It’s not panic, exactly. It’s almost–panic, a tremor of a fear that is beginning to surge but is not yet quite established. It’s hearing an echo, a whisper in a nervous crowd. One person coughs on the train, everyone stares. Reactions shaped by a lifetime of narratives about the End—the disaster that changes everything, the disease that triggers a cataclysm. We know how this story goes, right?
A few weeks ago, before this became this, I picked up Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a tight and expressive science fiction classic that was new ground to me. The disaster in the book is climate change, and the response causes a cataclysm. It’s a lean, careful story that is proud of itself but never showy: this apocalypse is built with hints rather than eruptions.
In Butler’s universe, one community gathers to save itself then—when everything is taken away—a new group gathers to worship. Their God is change, an idea which feels new to those inside the story but is utterly familiar; an uncaring, unsparing power bigger than all of us. Change is constant and bleak and unrelenting, but it’s also a river you can ride. Even if you lose yourself to it, you aren’t necessarily lost.
Just before Sower, I’d read another book about God: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. This time it wasn’t new—I’ve read it before, although, as I worked it through I honestly couldn’t remember the first time around.
It’s a parable of its own, really. A series of letters to God, although not quite the same God. Change happens to Celie, again and again, a series of quiet cataclysms that the outside world chooses to ignore. And then, when change seems like it’s , circumstances shift and she gets the chance to be a kind of change all of her own. The God of The Color Purple seems very different from Sower, but perhaps it’s also exactly the same: a force that keeps acting on everyone because it can’t do anything else.
And in between them both, I suppose I saw a lesson. Our reaction to what happens is as important as what it is; the way we stare into the disaster that shapes what it can do to us. These aren’t stories about apocalypse. They are about survival. They need you to have made it out in order to recount what happened. And that, that is how this story always goes.
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