Published on March 9th, 2018 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura0
Raising Babies in End of Days
When I was in high school, I had an earlier curfew than all my friends. When I got back to my apartment, I’d shower away the booze, weed, and cigarettes, kiss my mother on the cheek letting her know I was home, and then go into the other room and turn on Channel 11 to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation until three in the morning.
Oh, Captain Picard, how I loved you. Here was a man! Calm, smart, his chest hard and smooth beneath his uniform, he listened to the sage counsel of his women officers, sought out Whoopi’s celestial bartending wisdom, fought hard and wrote poetic log entries.
Next Generation was set post-Apocalypse. The end of days had come and gone. The Earth had indeed been wrecked by nuclear conflict, and the organization of nations had broken into feudal squabbling; a violent and rough existence with little resource. We did not know that the galaxies were watching, though in fact they cared nothing for us yet. For a civilization to be invited into the Federation they had to first work out for themselves how to travel faster than the speed of light. Until then, they were too primitive to be bothered with. It all changed one fateful day when Zefram Cochrane, a drunk, profiteering inventor, achieved warp speed and sent himself hurtling into space and past a Vulcan ship. That ship turned and landed; the span of the universe was revealed to Earth, and astounded by this vastness, humans entered a new era of peace.
It’s no wonder I loved it. A child of the eighties, I grew up terrified of The Bomb. When I was around six years old, I’d seen an animated political cartoon that depicted the end of the world via Russian and US nuclear war and it left me so shook that I walked out of the room if anyone started talking about the arms race. Which was often, as the end of the Cold War approached. To imagine that the worst could come, and that there could be a life beyond, a better life, salvation: Well, that was lovely. That was comfort.
I’m a parent now. Of a two-and-a-half-year-old child. Trump is our president, buoyed by a corporate coup, and everyone seems to be talking the end of days.
Though my kid certainly isn’t.
“When I’m big I’m going to open that door and then that door and then that door and then walk on the street at night and then take the A train and go camping BY MYSELF.”
Even as a teenager, daydreaming myself onto the Enterprise, I’d do the actual math, and know that my own generation, and likely the one after, would not enjoy such peace and prosperity. I would more likely be consumed in the fire and brimstone stage, which meant that any child of mine would know, what? Starvation, violence, brutality?
Yet that did not keep me from bringing a child into this world, though I have friends who say exactly that is what held them back. That they don’t think the world—as in our planet supporting human life—is going to be around long enough to sustain a next generation.
Another friend debating a second child: “Sometimes I think I shouldn’t have another kid because I’m going to need all my resources to protect this one from whatever terrible future is coming. Other days I think I should have a second so that there’s two of them to help each other, like, carry the water barrels down the road.”
Did you know that sociologists have documented, over and over again, that in the face of overwhelming natural disasters humans organize effectively for the good of the community? Time and time again, people form search parties, pool resources, divvy them fairly, shelter and feed each other, and do it well. The constant narrative of panic and looting and chaos is simply not true. Effective and well-intentioned community action is the norm.
Which means, of course: Why do we insist on telling the dystopic version?
Enter now, the science fiction writer Octavia Butler.
If you haven’t read her yet, I don’t know what to tell you. Stop reading this. Go to the library; get to work.
Start with her “Parable” set; Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, written in 1993 and 1998, respectively. (There were supposed to be more four more books in the series, but she never wrote them. I try not to linger on what could have been.)
The books are set in the 2020s and ’30s, on America’s West Coast. The protagonist is Lauren Olamina, who begins the series as a fifteen-year-old, the daughter of a preacher, who lives in a walled and locked community in LA. She rarely goes beyond the walls, too dangerous, and they fight to keep those dangers out. She is a “Sharer,” meaning that she feels the emotional and physical pain of others; anything she witnesses—crying, a slap to the face, a bullet to the belly—she feels as if it is happening to her. The condition was brought on by a generation of women taking “The Einstein Drug,” which made people hyper-intelligent. The children born to those women were Sharers. She shares pleasure too—as she discovers when she discovers sex; a blissful compendium of her and her partner’s sensations—though in this LA, there is more pain than pleasure for her to take in.
Reading Sower was uncomfortably real. In the novel, cops and fireman served only for cash payments. In the newspaper, countless small city emergency services privatized, turned into for-profit businesses. In the novel, all drinking water must be bought. On the radio, reports of early water rights speculation out west.
The art of science, or speculative, fiction is to take a thread from the pattern of the present, and pull it out, extending it to its furthest possible conclusions; to see our own selves without flinching. Done well, it’s haunting. Done by Butler, it feels like she literally returned to us from the future, showing us what we have become, in the hopes that we might learn to do it differently; to pull a different thread.
Time whirrs and circles and dazzles my child.
When I get home from work he tells me the story of the day.
“I made muffins with Nana, and went to play school, and then Luke fell, and then Sam lost his scarf and Fred got muddy and then we all took a bath with Daddy.”
This is how it translates: He made muffins with Nana the week before; he did see Luke at play school; Sam and Fred are a boy and a dog, respectively, from his favorite cartoon; and he’s hoping to take a bath with Daddy that night.
Over and over, he weaves his own world, of his own making. It is impossible for me to parent and not feel the future shimmering with possibility, and it is impossible for me to read the news and not see evidence of huge and terrible forces at work; more suffering, more fences, more brutality, more bombs. To not feel the sea levels rising.
We need water and canned food in the basement, I think.
I need to prepare. I am going to regret not being prepared.
And yet I do not. The needs of the day and the moment trumping all.
The writer Junot Diaz says a lot of smart things. Among them, this: What better way to convince young people they are powerless than to flood them with novels predicting coming catastrophe? Be wary, he said, of the perpetual dystopian story telling of books like The Hunger Games and Divergent series. Are these really the only young adult books being written, he asked, what else is out there?
The thing about speculative fiction, its importance, is that the stories we tell about our future reveal—with painful clarity—our perceptions of where we are today, and how we got here.
Lauren Olamina preaches a new religion. Her god is not a being, but a force. Her god is Change itself; for there is nothing more powerful and certain. And her promised land? The cosmos. To survive she believes humans must build space shuttles, and hurtle themselves into the planets, in the search of new homes. We must scatter ourselves as intergalactic refugees. She calls the religion Earthseed.
I’m quite sure that the world my son is going to know is going to shock the hell out of me. I could be terrified. It is so very very easy to be terrified. But terror paralyzes. The fact that I don’t know what’s coming, means I don’t know what’s coming.
Change, says Lauren Olamina, is the only certainty.
The walls don’t hold.
I began the sequel, Parable of the Talents, in the fall of 2016. And lo and behold it was election season on the page too, and in the race a new, inexperienced candidate fast gaining ground. He was Andrew Jarret, a Christian fundamentalist, who believed a return of core religious values would lead the country to prosperity. Among his followers were the Crusaders, an ultra-violent group that fought for these values. Outspoken women, for example, were caught, and their tongues cut out.
Jarret’s campaign slogan?
Make America great again.
I yelped and slammed the book shut.
As with Sower, the horrors on the page mimicked my daily life and news. On the page, a women so deeply addicted to her virtual reality room that she never came out; around the corner from my home, a virtual reality pop-up shop. Our president was elected, as was Jarret. As he was inaugurated on the page, so was our brutal bully.
It would seem a convincing case for dystopia.
Except that’s not the story Butler is telling.
Throughout the presidential campaign, and every day since, I’ve been surprised by the determination of Democrats, liberals, and yes, white people in general, to be surprised.
They report the current administration as if they’ve never heard of the holds of slave ships, small pox blankets, internment camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow, the KKK, lynching, redlining, minimum mandatory sentencing, union busting, the 13th amendment, back-room abortions, the Tuskegee airmen experiments, Matthew Shepard, the current rates of sexual assault, COINTELPRO, armed regime change in Latin America, juvenile detention, water boarding, disenfranchisement, the militarization of the police, Black Lives Matter, napalm, ICE deportations of parents, children, grandparents, and…and…and…
They tell our present as if our past never happened.
In yet another homework assignment, I strongly encourage you to read the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece, “History of a White President.” In essence, he explains, why we must be surprised—that that has to be the story right now—because that surprise is no less than the preservation of the American Dream; of everything we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Conversely, to abandon our current surprise—to actually change the narrative—would be to begin the long-delayed process of remembrance, atonement, reparations; a process that could begin a profound re-imagining of our future.
My son is in the why phase. And he asks it of everything. I love you. Why? That’s a garbage truck. Why? I have to pee. Why?
But I’ve discovered that no matter how we start, almost every chain of why leads us to the same place, and I’m saying it these days with glee.
I don’t know.
And he accepts this. Nods. Moves on.
Having a child has not convinced me of some transcendent, basic goodness of humans. That is not the source of my (do I call it this?) optimism.
But it has given me some glorious humility. How dare I declare the end of days? Wtf do I know?
Paired to the current, public determination to be flabbergasted by this presidency, is a seeming determination to be underwhelmed by our own prospects for survival.
The end is coming. And we can’t stop it.
But as Butler wrote in another novel, Kindred, generations were born into slavery with no hint of emancipation. Shouldn’t this have been the end of the world? Wasn’t it? For many, dystopias have already come and gone. If the fast approaching collapse of the Parable books is alarmingly recognizable, so are the coping strategies.
Her characters have babies while the world quakes.
What I did not used to understand was that the hope The Next Generation offered me was only the anesthetizing offer to do nothing and let others handle it. I did not see that faith in Picard is exactly the faith that could, at worst, send me into Trump’s embrace, and at best, encourage me to sit tight and wait for a hero, a good white man this time, to come along and save me.
The current presidency is not unique on this world. There have been many others like him. And the eventual collapse of the planet is not going to save us from having a responsibility to act now.
Lauren Olamina did not offer any easy comfort with the preaching of Earthseed. But she felt it offered a truth, an understanding of what it meant to be alive. She understood that while truth might not make you feel good; it will help you feel ready.
Find the storytellers that tell a truth. Tell the stories that make you brave.
I curl around the flames of those stories, protect them with my chest, back and arms as I once did my son. As I still do, when he’ll let me; when he’s not charging down the street brave, unconcerned, jubilant.