Rules for Predicting the Future, according to Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler's Parable books are having a bit of a renaissance. Originally published in 1993 but set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower finally made it onto the New York Times Bestseller List this year—and Butler didn't even live to see it happen, having passed away in 2006. There was also a recent opera adaptation of the story, too.

Perhaps the books' resurgence in popularity shouldn't be that surprising— the eerily prescient Afrofuturist novels paint a familiar portrait of an America that's ravaged by climate change and income inequality and greedy politicians who appeal to imaginary racists pasts while also promising to build a wall around the wealthy.

I recently happened upon this essay that Butler in 2000, in response to student questions about the Parable books.

"So do you really believe that in the future we're going to have the kind of trouble you write about in your books?" a student asked me as I was signing books after a talk. The young man was referring to the troubles I'd described in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, novels that take place in a near future of increasing drug addiction and illiteracy, marked by the popularity of prisons and the unpopularity of public schools, the vast and growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the whole nasty family of problems brought on by global warming.

"I didn't make up the problems," I pointed out. 'All I did was look around at the problems we're neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.'

"Okay," the young man challenged. "So what's the answer?"

"There isn't one," I told him.

"No answer? You mean we're just doomed?" He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.

"No," I said. "I mean there's no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There's no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be."

Butler goes on to explain her approaches to writing about the future, which boils down to a few essential rules:

  • Learn from the past
  • Respect the law of consequences
  • Be aware of your perspective
  • Count on the surprises

Of course, my brief summary here does not do justice to Butler's detailed reasoning for each of these rules (some of which even invoke the prayers of the Earthseed religion that exists in the Parable books). Even if you're not trying to write fictional futures, like Butler did, her wisdom is still relevant for simply thinking about the future that you will be living in:

So why try to predict the future at all if it's so difficult, so nearly impossible? Because making predictions is one way to give warning when we see ourselves drifting in dangerous directions. Because prediction is a useful way of pointing out safer, wiser courses. Because, most of all, our tomorrow is the child of our today. Through thought and deed, we exert a great deal of influence over this child, even though we can't control it absolutely. Best to think about it, though. Best to try to shape it into something good. Best to do that for any child.

"A Few Rules For Predicting The Future" was originally published in 2000 by Essence Magazine, but you can read the whole thing online courtesy of the Common Good Collective.

Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC 2.5)