Earthseed – A Grim Prophecy

When I first started reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology, it seemed like some sort of cruel practical joke by the friend who recommended it to me. “Set in an apocalyptic 2020s where society has largely collapsed due to climate change, growing wealth inequality, and corporate greed, these books tell the story of Lauren Olamina. She is a pastor’s daughter who forms a cult called Earthseed based around science to try and stem the tide of fascism from a crazy president of the United States, who got elected on the campaign slogan ‘make America great again’.” This book was written in the 1990s and it is so ridiculously on-point compared to what is happening in the world right now that it boggles the imagination. The duology comprises Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. While I would recommend both Parables on their eerie historical accuracy alone, there is a lot more here to like than Butler’s prophetic wisdom – to the point where I might consider these two books some of the best I have ever read.

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As I mentioned, the Parable novels follow a single character – Lauren Olamina. We travel with her throughout the majority of her life that is broken up into essentially four sections over two books. The first is her time with her family in a gated community in a crumbling California. The second is her journey to form a cult based around science and bettering the world. The third is the trials she is put through as her cult begins to grow and attract notice. And the fourth and final section I won’t tell you about as I don’t want to spoil too much. Lauren’s character growth throughout all these stages is unusual. She doesn’t change a lot as a person from the start to the end of the book, but it is very interesting to watch events around her harden and clarify her existing character traits and draw them out more fully. Butler has a beautiful talent for writing believable and natural characters. Everyone you meet in both books feels like a real person – not a caricature that Butler made to sell you on the themes of the book. There is this impressive ecosystem in how the characters interact and coexist that pulls the reader in and makes them more present. This means that you need to strap in and get ready to be sad as a reader because these books are brutal.

Having only read these two books from Butler’s catalog of works, I am not an expert on her writing – which is a shame because her writing is amazing. But, given what I have read of her so far, I think it is safe to say that Butler was a master of atmosphere. She was amazing at creating unique and evocative landscapes that get the reader into the mind and place of her characters. The reader can feel the tension rising and understand the pure primal terror that the characters are experiencing on every page. What’s truly interesting and despair-inducing about Earthseed is how close to home the conflicts hit. These aren’t abstract problems or far-reaching hypotheticals that Butler writes about. We are dealing with these conflicts right now, taken to their next level of progression. The future looks bleak.

However, Butler didn’t just write about Lauren watching the end of civilization – she also proposed a solution in the form of Earthseed, a cult based on science. The Earthseed doctrine claims that humanity’s ultimate goal should be to spread among the stars, like a dandelion spraying its seeds into space. The concept is similar to terraforming themes in many sci-fi books, people who are preparing a world they will never see for future generations. It’s always an interesting idea to see the lives of people who have given up everything for descendants they will never know, and Butler is particularly good at capturing this experience. Earthseed is a really interesting concept both in and out of the book. Internally, the trails that Lauren goes through as she travels around proselytizing are fascinating. She is asking people who have been trained to be distrustful and selfish to be the opposite, and it is a powerful story. Externally, it’s cool to read a book where the “solution” to the problems is a literal cult. It is certainly a different take on how to improve the world and a ringing endorsement in the power of faith as long as it is placed in the right people. I don’t know if I agree with the faith part of Butler’s themes, but it is certainly written powerfully and compellingly.

Earthseed excels at showing the reader both the depravity and the wonder of the human spirit. These two books manage to pack in all the bad and the good that makes up people simultaneously and laser it into your brain with stunning clarity. The world feels present and real, on top of being a beautiful story with powerful messages, it is extremely relevant to the current state of the world. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are two of the best books I have read; I highly recommend you check them out.

Rating:
Parable of the Sower – 10/10
Parable of the Talents – 10/10
-Andrew

Driftwood – Something to Hang Onto

I’m not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t read them because they often have similar set ups and I usually come away with the feeling that I’m reading someone’s version of “here is what I would do.”  I have read a couple that make me think there are still some diamonds in the rough, but generally I tend to stay away after a number of offenders have left a bad taste in my mouth. But, considering the unraveling that has been 2020 so far, I decided to give the genre another try but with a little flavor to ease myself into it. Driftwood, by Marie Brennan, is a short, sweet, and dark apocalyptic fantasy that does not overstay its welcome while leaving you desiring more.

The titular ‘Driftwood’ is a weird place, where worlds go to die. Imagine a location where multiple parallel worlds exist with different cultures, species, languages, plants, and everything in between, yet these places are all slowly converging towards a central point called “the crush”. As these worlds get closer to the crush, parts of them begin to disappear. People no longer exist and eventually everything is eaten by the crush, and only those who learned to live outside their own reality survive. Driftwood is a collection of stories centered around one man, named Last, who is seemingly immortal to the drifters that inhabit the land. The fun part is these stories are told by people who were helped by Last as they tried to find ways to save their worlds, or little pieces of them. Unfortunately, there are rumours that Last has finally died, and the one hope they have of finding him is discovering the person who saw him… last. 

What I enjoyed most about Driftwood was the structure of the book. Everything takes place in a tavern that has been built numerous times called Spit In The Crush’s Eye. It is a gathering ground for the people who have eventually been able to leave their own world and move through Driftwood. Prior to each story, there is a short section in the tavern where someone introduces themselves before launching into their tale. It makes each personal recounting have a parable-like quality that adds a little whimsy. Sometimes they feel as if little lies have been added to make the story somewhat grander, but it feels personal and true all the same. This structure also adds a humanity to Last, while simultaneously instilling a sort of mythic sheen, as he stops at nothing to help someone in need. Most of these stories involve near Sisyphean tasks, but Brennan writes in a way that reveals how personally everyone takes the end of their own world that sort makes the individual stories seem smaller and less daunting. It’s a really clever way of handling the fact that all of these people are just watching and waiting for the apocalypse to come to them and made the endless calamity a little more digestible.

On top of all that, Brennan has a very distinct writing style that feels like someone recounting another person’s stories. She does not go overboard with descriptions, allowing the chaotic presence of the Crush, and slow convergence of worlds to fill your headspace. There is a mystery to it that leaves the reader feeling like this place cannot really exist, but it feels so real to those recounting, so how could they lie? It’s honestly wonderful to just pick up and read one story at a time so you can sit around and think about what it might mean afterwards. Brennan even writes some of the stories to feel as though the storyteller is trying to impart meaning whilst telling it, but unable to relay its personal importance to others in the room. It’s wonderful and terrifying to see something portrayed in such a sincere way, especially considering it’s people grappling with the death of everything they once knew.

There is not much else to say, or at least, to say to others who have yet to read the book. Each story feels special in its own way. While there seems to be a broader theme about storytelling, it also feels carefully crafted so that at least one story will resonant with every reader who picks up this book. I imagine it would be great to sit around a campfire with some friends, going over the stories, having someone tell each one in a sort of somber backyard theatre way. Then as the night grows quiet, think about all the stories that have been told through time, authored by civilizations that no longer exist. And then ask yourself, “why tell these stories?”

 Rating: Driftwood – 8.5/10
-Alex

Anthropocene Rag – It Is What You Make Of It

50905290._sx318_sy475_I am always on the lookout for stories about America, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. I find the myths about the United States, its formation, and expansion fascinating especially when they so often cover up many complicated and horrific histories. Its simplicity is enchanting to me and constantly begs deconstruction to find what the true “heart” of the American Story is. This is heightened during an election season, where talk of “what America is and should be” hangs heavy in the air. Add the third layer of COVID-19, and a lot of these questions and stories get brought into an even sharper focus when compared to the facts and histories. What the hell does that have to do with the book I am reviewing? Well Anthropocene Rag, by Alexander Irvine, is a clever, fun, engaging, and weird little book about a post-apocalyptic America that mostly succeeds in deconstructing how “we” talk about the story of America.

The book follows six main characters as they are visited by a construct named Prospector Ed, who gives them a golden ticket to enter the fabled Monument City. Each of the characters must travel to the Rocky Mountains across an America that is teeming with nano machines. A lot of the populace was killed and integrated into the machineries during an event called the Boom (the Boom is also used to refer to the machines collectively). The machines are everywhere, and depending on where you live, humans may or may not have a good relationship with the unpredictable Boom. In San Francisco, there is a relative harmony, as the machines inhabit human bodies. Other places are not so lucky, and people could be dismantled in seconds without even realizing it. But the Boom is doing something weird as all across the land, they are re-enacting the stories and folklore that make up the American Mythos.

Irvine’s writing is the first thing that truly hooked me about Anthropocene Rag. It feels like you’re sitting around a campfire with him as he recounts a past event. The characters come alive through his voice, making them feel both human and larger than life. The author also manages to make you as the reader complicit in the story through this stylization, asking you questions and sometimes making you feel as if you could stop it all at any moment. But you don’t, you want to know how it ends, you need to know how it ends. Fortunately, Irvine does not seem to judge you for this complicity, almost in some ways acknowledging that he too is at fault. It’s an incredibly engaging way to tell a story, and it calls attention to the story of America as well. Fortunately, Irvine succeeds in keeping the tone jovial, even as he is trying to get you to gaze into the abyss.

Irvine’s writing also helps the atmosphere within Anthropocene Rag. There is not a lot of plot, so Irvine relies very heavily on intimating feeling to great effect. The different regions that the characters begin their journey in, along with where they travel through, feel like you expect them to. I’m having a hard time explaining it, but Irvine nails the cultural osmosis of the different corners of America. Florida and New York City, feel like off versions of what we know of them today, as if something changed about them, but the bones are still there. There is a familiarity to them, as if Irvine wanted to reveal the core parts of them in a more thematic fashion. It was extremely haunting, and if that was Irvine’s goal, he succeeded. However, there is a slight tendency for some areas to feel “stereotypical” due to the fast nature of the book, but I also find it easy to overlook considering it is a lot more about the “feeling,” but I think some of it handily waved off in the deeper themes.

Among the myriad of themes, the one that obviously sticks out the most is “what is America?” It saturates every paragraph trying to fill the void between your eyes and the page. Irvine deftly explores this idea by using the campfire storytelling method I described above. Irvine gives no background to the disaster, just providing a name, the Boom, and the mystery around it. America as a concept barely exists within the text as the past is erased, forgotten. The only entities to remember it are the Boom themselves as they recreate and re-enact myths like Paul Bunyan and classic Mark Twain stories. Characters don’t know anything but their present lives and where they are headed. It feels as if Irvine is trying to mirror the creation of America by wiping away the past to create a new history, a new future, a new America. It feels especially clear when you compare it to the way conversations pass over the systematic extermination of Native Americans, “manifest destiny” and “American Exceptionalism.” Irvine does it right in front of the reader using stories you know, stories you feel something about. While you’re complicit he’s doing it without you, almost as if he’s taunting you. It’s eerie and beautiful and hits all the right notes for me.

There is so much more I’d love to dive into with this story, but we would be here forever. I had a good time with the characters, their little conversations as they traveled the wilds. I loved how Irvine was able to make the land feel so big and so very small and insignificant at the same time. I didn’t particularly enjoy one of the reveals, but I don’t think it hurt the story. I don’t think the book is for everyone though, as it is a little weird, and exists more in the realm of metaphor than the concrete. Some of the journeys may also fall a little flat if you aren’t steeped in American Folklore. However, I highly recommend it if you’re feeling adventurous and willing to consider the idea of “America” in these trying times.

Rating: Anthropocene Rag 8.5/10
-Alex