I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
In 2025, with the world descending into madness and anarchy, one woman begins a fateful journey toward a better future
Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.
What a powerful view of a dystopian near future! Just like Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler was able to scan the news of the time (early 1990s) and extrapolate from those stories to produce this tale exploring where North America might be headed. Her version of a United States that has been reduced to third world status is striking for how possible it feels. Although Canada features as a desired destination for the economic refugees, Butler tells us nothing of what is really happening north of the border, content to show us the plight of regular Americans.
The trends that she was working with? Effects of drug use (made me think of our current fentanyl crisis), the growing rich/poor gap, the precarious nature of employment, the willingness to build & fill prisons, the unwillingness to build & repair schools & libraries, the tendency to value the economy over the environment, and climate-driven weather change (and the resulting change in what crops will grow and food price inflation). Butler could foresee this twenty years ago—how much closer are we today to this exact situation? Oh, this makes me think so much of Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, where you can really feel like the whole book scenario could easily come true.
Of course this wouldn’t be Octavia Butler if there wasn’t some exploration of the power dynamic between people and groups of people as well. The main character, Lauren, progresses from childhood, governed by her Baptist father, to leader of people migrating north and founding her own religion. We get to see Lauren and her brother Keith struggle with their father’s authority in different ways and the outcome of those struggles. Butler certainly makes the reader see the value of having a community—a chosen circle of people who both give & receive support.
My only complaint might be that it is so United States focused, rather like Stephen King’s The Stand. It could have been even better, in my opinion, had she widened the scope to include other parts of the world, rather like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
This is book number 295 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.