The book opens with Revolution Shuffle by Bao Phi, which tells the story of a nameless duo of Vietnamese Americans living in a zombie apocalypse who decide that the racist and oppressive government that rose out of the ashes of the apocalypse is not that great and probably should be torn down. Tananarive Due’s The Only Lasting Truth is the final entry of Octavia’s Brood and a transcript of a lecture about the work of Octavia Butler, her career as a writer, and how the theme of change permeates her work. And finally Outro as written by Adrienne Maree Brown closes out the book with a summation of the themes and ideas that appeal to Brown in regards to Visionary Fiction. In short, all three of these entries are tied into the concept of change and its relation to the world they are told in.
Unlike with the previous memo, this selection of short pieces has a thoroughly optimistic outlook. Although that might be due to the way I read the concept of change as my personal philosophical worldview is tied directly with the inevitability and necessity of change. We, as a species (and, indeed, all species), are built on change simply due to our need to move and grow, be it because we are acted upon by other forces or of our own volition. If I were to answer Sarah Hannah Gòmez’s rhetorical question I used in the previous memo of “Where are all the people of color in dystopias” using the selections included in this memo, the answer this time would be “In the margins, working diligently to free themselves and others from oppression and burn the system that opts to demonize them instead of fixing systemic problems.”
Indeed, that’s essentially the thematic through line of Revolution Shuffle to the point where it essentially becomes the explicit plot with lines like “And so the government classified it as a terrorist act, without evidence, without even an idea of what caused it” (10) and “Zombies. Brown people. On any given day, the armed guards were prepared to shoot either.” (8) This causes the metaphor the genre typically provides of “…the Other/alien [in] the form of the racial or cultural Other, from Africans, to indigenous populations, to the Roma, to die Gastarbeiter, to women, to the LGBTQ communities” (Calvin, 3) to blur into becoming what it represents.
Typically within zombie narratives, the horde is meant to represent the aspect of society that is causing ruination ranging from generic “Barbarians at the gates of Rome” used in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, to the specific “Consumerism” as is the case in George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” and, most fittingly, the “Black People” usage of the zombie archetype as seen in D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”. Despite the text explicitly stating that the majority of the zombies were once living white people, the story explores the anxieties of society typically seen within the context of the zombie genre seen in the Griffith example, though obviously with a less racist ideology. The story shows that, when people are desperate for a scapegoat, they will always go for whatever fits within their worldview, no matter how baseless the claim is. And, for a lot of people, even myself at times, this includes people who look different.
However, more the optimistic (and thematically tied to the theme of change) take on the genre that Revolution Shuffle uses comes in the form of the nameless protagonists of the piece. For they take on the role of the most generic of zombie narratives: “Barbarians at the gates of Rome.” This is a phrase I have heard thrown around whenever someone wants to defend the barbaric actions of countless Empires, especially the European ones, in that they had to be cruel monsters who subjugated the lesser races, for there were barbarians at the gate. This is naturally horseshit, as the way Empires work hinges upon expansion that displaces the indigenous cultures that live in the surrounding area that we call barbarians. In some cases, we as culture (because America, despite its claims of revolution, was founded upon the blood of Empires and natives) have imprisoned and enslaved countless “lesser people” for “their own good” so they might not “join the barbarians” with the obvious example being the Japanese Interment Camps that Phi was no doubt thinking of when creating his short story. As such, the nameless duo replies to this worldview with “Fine, we’ll be the barbarians at your Empire’s gates. And we’re gonna tear them down.”
The ending lines of the story imply that this act of youthful rebellion will “…turn into something like a revolution.” (14) And it is this concept of revolution that is one of many types of change explored within the text. For what is revolution, if not a massive change heaped upon a society? Indeed, many have argued that the apocalypse is simply what a revolution looks like from the perspective of those who have the most to lose in the face of this. Maybe that’s why the most generic of zombie apocalypse narratives has them as Barbarians at the gates of Rome.
Moving on, The Only Lasting Truth explores the work of noted author Octavia Butler, and in particular the novel Parable of the Sower. In it, the lead character of the novel, Lauren Olamina’s core belief system hinges on a singular concept: “…the only lasting truth is change.” (262) The full text of the belief talks about how we are all inevitably changed both by ourselves and the world around us, whom we in turn change. “Attitudes are in need of change to prevent the dystopia in our book, moving away from the class system—again, the hierarchy—of rich, poor, haves, and have nots” (268) which is essentially my worldview written down by someone else years before I even conceived of it. For as a utopian, I believe that for a utopia to avoid becoming dystopic, it needs to have people question the way things are, so as to prevent a system where, say, a single child spends their entire life suffering to teach the “perfect” society that there is such a thing as pain (Le Guin, 3). A society that refuses to change is a dystopia. However, contextually speaking, this philosophy that gives the speech its title first appears within the speech after Due relates to us that Octavia Butler is dead.
Throughout the memo, I have talked about the positive aspects of change and the ways in which it can benefit us in the future. However, I am aware that there are some negative connotations with the concept, from the degradation of the human body to the rise of Fascism in Democratic societies. The speech itself mentions a bit of skepticism on the part of Butler, by featuring a selection of Parable of the Sower in which two of the characters discuss the implications of change being worshiped as a God (269-270). But at the same time, there’s an importance to the concept of change, as Due argues Parable of the Sower “…quite literally sets out to change the world by forcing the readers to consider what a powerful force change really is.” (267) But then, isn’t that the power of art: to change people?
That’s at least what Brown seems to argue in Outro. When she talks about the way in which stories can teach us how to fight in this cruel world we find ourselves in, Brown specifically highlights Parable of the Sower. She talks about how Olamina, with only “… her bag, her knowledge, and her dreams” was able to create a new community of her own that “…[adapt] constantly to ever-changing conditions. Exploring these and other examples of Butler’s work—in addition to studying other aspects of emergence—creates a solid foundation for changing the way we strategize on our path to justice.” (280)
In the end, change is a complicated idea. It is both a concept that can be used for good and for ill. It is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We can refuse to bend the knee to the ever-crashing wave of fascism. We can inspire those who come after us with a song in our hearts and a fury in our eyes. And we can change the world with something as simple and basic as an idea. For we are a machine that kills fascists with love, kindness, and a willingness to admit we need to change.
-Throughout this memo, I have discussed the concept of change as a broad concept encompassing topics from the heat death of the universe to basic movement. However, many have argued that a definition of change that is applicable to the world at large is necessarily based around social constructs. Others, like Octavia Butler, have argued that change is based in the very nature of the universe itself. Do you agree with either of these claims, and if not, what aspect of change would you hinge it off of?
-In the final paragraph of the memo, I argue that the act of change is a method in which we can fight off the coming threat of fascism, as the core of fascist ideologies is a desire for things to remain the way they are or go back to how they used to be. However, I also argued that the very threat of fascism is in and of itself an act of change within a social environment as it is a novum upon a democratic society. How does this seemingly paradoxical way of thinking work out as a coherent thought, if it even does? Is change an inherently forward moving concept?
-Not brought up directly within the memo proper, but still conceptually important, is a quote from Due’s article: “Yet we hope that the work we create is the planting of a seed. And most of the seeds we plant will have no impact beyond entertainment—if that. But one, perhaps one, might actually help change the world.” (267) How do you respond to this quote after reading the memo before you? Do you find it to be overall an optimistic outlook? I can’t answer it for you. Interpretation, after all, necessitates changing a text’s meaning from mere letters and into something more.
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