Change Is Divine: How Sci Fi Visionary Octavia Butler Influenced This Detroit Revolutionary

“The ideas in Butler’s fiction challenge us to contend with our own choices and take responsibility for our own power.”
Wayne Barlowe Wild Seed

This painting illustrated the cover of Octavia Butler's novel Wild Seed, published in 1980 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Image copyright Wayne Barlowe.

I am certainly not the first or only person who forgot how to imagine. I’m not sure when I forgot, but it had something to do with the numbing effect of constant media, with its hyperbranding and tip-of-the-iceberg bad news. And working too much, not having time to read or to let my mind wander, feeling I was too important to rely on magic.

My work has primarily been as a facilitator. I help others envision, plan, and create viable futures for humanity. I call my work “organizational healing” as opposed to “strategic planning.” It takes faith, time and creativity to do this sort of change work. So this forgetfulness was a minor tragedy.

I live in the post-apocalyptic shape-shifting city known as Detroit. Most of my work supports communities around the country that are directly impacted by the changing climate and our racialized economic system. It can feel like we are constantly being further disenfranchised.

As a facilitator, I often witness groups with a severely limited capacity to imagine. Where we need to be generating viable futures, instead we often displace imagination with longing or nostalgia. As I get older, the future becomes less clear and more frightening—the planet is in danger and I am a citizen of the country most responsible for environmental, economic, and military distress worldwide. I too sometimes feel a yearning for a past moment in movement history. And yet even in moments of great revolution, there were hierarchies in place that would disempower people who looked, sounded or loved like me.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

from Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

I’ve found myself on the edge of hopelessness in my movement work, slowly devastated by the ways we treat each other when we can’t see a way forward.

Fortunately, I’m not the first or only person who has been invited back into the spellbinding realm of expansive thinking, visionary speculation, and emergent strategy by Octavia Butler, the first celebrated black female sci-fi writer.

Butler was immensely complex. She was a tall broad-shouldered woman with a voice like scotch poured through a ceremonial drum. Despite that powerful physical presence, her way of life was private. I have described her as a “hermit recluse,” but her writing is essentially about replacing isolation (and hierarchy, which she called “the fatal flaw” of humans), with a more communal approach to life. She was also a genius—an official title thanks to the MacArthur Foundation, who awarded her “the genius grant” for her visionary work.

In 12 novels and a collection of short stories, Butler described nontraditional relationships, right-wing fascism, environmental crisis, and life after catastrophe from a variety of angles. She brought in science and technology where relevant, and aliens, vampires, and other fantastical storytelling devices when necessary.

In Butler’s hands, even theology became a fantastical device—the religion she created in her novels was based on humans eventually leaving this planet. And yet the Earthseed philosophy-theology of her Parable novels is tied to reality. Its core concept is about living and leading in alignment with the reality of constant change, something I’m calling “emergent strategy.”

I’m not the first or only person who has been invited back into the spellbinding realm of expansive thinking by Octavia Butler.

One of the most celebrated protagonists of Butler’s near future is Lauren Oya Olamina, the visionary leader introduced in The Parable of the Sower, the first of a two-part series. Olamina, who is 15 when the novel begins, has grown up in a gated community—others are starving in the world of extreme scarcity outside the walls. As society falls apart, Olamina makes her way through catastrophe, but learns that surviving is not enough. She also has to bring forth and share a new philosophy-theology—which may be the only way forward for humanity—Earthseed. Olamina eventually creates a community of survivors and refugees and teaches them the Earthseed philosophy, described by another character in the second book, The Parable of the Talents:

Olamina believes in a god that does not in the least love her. In fact, her god is a process or a combination of processes, not an entity. It is not consciously aware of her—or of anything. It is not conscious at all. ‘God is Change,’ she says and means it. Some of the faces of her god are biological evolution, chaos theory, relativity theory, the uncertainty principle, and of course, the second law of thermodynamics. ‘God is Change, and, in the end, God prevails.’

Yet Earthseed is not a fatalistic belief system. God can be directed, focused, speeded, slowed, shaped. All things change, but all things need not change in all ways. God is inexorable, yet malleable. Odd. Hardly religious at all. Even the Earthseed Destiny seems to have little to do with religion.

This idea that change is both constant and divine, and Butler’s further offering—that we can actually shape change—gives me a kind of mental and emotional space. My imagination can matter, it can shape change. Her work invites us to respect the change that is outside our reach, and to shape the changes we can make. The ideas in her fiction challenge us to contend with our own choices and take responsibility for our own power.

I started talking about Butler’s fiction with social justice-minded friends and comrades at the Allied Media Conference in 2009, and have been slowly discovering and connecting people who are passionate about her work. We’ve found we can use it as a springboard for our own imaginations.

Walidah Imarisha coined the term “visionary fiction” to describe fiction that seeks to create a just future while making use of speculative writing genres. She and I have been holding collective sci-fi/speculative writing workshops as a political activity, and we’re editing a community-funded anthology of original work called Octavia’s Brood.

I’ve also been holding sessions to examine Butler’s work through the lens of emergent strategy—one that rejects linear victory-oriented planning and embraces adaptive, interdependent, intentional leadership that creates possibility and is stronger for being decentralized. One of our Detroit elders, Grace Lee Boggs, has taught us that we must “transform ourselves to transform the world.” I believe Butler’s stories show us how.

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