The white male founders of the United States lived in a world that was not at all one where all men were equal, or where all men had the same access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and for the most part, they were perfectly happy with this reality. Their idealized vision of themselves as egalitarian, liberal, and enlightened is evident in the language of documents like the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The descendants of groups of people the founders never meant to be included in their definition of men have internalized their vision to such an extent that in a struggle to embody it, they again and again force the country further towards its ideal self. Liberalism and other Enlightenment ideologies were not meant to advocate for the equality of anyone other than rich white cisgender men, yet there are enough threads of inspiration and liberation within them that, to this day, oppressed people involved in all types of resistance struggles invoke the words of [a bunch of slaveholding, genocidal patriarchs] the founders to inspire their fellow citizens to do a little better. This is the impact of vision and ideology on the future. Vision provides the destination, and ideology is the road map. In the case of the U.S.’ founders, of course, the vision was more of a delusion, and the road map guided us into a laissez-faire hellscape. But delusion is important in creating a vision of the future. We must, in some sense, disregard the state of the world today and envision the best version of our selves and our societies.
Lauren Olamina, Parable of the Sower‘s protagonist, is creating an ideology—a religion, actually, but religions are like ritualized ideologies (or ideologies in their final form). She sees humanity’s lack of foresight and stubborn refusal to let go of the past, and understands the urgent need for a vision of the future that can force productive action in the present. In Earthseed, the religion Lauren founds, God is Change and Heaven is the Destiny, which is for humanity to take root amongst the stars. Earthseed: The Books of the Living contain her ideology, the road map she constructs to guide humanity to the Destiny. Rather than base her ideology on where an individual stands in a cosmic order, Lauren bases her ideology on an understanding of the cosmic order itself—change is the only constant. Once this nature is understood, action flows from the understanding. “Unenlightened self-interest” becomes a betrayal not only of one’s self and community, but of the laws of nature. Diligent work towards a goal like taking root amongst the stars becomes a form of worship. The ideology becomes internalized, the map memorized.
By setting Parable of the Sower at a point in time when the United States is on its last legs, and old ideologies are seeming inadequate to meet the challenges of the future, Octavia Butler asks us to consider what happens when we must throw out our maps and draw new ones. She also asks us to reconsider who can be a cartographer. Lauren is a teenaged black girl, in a suburb of Los Angeles, with no formal education or training. And yet she observes the world around her, and she has some knowledge of history. With these tools, she is able to divine an ideology that guides her and others through a chaotic moment in history, and ultimately to her vision of interstellar colonization.
Our world now is at a similar point as Lauren’s. The ideologies that propelled us to this moment—capitalism, individualism, materialism—are being rejected by future-minded folk desperate to see humanity do better. Like Lauren, we are called to chart a new path, and like Lauren, most of us have no idea what we’re doing. But Butler speaks to that place of quiet knowing in each of us, reassuring us that our observation and experience is valid. Despite our apparent insignificance, we can know the nature of reality, and we can harness it to shape the future. We can call into existence a better world: by creating art, literature and music that plants a vision of a just and equitable society in our collective minds, and by articulating principles that will help manifest in real life the worlds we fantasize about. We can create a new road map for our descendants to follow in striving for freedom.