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Here she is: Lauren Olamina, one of Octavia Butler's best-loved fictional characters. What makes her so beloved? You know, besides the fact that she's a rockin' Black female teenager in 2024-2027 who invents her own religion and tries to save the world? Let's find out.
Okay, yes, the actual author of this novel is Octavia Butler—but Lauren Olamina is also an author. In fact, her verses from Earthseed: The Books of the Living are the first thing we're introduced to in the novel. Lots of readers can identify with an author, since many readers probably scribble away in notebooks sometimes too. But what maybe makes Lauren an author to the max is that she follows up, in real life, on the insights she produces while writing.
Lauren describes her writing process like this: "I've never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation" (7.6). So she's uncovering the truth, and what else does a person do with the truth besides act on it? Well, so long as you're a very idealistic person, as Lauren is.
In fact, Lauren's basic insight is this: "God is Change" (11.Verse.6). If God is change, then participating in change and making it happen seems like something you just have to do.
Lauren's first attempts to spread her message, of course, aren't such a success. To Lauren, the truth she's learned is pretty self-evident, and so she expects her best friend Joanne, for example, to recognize this truth, too. Joanne's not as next-level as Lauren, so Joanne taps out of that conversation early, but hey, at least Lauren tried. And she does get better at what she does.
Lauren also finds herself writing "the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars" (7.Verse1.Line1-8)—and, by gosh, she intends to help humanity fulfill this far-fetched goal. Literally, she wants to help people move to other planets. No one tell Lauren her ideals are unrealistic, okay? Because she's totally aiming to bring them to fruition. As she herself says: "Belief / Initiates and guides action— / Or it does nothing" (5.Verse).
Our girl shows a few of the little signs that go along with someone being a writer. She has to make sure to buy pens and a notebook when she's shopping (15.89), she thinks she can make money by teaching reading and writing (11.49), and she sometimes feels compelled to put pen to paper (12.41 and 14.40). But what about Lauren makes her take her own writing so seriously? Possibly it's just a choice: it's how she chooses to view the world. Or maybe it's...
Yep, Lauren's got a rare hyperempathy syndrome. It makes her a "sharer": someone who feels what other people—and to a lesser extent, animals—feel when they're in pleasure or pain. Basically, if someone around Lauren gets stabbed, she'll feel it. She's really in tune with whoever is around her—and that's a trait that helps make Lauren a compassionate person, someone who is concerned with improving outcomes for all, not just herself.
In a way, it's almost like hyperempathy is a metaphor for being somebody who is highly sensitive. As most authors, for instance, and they're likely to tell you they think they feel more deeply than others, and that's one reason they have the insight necessary to write.
Anyway, sometimes Lauren's on board with the "good" interpretation of her syndrome. For example, at one point in the novel, she thinks: "But if everyone could feel everyone else's pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I've never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people" (10.136).
But other times, Lauren thinks hyperempathy syndrome is more trouble than it's worth. For instance, toward the end of the novel, she says this to Bankole: "Take my word for it. Bad, bad idea. Self-defense shouldnʼt have to be an agony or a killing or both. I can be crippled by the pain of a wounded person. Iʼm a very good shot because Iʼve never felt that I could afford just to wound someone" (22.94).
Most of the time, Lauren just thinks of it as something that impacts which tactics she can put into play. Like, can she attack this guy trying to steal stuff from her, or will the pain she feels be too great? But we're still left wondering how much effect hyperempathy actually has on Lauren. Is it a constraint? Is it a gift? Or is it both? Octavia Butler won't give us any easy answers on this one.
Lauren Olamina is all about community. That's not surprising, given that she's got hyperempathy syndrome and has a religion she wants to save the world with. The fate of other people is important to her, right? But how does she get interested in community building, specifically?
Well, Lauren grows up in the fictional California town of Robledo, with her reverend father basically serving as the community's leader. She disagrees with her dad and how he doesn't want everyone to open their eyes fully to the widespread and increasing danger all around them. Lauren also can't bring herself to believe in her dad's Baptist God (2.1). But at least she does learn his lesson that hey, human beings are social, and that means we need to work together to survive.
When Lauren's father disappears, it has a big impact on her life. The dude just vanishes, and Lauren never finds out for sure what happened to him. At that point, it's up to her to create her own family and her own community; this is when she realizes that community is necessary for survival. Sure, she hooks up with Bankole, another mystery man who's also a sort of provider, but really, Lauren's doing the community building mostly on her own.
Now, during the first half of the novel, which is when Robledo's still standing, Lauren grows, but relatively slowly. She goes along with her baptism in Chapter 2 despite the fact that she's not actually into the Baptist religion. At this point, she's still doing what's asked of her without rebelling. But by Chapter 11, she's already decided to head north when she comes of age, regardless of what Curtis or anyone else thinks.
Of course, Robledo gets destroyed before she turns eighteen, but what does she do in this situation? She heads north on her own, that's what.
Once she's on the road, migrating north as a refugee from Robledo, Lauren and those who join up with her have to decide how to treat strangers. At first, Lauren maintains a real dog-eat-dog, everyone's-gotta-survive mentality—that's so she keeps strangers seeking help at bay (16.9-11). This troubles Harry.
But as the journey progresses, Lauren becomes more welcoming of others (for example, 23.62-63). She wants recruits for Earthseed, after all, and she's gained confidence about how to survive outside Robledo. What is it that pushes her to change? Maybe it's her compassion for others' suffering (17.57-59), which may be rooted in her hyperempathy syndrome. Maybe she's been a compassionate person all along, even back in Robledo, and the way she wards off strangers right after the destruction of Robledo is just a temporary blip in her personality, resulting from the fear that she feels after her home is destroyed.
Either way, other people have an effect on Lauren: she has to work with them or against them, but it does seem that from the get-go, she's highly independent. She has her own ideas—you know, Earthseed—about what life means and what a person is supposed to do, and she follows those ideas. Rather than join up with someone else's philosophy, she creates her own—and she gets other people to agree with her.
No wonder Bankole tells Lauren (21.35): "What you are now [...] is a very unusual young woman."