In my Environmental Theology course last fall, my students and I read Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction novel Parable of the Sower. The first volume in an unfinished trilogy (Butler died suddenly before the third book was complete), the narrative unfolds through the journal entries of Lauren Olamina, an African-American teen who navigates life in a dystopian America in the mid-2020s. Social, economic, and environmental collapse force Lauren and everyone else to survive however they can in a frightening, dangerous world.

Many have noted Butler’s prescience in crafting the Parable series in the early 1990s. Late capitalism, climate change, police brutality, mass incarceration, gun violence, the mistreatment of immigrants—all are themes that inform the narrative arc of the series, with the second book, Parable of the Talents, featuring a presidential candidate whose campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” Butler may have had a sixth sense about the future but she was also writing in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office. Deregulation, deference to the N.R.A., and the decimation of black communities in the war on drugs gave Butler plenty to work with as she imagined a grim social reality twenty years into the new millennium.

But I’m a theologian and college professor, not an economist or social theorist, and so I have found Butler’s work illuminating for other (related) reasons. Because I assign Parable of the Sower in an Environmental Theology class, we are already interrogating some of the intersections that Butler’s intersectional novel is built on: What theological claims can be made—from the perspective of several religious traditions—about the linguistic construction “the environment”? How is environmental racism an indictment of both public policy and spiritual practice? If climate science paints an increasingly dystopian picture of our planet’s future, is hope a now-vacuous theological category?

Lauren, the daughter of a Baptist minister, develops her own belief system called Earthseed, the primary tenet of which is “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” While this echoes elements of Christian process theology and may or may not be attractive to readers with religious sensibilities, the novel also draws deftly on Buddhist insights and the wisdom of the Bible, as the title suggests.

Lauren is a reluctant prophet but a surprisingly capable one. As she flees her family’s walled compound in southern California in search of whatever safety can be found, others experiencing the same stresses, fears, and dangers are drawn to her: people of color like herself, a mixed-race couple, migrants, young children. This motley collection of folks is a liability to Lauren’s well-planned, well-provisioned quest, but she gathers them in and leads them on, since she operates on the assumptions that everything and everyone is connected, that difference is a gift, and that the flourishing of one depends on the well-being of all.

The logic of interconnectedness has revealed itself in the Covid-19 crisis. We can infect each other, so interconnected are we through biology and by how we inhabit and move through space. And we can take care of each other, interconnected as we are through our shared vulnerabilities.

Unsurprisingly, injustices have also been revealed in this crisis, for we are not all equally vulnerable. Lack of job security and unpaid sick leave, for instance, have become even more acute burdens for millions of people. Is this, then, a cultural moment in which the privileged, in the words of another Butler—critical theorist, Judith Butler—might finally apprehend “the precarity of others—their exposure to violence, their socially induced transience and dispensability?”

Speculative fiction, like much science fiction, is social commentary. Butler’s Parable novels are less about predicting the future and more about imagining justice in the here and now. Her vast literary corpus has inspired the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice, the Emergent Strategy movement, and the podcast How to Survive the End of the World. These efforts operate from a place of fierce hope, from the conviction that other worlds are possible.

Václav Havel famously wrote that hope is “the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” This is why the worst thing, whether its climate collapse or coronavirus, need not leave us hopeless, since hope is not about happy endings. Covid-19 presents the opportunity to practice hope concretely—politically, economically, and legislatively—because it makes sense to do so. Humane measures already being implemented could be the beginning of a new political economy committed to liberty and justice for all, not just a few. Other worlds are possible.

And as Octavia Butler tells us, in the wise words of Lauren Olamina: “Your teachers are all around you. All that you perceive, all that you experience, all that is given to you or taken from you, all that you love or hate, need or fear will teach you—if you will learn.”