Off the Shelf: Imagining a New Future with Janelle Monáe and Octavia Butler

Off the Shelf: Imagining a New Future with Janelle Monáe and Octavia Butler

This piece is part of Off the Shelf, a column where I give a book recommendation inspired by one of my favorite albums. In each installment of Off the Shelf, I’ll pair an album with a book: a novel, poetry collection, memoir, recipe book, you name it. These aren’t meant to be exact complements. My choices might be guided by similarities in themes or tone, but will aim to illuminate the complexities of each work, and hopefully inspire you to discover a new favorite read (and maybe even album!) in the process.

The economy is crumbling. Resources are scarce. Earth’s water is drying up. Communities build walls to keep violence out. Sound familiar? This bleak description sets the scene for Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower—but its fictional images of America in 2024 don’t sound too far from the truth.

I read Parable of the Sower furiously, flipping through all its pages in less than a week (a feat for a slow and painstaking reader like me). The novel is terrifying, gripping, and impossible to put down. Each chapter gave me goosebumps as I realized just how many details Butler got right in her apocalyptic projection of the future. 

I dove into Janelle Monáe’s similarly dystopian album and accompanying “emotion picture,” Dirty Computer, almost as quickly as I became immersed in Parable of the Sower. Both Octavia Butler and Janelle Monáe are experts at creating elaborate fictional worlds teeming with droids and aliens. But with Parable of the Sower and Dirty Computer, Butler and Monáe address our own world head-on and expose the issues that we face. Through their strong-willed protagonists Lauren and Jane, both works show us concrete examples of young black women rejecting oppressive structures of power and embracing a new path.

“I am a dirty computer”

Janelle Monáe had been crafting intricate sci-fi worlds with her music long before Dirty Computer. Through her first few releases, such as EP The Chase Suite and album The ArchAndroid, Monáe built the dystopic and futuristic world of her alter ego, android Cindi Mayweather. 

Dirty Computer is the first album that doesn’t star Cindi Mayweather, instead revealing Monáe herself. Monáe released the album in 2018 with an accompanying emotion picture: a 48 minute film that synthesizes the album’s music videos in a captivating narrative. In the emotion picture, we meet Jane #57821, a character who seems to bridge the personas of Mayweather and Monáe. 

Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer [Emotion Picture]

In the world of Dirty Computer, humans are referred to as computers, and anyone who deviates from the norm is called “dirty.” “You were dirty if you looked different,” Monáe’s voice echoes at the beginning of the film. “You were dirty if you refused to live they way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all. And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time…”

Jane wakes up in The House of the New Dawn: a facility designed to “clean” dirty computers. She is strapped to a futuristically geometric hospital bed and a thick cloud of gas wipes her memories. During the process, Jane is guided by a familiar face: lover Zen, who refers to herself as Mary Apple #53 and appears to already have been cleaned.

Fact or science fiction?

Like Monáe, Octavia Butler’s work immerses her fans in a fictional futuristic landscape. Butler grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s as a lanky and awkward black girl who spent her free time poring over science fiction novels. At a time when few black women pursued careers in writing, Butler became an internationally prominent science fiction writer and one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism. 

Many of Butler’s works include extraterrestrial encounters and human-alien breeding. But when she wrote Parable of the Sower in 1993, Butler intentionally set the novel in our world, showing an apocalyptic yet eerily realistic image of L.A. “It is to look at where we are now, what we are doing now, and to consider where some of our current behaviors and unattended problems might take us,” Butler said about the novel in an interview conducted by Hachette Book Group.1

Parable of the Sower begins in the year 2024. The novel’s protagonist is sixteen year-old Lauren Oya Olamina who lives on the outskirts of L.A. with her father, a professor and Baptist minister; her stepmom; and her four half-brothers. Lauren’s neighborhood is surrounded by a gate. Outside looms violence, drugs, extreme cost inflation, and a decaying environment. Like Dirty Computer, the novel includes a number of autobiographical anecdotes—Butler grew up in Pasadena in a Baptist community—and uses its post-apocalyptic tone to remark on our own times.

“Left of center and right where I belong”

Janelle Monáe - I Like That [Official Music Video]

From the onset, both Lauren and Jane know that they’re different from the norm. Rather than trying to fit in, they both embrace their differences. “I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong,” Monáe sings on “I Like That,” a song that unapologetically embraces her uniqueness. “Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish?” she growls on “Django Jane,” referencing backlash against the black-and-white suits that have become her calling card and a deliberate refusal to adhere to society’s expectations of how a woman should dress. 

Like Jane, Lauren rejects the role that her community wants her to play. While other girls in her neighborhood are getting married and having children in their teens, Lauren can’t imagine raising a child with her boyfriend Curtis while the world is crumbling around her—plus she has aspirations for herself other than being a mother. “If all I had to look forward to was marriage to him and babies and poverty that just keeps getting worse, I think I’d kill myself,” she thinks to herself.

Sowing a new seed

Instead of planning a future of wedding bells and raising babies, Lauren spends her spare time reading wilderness survival books and uncovering a new religion in scrawled notebook verses.

Some people call Parable of the Sower science fiction, but others refer to it as a religious text. The thread that ties the book together is Earthseed, a religion that Lauren begins to unravel through fragments of verse. Although her father is a Baptist minister, Lauren doesn’t believe in the Christian God. In her words,

All that you touch,
You Change.

All that you Change,
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

These bits of text start to pop into Lauren’s mind and she collects them in notebooks. Combined, Lauren names these verses “Earthseed: The Books of the Living.” “I’ve never felt that I was making any of this up,” Lauren tells us. “I’ve never felt that it was anything other than real.”

According to Earthseed, the only constant in life is change, and to adapt is to survive. One Earthseed verse teaches Lauren that humanity’s only chance at survival is to “take root among the stars”—in other words, to leave Earth (which is parched of water, stripped of resources, and becoming consumed by fire) and find a home on other planets. 

According to Earthseed, it’s not our differences that make us weak, but our refusal to embrace them. While her society shuns diversity, Lauren believes in a different approach:

Embrace diversity.
Unite—
Or be divided,
robbed,
ruled,
killed
By those who see you as prey.
Embrace diversity
Or be destroyed.

Two “free-ass motherf—ers”

“Who’s screwing you?” For Monáe, this question is about more than what happens in the bedroom. While Lauren finds power in crafting her own religious ideology, Jane reclaims autonomy through expressing her sexuality.

“Everything is sex, except sex, which is power,” Monáe sings in robotic autotune on the song “Screwed.” In the music video for “Pynk,” the camera zooms in on a woman’s pair of boxer briefs that read “I GRAB BACK” in capital pink letters. Monáe and her dancers carry out swift choreography in pink ruffled “vagina pants.”

Janelle Monáe - PYNK [Official Music Video]

Around the release of Dirty Computer, Monáe came out as pansexual in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Being a queer black woman in America,” she told the magazine, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women—I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”

Jane’s relationships in Dirty Computer challenge societal norms about sex and sexuality. In the emotion picture, we learn that Jane simultaneously shares a relationship with both Zen (played by Tessa Thompson) and Ché (Jayson Aaron). This three-way relationship defies the norm of heterosexual monogamous relationships. Jane’s society may not recognize her relationship—or worse, it may ostracize or punish her because of it. But Jane, Zen, and Ché live by their own rules, and they find their greatest strength in each other.

In refusing to get married and have children, Lauren similarly reclaims power over her own sexuality. After her neighborhood is destroyed by fire, Lauren begins traveling with a group of survivors, including 57-year-old Bankole. Despite the fact that she is almost 40 years his junior, Laren and Bankole foster a relationship. In this pairing, separated from her neighbor’s judgments, Lauren finds a satisfying relationship free of other people’s expectations, one based on mutual enjoyment rather than fulfilling a sense of duty.

“I would never hurt a fly. But I would put one to sleep.”

Violence and struggle are constant themes that swirl through Dirty Computer and Parable of the Sower. But both works’ protagonists use empathy, joy, and pleasure as their weapons of choice. 

Lauren lives with hyperempathy syndrome, which she contracted from drugs that her mother took during pregnancy. Lauren’s hyperempathy allows her to physically feel what others feel: if someone in her proximity breaks their arm, she feels the pain as though her own bone has been fractured. While she learns to handle a gun for self-defense, Lauren’s hyperempathy prevents her from purposefully engaging in violence against others.

Dirty Computer shows the way that systemic forces use violence to keep citizens in check. A flying drone pulls over Jane’s car while she’s driving down the highway with a friend. Armed police violently break up a party. Masked officers drag Zen into a patrol car, her legs flailing to break free.

But the strength that Jane finds to fight back against this systemic violence comes from the joy and love present in her close relationships. After being pulled over by the robo cop, Jane and her friend share a sly smile before opening the trunk of their convertible to reveal a group of friends ready to dance in the desert sun in their vagina pants. 

At the end of the emotion picture, Jane appears to be fully cleaned, her memories and her identity wiped to a blank slate. Next, Ché enters The House of the New Dawn to be cleaned. It seems like all hope is lost, until Zen tosses Jane a gas mask and the two unleash a cloud of sleep-inducing nevermind gas on the facility, which allows the trio to make their escape. “I would never hurt a fly,” Jane says as the white cloud snakes through the building. “But I would put one to sleep.”

Like Lauren, Jane’s power to fight back stems from her ability to connect with others. Both of their environments fight to separate its citizens—building walls, creating atmospheres of fear, punishing those who are different. But Lauren and Jane embrace diversity and build a resistance rooted in love, community, and self-expression.

Where do we go from here?

In a 1998 lecture at MIT, Octavia Butler explained author Robert A. Heinlein’s categorization of science fiction. Heinlein laid out three categories of sci-fi: the “what-if” category, the “if-only” category, and the “if-this-goes-on” category. “This is definitely an ‘if-this-goes-on’ story,” Butler told the audience about Parable of the Sower. “And if it’s true, if it’s anywhere near true, we’re all in trouble.” 

My rule for writing the novel was that I couldn’t write about anything that couldn’t actually happen,” Butler explained. And certainly, some of the details in Parable of the Sower are creepily accurate (not to mention that in the 1998 sequel Parable of the Talents, a presidential candidate runs on the platform to “make America great again”).

Both Parable of the Sower and Dirty Computer show us what could happen in our own world “if-this-goes-on.” But both works also show us a way out. In their dystopian futures, Butler and Monáe make room for rebellious, courageous, and kind leaders who find strength in their differences, trust their instincts, and show us a new kind of future.

 

1. Butler, Octavia, The Parable of the Sower (New York, New York: Hachette Book Group, 1993), 337

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