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25.01.2021

Catastrophe as “The Great Equalizer”? Re-reading Disaster Fiction in the Age of Pandemics

By Hanne Nijtmans

I have always been very interested in disaster fiction—stories in which some kind of catastrophic event happens that destroys society as we know it, dramatically changing the lives of those who survived the disaster. Reading disaster fiction during the Covid-19 pandemic offers some new perspectives on how we imagine our future, helping us understand both the current Corona crisis and the incoming climate disaster, that is already leading to climate refugees and ecological disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. Having recently taught Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), I was once more compelled to think about the value of disaster fiction and what it can teach us.

In Station Eleven, inequality is symbolically solved by the virus: after the devastating Georgia Flu pandemic, all of a sudden money has no value anymore, and the traditional conceptions of what is work and what makes life meaningful are turned upside down. Mobile phones are no longer working, planes no longer fly, and all the managerial skills some of the characters become irrelevant post-disaster. While I appreciate Mandel’s symbolic solutions to climate change (nature once again takes over) and global capitalism (which is rendered irrelevant), I find her solution to inequality unconvincing. Indeed, in the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, celebrity Madonna called the virus “the great equalizer.” However, the harsh reality proves this statement wrong: in the U.S., Black and Indigenous communities were disproportionately the victims of the Covid-19 virus, the ‘essential workers’ faced the biggest danger and were often unable to protect themselves from the virus, and millions of working-class people lost their jobs. Some statistics from November 2020 show that during the first nine months of the pandemic over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment, while billionaires saw their net worth increase by half a trillion dollars (Jeff Bezos 48 billion). Some literary works have actually been able to address how a disaster may impact different populations differently, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian fiction New York 2140 (2017), as well as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993).

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Parable of the Sower’s Realistic Depiction of Disaster
In the remainder of this piece, I will focus on Butler’s Parable of the Sower, to show how she tried to give a more realistic depiction of what would happen after such a disaster. Shelly Streeby shows in Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World Making through Science Fiction and Activism (2018) the incredible work that Butler put into each book, as Butler built her own archive. Butler assembled files and books that outline the impact of climate change and the role of the U.S. in it, with its “prioritization of economic growth, corporate profits, privatization, and other neoliberal values” (Streeby 90). As such, Butler truly attempts to give a realistic account of what happens when a disaster strikes. Her notes also reveal what she is trying to do in her work (see image 1 & 2).

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Butler illustrates in her works the intersections between especially race and class in relation to climate disaster. Streeby notes that “[a] good deal of the emerging scientific research suggests that Indigenous people and people of color will be among those most affected by climate change impacts” (44). One example of these intersections at work is Hurricane Katrina, that left “the most vulnerable inadequately protected” (93), as African Americans were disproportionately represented among the affected. For Indigenous peoples, the struggles over land, water, oil and pipelines are a marked example of the prevalence of settler colonial structures today that work especially in a future with climate change. In Butler’s novel, not only class, but also race, gender and religion intersect and affect the likelihood of survival for the characters: “[o]n the street, people are expected to fear and hate everyone but their own kind” (32). The main character, Lauren, also poses as a man to increase her chances of survival. Furthermore, the upper class can still protect itself in gated and guarded communities, and still live fairly ‘normal’ lives with access to water, food and shelter whereas outside the gates it is almost impossible to survive. Butler provides a practical example of intersectionality at work: each “other” vector of identity adds another layer of danger that jeopardizes survival. Being a black woman from a working poor community with a different religion than Christianity creates more and more obstacles to survival.

De-colonizing the Imagination
Fictions such as Parable of the Sower illuminate some of these different intersections at play. These visionary fictions, as Streeby notes, can “decolonize the imagination by using speculative fiction to break with mainstream stories that center white settlers and fail to imagine deep change” (34). Indeed, if I compare Parable of the Sower, one of the books that Streeby centers, to another more mainstream climate novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2005), the dominance of the colonial and patriarchal structures becomes apparent. The Road is in many ways very similar to Parable of the Sower: the main characters of the story try to survive on the road in a U.S. that is largely destroyed by climate change, and survivors scavenge whatever is left, hopelessly searching for food, water and shelter. However, in The Road the two main characters are male and white and everyone is similarly affected by the climate apocalypse. Women do not feature as survivors at all in this novel. In Parable of the Sower, however, women play an important role and Butler acknowledges what Streeby points to as well: climate change disproportionately affects those that are non-white, lower class, non-male.

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Finally, I want to mention how Parable of the Sower illustrates the point of Black feminist Hortense Spillers’ point about the continuous reproduction of colonial structures and the destruction of the black body. Spillers’ phrase that “the human subject is ‘murdered’ over and over again by the passions of a bloodless and anonymous archaism, showing itself in endless disguise” was on my mind when I read Parable of the Sower (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” 68). In Parable of the Sower all of these ‘disguises’ are made apparent and exist next to each other. In the novel, slavery has returned and is reinforced by the Supreme Court: “The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments—the ones abolishing slavery and guaranteeing citizenship rights—still exist, but they’ve been so weakened by custom, by Congress and the various state legislatures, and by recent Supreme Court decisions that they don’t matter” (287). Police brutality is taken to the extreme, and the (in particular non-white and poor) bodies are continuously in danger. When Lauren’s partner Bankole wants to go to the police to find out what happened to his murdered sister and her children, Lauren fears for his life: “I was terrified that he would be killed or arrested, and we’d never find out what happened to him” (248).

Parable of the Sower is thus a painful, but excellent example of how disaster fiction can help us prepare for the disaster of climate change, and has been quite effective in predicting how a disaster like the Covid-19 pandemic (albeit on a somewhat smaller scale) affects different communities. And, as her notes suggest, Butler tells us stories filled with facts, and makes us feel the inequality.

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