Octavia Butler Tried To Tell Us: Why Black Organizers Should Set Their Sights On Movements In Space
Without intervention, the possibilities and parameters of space exploration will be defined by and for the very rich. It shouldn’t be.
September 23, 2020 at 7:31 pm
I always thought the part in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower where a Black revolutionary organizer wants to lead Black and brown people to space was corny. It’s not.
Like so much else in Butler’s Parable series, it’s directly relevant to movements being led by Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latinx people today.
Published in 1993, Sower and its sequel, Parable of the Talents, is enjoying a surge in readership. This September, it made the New York Times Bestsellers list — a first for Butler, though she was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” award, and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards throughout her career. And while I’d hate to be reading the book for the first time right now — it’s too distressingly prescient — I am grateful that we have Butler’s vision. And Butler’s vision led us straight into outer space.
Specifically, it leads us into outer space through a movement shaped by the novel’s protagonist: a revolutionary Black woman. As she flees from a burned and dry Los Angeles and the politics of a violently conservative Presidential candidate promising to “make America great again” (distressingly prescient!), Lauren Olamina organizes the people she meets. Her goal? To get them to join her religion, Earthseed, the foundational tenet of which is that humans should start a new society amongst the stars. Spoiler alert: her followers end up moving to space.
Meanwhile, in real life, the global death toll from the coronavirus nears one million; historic wildfires burn the Western United States and Canada while tropical storms flood the South; and the United States is under the catastrophic mismanagement of a President who also promised to make America great again.
On Earth, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx organizers and activists around the world are leading movements to combat the root causes of these catastrophes: white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. But the landscape (spacescape?) outside of Earth looks different. This summer billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX beat out billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to become the first private company to send humans into orbit. Upon hearing about the discovery of phosphine on Venus in August — which suggests the possibility of life — Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck vowed to launch the first (private) flight to Venus. State run companies like NASA in the U.S., Roscosmos in Russia and the ESA in Europe increasingly rely on private companies for space flight. Wealthy white men are establishing a space exploration program in which private companies vie to control the territory, with precisely zero regulations about how this program will go on to shape humanity's future in space.
Without intervention, the possibilities and parameters of space exploration will be defined by and for the very rich, or at least, the very elite. It shouldn’t be.
There is nothing esoteric about organizing human behavior in response to new and challenging environments, resources and constraints — which is also what space exploration (and ultimately, life in space) is about, when it’s not being about spaceships and physics. Speculative fiction writers have known this since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein: the novel isn’t about how Frankenstein makes his Creature. It’s about how the Creature responds to having been made. Movement organizers know this deeply — the work of building a political movement is the work of building human relationships.
This is why there was nothing corny about Octavia Butler explicitly visioning a world in which a Black woman is leading space exploration. And there was nothing corny about Samuel Delany talking about galaxies of genderqueer space. Or Rivers Solomon talking about an outer space plantation ship. Or Steven Barnes talking about Grendel in space. Or Sun Ra talking about going to Saturn.
That Black people have been talking about and imagining space exploration through speculative fiction is extremely un-corny. It is also unsurprising. Fiction, speculative fiction especially, has long been a way for people with and without institutional power to share paradigm shifting, society-bending ideas — those that imagine worlds without prisons, worlds of slave revolt, worlds of exquisite and unquestioned gender and sexual queerness.
What’s compelling about Parable of the Sower is that Octavia Butler imagined space exploration shaped and led by a revolutionary Black activist whose talents did not lie in hard sciences, but in the equally hard skills of organizing humans. Because this, ultimately, will be what makes space exploration work or fail. A human is a human is a human, whether on Earth or on Mars. And a space exploration program shaped by white men will likely produce a space culture that will primarily benefit white men — a problem that has toppled colonized countries around the world into crisis today.
To seize this moment in time, as the Earth is poised at the brink of ecological collapse — not in small part due to the same ideologies that are launching privately owned space shuttles into space — organizers around the world who are leading movements to reimagine what it means to live collectively as humans should do as Octavia Butler tried to tell us to do, and look to the stars. If we don’t, we just might find that we are too late to stop the already-underway colonization of the cosmos.