Thursday, February 11, 2021

Octavia Butler Would Have Been A Great Actuary

As I was scanning through the world of Speculative Fiction*, looking for inspiration for my next entry in to the Society of Actuaries Speculative Fiction contest, I found, and fell in love with, the writing of Octavia Butler.

"Speech Sounds" is a short story that somehow manages to capture the entirety of the human experience, our demons and our angels, in 20 pages. It features a woman trying to survive in the middle of a pandemic that impairs our ability to communicate.  Sometimes fictions mirrors reality quite well.  

I take refuge in Octavia's words about the story in the afterword:

“Speech Sounds” was conceived in weariness, depression, and sorrow. I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back. It always seems to do that."

Perhaps it is not too surprising that we find our world reflected in her writings. While we might not have to deal with telepathic vampires, we certainly do live in a world that has to deal with the consequences of the human tendency to create hierarchies.  

In her NPR essay, Octavia posits that we might be fatally destined to cycles of domination. Yet, she concludes with the following question:

Amid all this, does tolerance have a chance?

Only if we want it to. Only when we want it to. Tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and, if we're as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned.

But what do her musings on the human condition have to do with being an actuary? 

The world of the actuary follows patterns and trends in order to try to paint a picture of things to come. Instead of words and sentences, the actuary uses numbers and equations. Octavia discusses her approach to forecasting in the article " A Few Rules For Predicting The Future".  I have collected some of the nuggets below:

  1. Learn from the past: "to try to foretell the future without studying history is like trying to learn to read without bothering to learn the alphabet."
  2. Respect the Law of Consequences: "In fact, I don’t believe we can do anything at all without side effects–also known as unintended consequences. Those consequences may be beneficial or harmful. They may be too slight to matter or they may be worth the risk because the potential benefits are great, but the consequences are always there."
  3. Be Aware of Your Perspective: "Wishful thinking is no more help in predicting the future than fear, superstition or depression."  and "It’s also true that where we stand determines what we’re able to see."
  4. Count On the Surprises: "No matter how hard we try to foresee the future, there are always these surprises. The only safe prediction is that there always will be."
She brings it all home with this powerful passage:
So why try to predict the future at all if it’s so difficult, so nearly impossible? Because making predictions is one way to give warning when we see ourselves drifting in dangerous directions. Because prediction is a useful way of pointing out safer, wiser courses. Because, most of all, our tomorrow is the child of our today. Through thought and deed, we exert a great deal of influence over this child, even though we can’t control it absolutely. Best to think about it, though. Best to try to shape it into something good. Best to do that for any child.

Protecting our future is the underlying value behind the insurance industry, and was a big factor in my choice to pursue this profession. And I think Octavia, who describes herself as an introvert and "comfortably asocial", would have felt at home in the actuarial world, had she been given a calculator instead of a typewriter.

For more forays into the life and mind of Octavia:

  • Wikipedia Page
  • Interview with Charlie Rose:  "I've been complaining about the number of would-be leaders who seem to be willing to sacrifice half their country if they can just rule over the rest. I mean, we seem to have had, since the end of the cold war, too many people like that."
*Another refuge and source of inspiration for me has been the LeVar Burton Reads series. He showcases so many different voices and it's so great to resurrect the Reading Rainbow from my childhood in this genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment