t travel to Paris, or feel what life was like for a pioneer on the prairie, I want to read a gifted writer’s rendering of the scenery, the culture, domestic life, the storms.  I want to feel snowflakes on my skin, or smell rain on warm wheat, or hear the clink of cups at an outdoor cafe.

In other words, like Dee, I want to read a book that takes me to a place I want to be.

What about you?  Does setting play into the reading material you choose?

*Originally published September 1, 2013 on my Butterfly Mind blog, this essay opened my eyes to my love of setting. Though I did not realize it at the time, I think Andrea Reads America was conceived in the writing of this post.