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The narrator is a young Black girl who has just turned fifteen. In a later chapter, her name is revealed to be Lauren Oya Olamina. Last night, Lauren had a dream she often has when she is struggling to please her father. In the dream, she is gradually learning to fly but still struggling with control. She tries to fly through a doorway like the one to her bedroom, but she drifts sideways into a wall of flame. The dream shifts to a real-life memory of looking up in wonder at the star-filled night sky. Lauren’s stepmother, speaking in Spanish, explains that in the days when cities gave off more light, the stars were harder to see.
Lauren’s family consists of her father, a Baptist minister who also teaches at a nearby college; his second wife, Cory; and Lauren’s four younger half-brothers: Keith, Marcus, Bennett, and Gregory. Lauren’s biological mother abused a prescription drug that caused Lauren to be born with hyperempathy—an abnormally strong and visceral response to others’ feelings—and died while giving birth to Lauren. The family lives in Robledo, a fictional town near Los Angeles. Some time earlier, social upheaval transformed Robledo from an affluent community into a patchwork of tiny neighborhoods protected by walls against the chaos outside. One of the neighborhoods is a cul-de-sac where Lauren’s family lives. Most of Robledo’s churches, including the one pastored by her father, were destroyed by fire. He now conducts services at the family’s home.
Lauren and her family, along with several other neighbors, bicycle to another neighborhood, where one church remains standing. The adults carry weapons to protect the group. At the church, Lauren, Keith, Marcus, and four other youngsters are baptized. Privately, however, Lauren stopped believing in her father’s God some time ago. Keith, aged twelve, also no longer believes but gets baptized just because that’s what his father wants. Keith likes to act grown-up and dreams of leaving the neighborhood to get rich in the big city. Lauren doesn’t much care for Keith, but he is her stepmother’s favorite.
Water has become scarce and expensive where Lauren lives. Gasoline is much cheaper because the only people now using it are the rich, who still have working motor vehicles, and arsonists. A woman in the neighborhood, Mrs. Sims, recently shot herself after her son and his family died in an arson fire.
Mrs. Yannis’s “Window Wall” television is the last in the neighborhood, and it stopped working right after a report aired about an astronaut who died on Mars. Although the astronaut wanted to be buried on Mars, her body is being brought back to earth. Lauren’s father, like many people, considers the space program an expensive way for the government to distract people from the realities of life on earth. He agrees with one of the presidential candidates, Christopher Donner, that the Mars program should be abolished. Lauren, however, is inspired by the astronaut’s example and by the goal of exploring space.
Lauren has been writing about God since she was twelve. (Each chapter starts with a sample of her writing.) She has begun to develop statements of belief, the main idea being that God is power, but he is also change. In other words, God cannot be resisted, but he can be “shaped and focused” by human action.
Lauren’s two-part dream foreshadows the novel’s consequential events. As a 15-year-old, Lauren dreams of teaching herself to fly, gradually building her confidence with every self-taught lesson. The act is not only suggestive of the freedom and independence she yearns for but of the freedom she ultimately attains. It’s also indicative of the faith system she conceives and, later, methodically establishes. Yet as an unschooled flyer, Lauren remains fearful of her methods and struggles with the control and maneuverability of flight, implying a greater existential angst is at play. Lauren is alone in this first portion of the dream and is left to navigate a path of escape fraught with danger all by herself, foreshadowing events still to come. In the dream, Lauren is young and hasn’t yet acquired the necessary skills to turn or stop mid-flight. That she floats into a wall of fire alludes to the dangers surrounding Lauren and her community and to the fire, both literal and symbolic, she will be compelled to perilously navigate. The dream’s second segment is less abstract. While Lauren’s stepmother exhibits a nostalgic longing for the bright lights of big cities, Lauren’s pensive gaze toward the heavens reveals a fascination with the light of stars. Unlike the destructive light of fire, starlight signifies a light of hope and is the same light she fails to fly toward in the first part of the dream. Flight will also take on greater importance as Lauren establishes the fundamentals of Earthseed.
Lauren’s explorations of divine nature not only begin to form her own concept of God but lay the groundwork for Earthseed as well. The shame Lauren exhibits on agreeing to be baptized by her father offers a glimpse into her burgeoning belief system. That she rejects her father’s notion of the divine, and is equally dissatisfied with other religions, marks a significant revelation. To her, the Baptist God isn’t just callous, rigid, uncaring, and absent, but incompatible with the current state of the world. Lauren can’t understand why God has rejected victims of misfortune, be they victims of social disparity, sexual violence, or climate disasters. Lauren, ironically, exhibits the same callous disregard toward the less fortunate who live outside Robledo’s walls but, as she possesses hyperempathy, she can also feel their pain. Hyperempathy inextricably links Lauren to every living creature in God-like fashion and the affliction will ultimately influence her desire to alter the human condition for the better.
The contrast between rich and poor across social, racial, class and generational divides is firmly established in Chapter 3 as a running theme of the novel. At times, Butler illustrates the disparity in a nuanced manner, such as when those with money throw dirt on themselves so as not to seem disdainful and, thus, become targets for the indigent. Water and gasoline have become commodities affordable only to the Haves, while the Have-Nots decry wasteful government spending on expensive space exploration. Yet even within the community of Robledo, Butler points out the economic subtleties of its middle-class denizens. Mrs. Yannis’s aging “Window Wall” television was a source of envy to neighbors but a source of income for her family. When it stops working, it symbolizes how once-monied families are succumbing to financial ruin. As day-to-day living deteriorates in Robledo, the deprived threaten the community, though it’s able to stave off any incursion by financially and morally bankrupt individuals by a wall, or physical divide. The policies of a newly elected President threaten to change the socio-economic order in favor of large corporations, which will only serve to widen the wealth gap even further.