Falling back in love with the night sky, or, how Octavia Butler saved my love for space

“All that you touch You Change. 

All that you Change Changes you. 

The only lasting truth Is Change.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower very quickly became my favorite book in 2021, when I was working through what some professionals described to me as an “adjustment anxiety disorder.” Despite being published almost 30 years prior, Butler presciently imagined the natural culmination of corporate cruelty, political manipulation, and economic devastation. But as dark as the story gets, she also imagined a hopeful future, a different way of existing through action and cultivation, even when the surrounding world was burning itself to the ground. 

Lauren Olamina grows up in a United States that has deteriorated in every sense, politically, economically, environmentally. There’s something special about Lauren (and several folks she meets along the way). She has a form of hyper-empathy, an ability that allows her to feel what she perceives others to be feeling. At first, in a ruthless apocalyptic setting, this is seen as a severe weakness, to be hidden lest she be taken advantage of. As Lauren plants the seeds of a new philosophy and accumulates her community, it is clear that her empathy is rather a superpower. 

Amid this collapse of society, the news reports on a crewed mission to Mars. A typical sentiment is shared among those around her, Why are we sending people to space while we have so many problems at home? The incontrovertible contrast between space travel and deteriorating conditions on earth certainly evokes this question. And yet, Lauren dreams of a future in space. Lauren dreams of a new collective that will eventually seed the heavens. A heaven that is there for us all, and not just for the ultra rich or politically powerful. 

When I read this novel I recently finished working on a lunar lander project, part of the team run by Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’s fun side project); moreover, I was stuck on a defense project that I felt morally compromised by. I love space, but it was hard to hold two concepts together, the excitement of space exploration, and the political, economic, and cultural violence at home, some of which I felt complicit in due to my job. The more I learned, the more I saw an obvious connection between military development and space technology. Butler’s Parable of the Sower showed me how, even in a corrupt system, even when some of the progress is made for the wrong reasons, we can still dream of the stars, and damn it, if I didn’t need to hear that. It wasn’t long after that I quit my job and went back to astronomy.

Twilight has always been my favorite time of the day; a gradient from light to deep blue stretches across the sky, a faint touch of pink and orange paints the horizon, and, if I’m lucky, Venus shines blazingly bright, welcoming the night. For a little while I could not look at the sky without a sinking feeling in my stomach, feeling that I had ruined this beautiful natural resource. It is such a relief to be back in a work environment where I don’t feel like I am constantly hiding who I am. I still feel guilt, but I am working on that. Thank you Octavia E. Butler, thank you behavioral therapy, and thank you to all the people who are just trying to make it work day to day and be their true selves. It’s damn hard work. I am so excited to be excited about astronomy again, to feel joy for space telescope milestones instead of guilt and regret, to feel energized by my future instead of trapped by it. At the same time, I have a greater appreciation for what technology enables the study I love, and a renewed responsibility to approach that study with thoughtfulness and empathy. Nothing is pure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still dream of the stars. 

Appreciating the early night sky through a canopy of Palm Trees

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