In 2025, with the world descending into madness and anarchy, one woman begins a fateful journey toward a better future
Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.
What a powerful view of a dystopian near future! Just like Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler was able to scan the news of the time (early 1990s) and extrapolate from those stories to produce this tale exploring where North America might be headed. Her version of a United States that has been reduced to third world status is striking for how possible it feels. Although Canada features as a desired destination for the economic refugees, Butler tells us nothing of what is really happening north of the border, content to show us the plight of regular Americans.
The trends that she was working with? Effects of drug use (made me think of our current fentanyl crisis), the growing rich/poor gap, the precarious nature of employment, the willingness to build & fill prisons, the unwillingness to build & repair schools & libraries, the tendency to value the economy over the environment, and climate-driven weather change (and the resulting change in what crops will grow and food price inflation). Butler could foresee this twenty years ago—how much closer are we today to this exact situation? Oh, this makes me think so much of Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, where you can really feel like the whole book scenario could easily come true.
Of course this wouldn’t be Octavia Butler if there wasn’t some exploration of the power dynamic between people and groups of people as well. The main character, Lauren, progresses from childhood, governed by her Baptist father, to leader of people migrating north and founding her own religion. We get to see Lauren and her brother Keith struggle with their father’s authority in different ways and the outcome of those struggles. Butler certainly makes the reader see the value of having a community—a chosen circle of people who both give & receive support.
My only complaint might be that it is so United States focused, rather like Stephen King’s The Stand. It could have been even better, in my opinion, had she widened the scope to include other parts of the world, rather like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
This is book number 295 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.
In this future, some people need no sleep at all. Leisha Camden was genetically modified at birth to require no sleep, and her normal twin Alice is the control. Problems and envy between the sisters mirror those in the larger world, as society struggles to adjust to a growing pool of people who not only have 30 percent more time to work and study than normal humans, but are also highly intelligent and in perfect health.
The Sleepless gradually outgrow their welcome on Earth, and their children escape to an orbiting space station to set up their own society. But Leisha and a few others remain behind, preaching acceptance for all humans, Sleepless and Sleeper alike. With the conspiracy and revenge that unwinds, the world needs a little preaching on tolerance.
I read this original short story version of this title in July of this year. I was sufficiently impressed that I ordered the novelized version through interlibrary loan and I’m glad that I read both versions. Ms. Kress really managed to flesh out the ideas better when she had a bit more elbow room.
Now, I love to sleep. It is one of the basic human pleasures and when I have occasional bouts of wakefulness during the night I am pretty cranky the next day. I have never, ever wished to do without sleep (although sometimes, during particularly exciting periods of my life, I’ve declared that I’ll sleep when I’m dead). I once had a coworker who just hated the idea of sleep—like Roger Camden, father of our main character Leisha in this novel, she thought sleep was a complete waste of time. Each night, she would try to shave off minutes of sleep, working her way towards eliminating it. And she completely failed because sleep is really, really important to our health. (See Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams for an excellent discussion of these ideas). It really is the basis for avoiding illness and being able to reason and make sensible decisions.
The one thing that bothered me about the assumptions in this work was the conflation of not needing sleep with increased intelligence. It was my understanding that parents in the book could choose either/or for their genetically modified offspring. Just because a child was one of the Sleepless didn’t necessarily mean that they would be super smart or would have driving ambition. I guess those options were almost always chosen together? And much longer life was an accidental genetic change, much more likely to cause envy, in my opinion.
One other assumption annoyed me—why would being extremely smart curtail a person’s compassion? This whole idea that the rest of humanity consisted of beggars, not only not pulling their own weight, but relying on others for their support. Leisha, although she appears to be emotionally stunted, maintains that everyone has their place in the economic ecosystem, as people actually do in our world. I am left to suppose that the genes for sleep (or lack of the need for it) and/or intelligence would somehow also affect the genes for feeling emotion, not a proposition that I accept.
Despite these misgivings, I found the book to be an interesting exploration of intolerance, including taking it to the extremes to see what could happen. There is, of course, the old warning against messing around with genetics without fully realizing the consequences and then our new demographic group goes on to repeat the pattern. That particular ‘message’ is becoming a bit boring, honestly, but I still enjoy a book in which it is approached with a new twist, such as this one.
Book number 294 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.
How to tag this.
Know this though: if you expect a romance... well, there is romance, but it's not really the meat of the story. More like a sprinkled seasoning to give the excuse, and a happy ending I guess.
What this is about is industrialization, the theme for most characters was the failure point of their principles or what they considered their cornerstones, and the running one on interactions was misunderstandings arising from lack of enough knowledge to "wear another's shoes" (and no, I do not mean empathy), and it was masterfully done (if long-winded). So masterfully actually, that I had a raging fit and had to stop reading at one point (workers vs owners/strikes), because it is still such an on point analysis today.
The vehicle for all that is us following Margaret Hale through a three-year-long trauma conga line, through which she carries herself with so much poise and holding herself to such impossible standards that I could not help but want to shake her.
I'm a bit addled still by how packed this was, and I confess I'm downright intimidated by the prospect of her other books. I think I'll leave Wives and Daughters for another year's reading project.