To fans of Octavia Butler, the 2016 election seemed to come straight out of science fiction. Those of us acquainted with Butler's Parable series watched with familiar trepidation as our compatriots pledged their votes toward making America "great again." We'd heard this slogan before, in the exhortations of one of Butler's characters—a charismatic xenophobe who rides a crest of fear and desperation to the American presidency.
During her life, Butler published twelve novels and nine short stories, but this was in addition to thousands of unpublished pages. Butler's dedication to her craft earned her Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, a lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center, and the first MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ever granted to a science fiction writer. Her achievement is especially notable in light of the historical paucity of African-American women in science fiction, and her insistence on writing them into her fiction has made her an icon of Afrofuturism.
Carolina Performing Arts co-commissioned Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon's musical adaptation of Butler's Parable of the Sower, which has its U.S. premiere at Memorial Hall this week. Like the novel, the show is set in a near-future dystopian United States, where a diverse band of dispossessed, increasingly interdependent survivors unite under the leadership of a precocious black teenager named Lauren Olamina. Lauren suffers from "hyperempathy syndrome," a condition that causes her to feel other people's pain. According to Toshi Reagon, this is central to Parable's message.
"Here is a person who, in her time, is definitely going to feel more pain than pleasure, but it is not a deterrent to moving forward," Reagon says. "She accepts the fact that any weapons she carries, if she uses them, will make her feel whatever she does to anybody else."
Lauren brands herself a religious visionary, collecting acolytes among the ruins of a country weakened by income inequality and environmental degradation. Her religion, Earthseed, is based on the assertion that change is the only constant, and that humanity's destiny is to "take root among the stars."
The novel's contemporary political resonance invests it with renewed urgency, and Lauren's religiosity enhances its aura of prophecy. "It's a big alarm," says Reagon. "A lot of young people started sharing this book during the election cycle and the Black Lives Matter movement because they understood that somebody had already seen this trajectory much earlier. This is a country that has committed a lot of devastating, violent acts against entire systems of living, and we need to think our way to something other than destruction."
Science fiction and opera may not seem the most likely pairing for such an undertaking, but talking to Reagon makes it feel not just logical, but inevitable. The process of adapting Parable began near the end of the nineties. Toshi Reagon—an accomplished librettist, songwriter, and guitarist—and Bernice Johnson Reagon, the founder of legendary African-American women's singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, used the book as source material for a semester-long workshop on African-American a cappella singing, coordinated by Toni Morrison at Princeton.
"We tried to sing mostly to the conditions in the book, and when we finished we realized, one, this is an important story to tell, and two, it's really singable," Toshi Reagon says. "It's almost as if [Butler] were writing lyrics, and the story is so inviting, so it just deeply resonated with us."
The opera elaborates on the Reagons' earlier interpretation by tapping into two centuries of African-American musical traditions in the United States. But, Reagon insists, Parable is about more than blackness.
"I don't personally know many black women who haven't read this book," she says, "but it's not just a book for black women. Part of my collaboration with the institutions presenting this work is to remind them that this is a human story about the complex collaboration of all kinds of families, told in the voice of a young black girl within her diverse community."
Whether Butler's story is prophetic or just keenly observant, it merits ongoing circulation and adaptation. The mandate behind Parable's utopian strivings, which tempers its bleak constitution, comes from Earthseed itself: we must adapt to survive. In this way, producing Parable for the stage answers the novel's call to action.
"We're activating the spirit of humanness on another level, and we really want people to access their best and most expansive place," Reagon says. "And why not? Doing this piece—that's me operating out of that expansive place. This is a story full of hopefulness and tools to move people, so no matter who you are, you are welcome into this space."
In a 1998 address at MIT, Butler said she had read "that Robert A. Heinlein had these three categories of science fiction stories: the what-if category, the if-only category, and the if-this-goes-on category, [and Parable] is definitely an if-this-goes-on story." No one knows how Butler would have reacted to some of the contemporary tragedies her stories anticipated, but her novels still suggest how we might move forward.
"I met Octavia Butler a few times, and she knew we wanted to do this and gave us her blessing, but I would've loved for her to still be on the planet to see it," says Reagon. While Butler has departed from the planet, she left a window open behind her to help us learn to sing to the stars.