Quotes to Think By: Octavia Butler’s Rules for Predicting the Future

History, perspective and our ability to solve new problems

Hidden in a discussion about the future, an award-winning science-fiction author offered a guide for using history to guide our decision-making. Among Octavia Butler’s strategies for predicting the future, she wrote, “where we stand determines what we’re able to see.” Butler believed in looking to the past but added we also need to be aware of our perspective.

Butler’s quote appears in an essay titled “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future.” Published in Essence magazine (May 2000), she introduces the essay through a conversation with a student. First, he asked if she really believed we would encounter the kind of trouble she described in her books. Those stories, of course, were rooted in trouble Butler could already see. She explained, “All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.”

So then he asked for THE answer, as in, “so, what’s the answer?” Butler explained that there wasn’t one.

Now, from her essay:

“No answer? You mean we’re just doomed?” He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.

“No,” I said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers — at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

—Octavia Butler, “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future”


 Octavia Butler’s rules laid the groundwork for our recent Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter. Read the whole issue here. The question it presents, “Are we all going to get this?” comes from a late-night conversation between Stephen Colbert and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.  Their discussion of our dependence on one another is what led us to revisit how Madison uses the past to see the way forward in Federalist No. 37 and how Octavia Butler explained her ability to see the problems of the future.

If that’s a collection of ideas you can appreciate it, sign up for Questions of Civic Proportions using the box below or learn more about our newsletters and find past issues here