Who will rule,
Who will lead,
Who will define,
Who will dominate.
are no more intellectual
than two rams
knocking their heads together.
Title: Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Dsytopian Fiction ♦ 345 pages ♦ First Ed. Published 1993
After reading Kindred last year, and teaching it to my 9th graders this year, I knew that Octavia Butler was an important voice in fiction. But I had yet to explore the rest of her writing, until one day I noticed an article by Akata Witch and Binti author Nnedi Okorafor expressing that “Parable of the Sower–not 1984–is the Dystopia of Our Age.” Then while in California visiting family, and having run out of books to read, I stopped by a used bookstore. And there it was. God(dess) bless locally-run used, independent bookstores. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Read on to see exactly why I now think Nnedi Okorafor is right.
The year is 2024. 15-year-old Lauren Olamina is the oldest child of a Baptist preacher, and she’s lost her faith in the God that her father preaches from the pulpit. And it’s not hard to see why: even though she lives in a coveted gated community, life is precarious. The planet is in extreme environmental crisis: one hurricane “killing people from Florida to Texas and down into Mexico. Over 700 known dead so far.” Related is the country’s economic failure, where people “can’t afford water, food, or shelter,” water peddlers are being killed, and $1,000 will only feed one person for about a week. Outside the walls of her neighborhood, packs of wild dogs and desperate humans roam, ready to attack those who stray from the group.
Lauren’s daily reality includes not looking too closely at the victims of rape, homicide, overdose. Her normal includes witnessing the effects of violence and the community mistrust of outsiders. But Lauren is burdened by more than others: she has a rare condition called hyper-empathy syndrome, a side effect from her mother’s drug usage. Lauren’s brain is wired to experience other’s pains and pleasures along with them, a “gift” that could be tragically exploited if others knew about it.
As young Lauren looks at the world, she cannot reconcile her father’s God with what’s happening on Earth. She says, “God sounds a lot like Zeus–a super-powerful man, playing with his toys the way my youngest brothers play with toy-soldiers. Bang, bang! Seven toys fall dead. Who cares what the toys think. . . Maybe God is a kind of big kid, playing with his toys. If he is, what difference does it make if 700 people get killed in a hurricane–or if seven kids go to church and get dipped in a big tank of water?”
In the midst of the chaos, a presidential candidate emerges: Christopher Donner. He runs on a platform that promises to restore America to glory, a platform that will “dismantle the ‘wasteful, pointless, unnecessary’ moon and Mars programs,” privatize communications programs, and “suspend ‘overly restrictive’ minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws.” And he wins.
Lauren, who is a quietly headstrong young woman who sees more than most adults, is the only person she knows who believes that to suspend near-space programs is shooting humanity in the proverbial foot. Frustrated with those who won’t admit that sooner rather than later, Earth will run out of resources and energy to sustain those who abuse it, she first stumbles upon and then begins crafting a new sort of faith: Earthseed. It is based on the idea that God is Change. Impersonal. Crafted by those who can embrace Change, work with it, mold Change to their vision, their will. And ultimately, those we can do so will sow a new future for humanity–in the stars.
Of course, these are written off as “just” the thoughts of a teenager, stuck inside a gated community. Years pass, and soon Lauren is 18. President Donner has helped create work communities that practice wage and debt slavery. An already precarious economy is even closer to collapse, and the lives of the poor continue to diminish. Danger increases. And one night, Lauren’s community is attacked, burned to the ground. She’s the only one of her family to survive.
And now she’s on her own, fighting to survive in the wasteland that is southern California, making her way north. Along the way, she gathers others to herself, forming a tiny community that stands together against the chaos and destruction.
Phew. Ok, that was a LONG summary. The beautiful thing about this book, though, is that that summary is essentially spoiler-free. This book has so much to unpack from its pages. The allure of drugs, quick fixes to complex problems, blind faith. Racism. Debt slavery. The voice of youth. The need for community.
Lauren Olamina is a compelling protagonist. Her thoughts and experiences are shared via her diary, and unlike other diary-style novels, her voice is thoughtful, provocative, reserved. She reads as a person who thinks through every word before writing it down. And still she exhibits a great deal of what it means to yearn for something. To love. To feel.
The other characters are seen through Lauren’s eyes. But she is fair to them, forgiving them their flaws, yet with a keen eye that refuses to let tragedy strike from within. Her boldness intimidates but ultimately draws to her side characters that are diverse, their individual strengths working together to create a unified strength.
One theme that Butler is widely known for is the importance of creating a tightly-knit community, and it’s a theme that reemerges throughout this book. While Lauren has rejected her Baptist pastor father’s faith in a personal God, she admires his unfaltering commitment to keeping those in their gated community safe. She learns from him, at an early age, that though not everyone may always get along, when it comes down to it, a community will work together to protect its members. And though while on her own, she is skeptical and wary of others, she displays a preternatural ability to locate and draw to her those who are good and hard-working and solid.
Another theme that quickly emerges is the adverse effects of hierarchy and its perpetuation by those who benefit from it. Lauren observes, “Most of the dead are the street poor who have nowhere to go. Where’s safety for them anyway? Is it as sin against God to be poor? One way or another, we’ll all be poor someday.” To prove their value, Lauren reports, “some upper class men prove they’re men by having one wife and and a lot of beautiful, disposable young servant girls. When the girls get pregnant, the employers’ wives throw them out to starve.” Once thriving communities like “upper middle class, white, literate” Olivar, CA have negotiated deals like corporations that “exchange security, a guaranteed food supply, jobs” for incredibly low salaries, and good luck getting a position there if you’re not white.
For me, one of the most compelling aspects of this novel is the reworking of faith. As a former Baptist myself, Butler’s unique spiritual outlook on the world resonates deeply with me. The title itself, Parable of the Sower, brings to mind Sunday school lessons that were my first teachers of learning in metaphor and analogy instead of dogma. So much of the novel is a retelling and renaissance of a faith that doesn’t sit idly by, shrugging and saying, “Who can tell the will of God?” Instead, Lauren’s Earthseed faith is one of sweat and toil and the dignity of honest people creating the future they want to see, working with Change to move forward.
It’s eerie how very easily Butler’s idea of 2024 and on could very well become a reality. In a political climate where America’s current president wants to deregulate environmental measures and corporate law, whose administration is chock full of science deniers and those who have profited off the work of others, and whose campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” Parable of the Sower reads less like fiction and more like a prophecy, a cautionary tale for our time.
So if you haven’t already, buy this book (Paperback is only $6.00 on Amazon right now!). If you do, be prepared to be deeply unsettled and ultimately more prepared for what MAY come.
About the Author
Octavia Estelle Butler was born and raised in the Los Angeles, CA area. The daughter of former sharecroppers, she learned from their stories and the stories of her grandmother, who was born a slave.
From an early age, she was consumed with writing, especially science fiction. Formative to her writing was watching her widowed mother struggle in “progressive” Los Angeles as a maid who was forced to enter only through the back door of white employer’s homes.
Butler brought a new dimension to the world of science fiction and is known today as one of the most prolific and influential writers of the 20th century. She won multiple awards for her work, including two Hugo awards, two Nebula awards, and the first MacArthur Foundation Award (also known as the “Genius” grant) for the genre of science fiction.
She is best known for her stand-alone novel, Kindred (see my review here), as well as the Xenogenesis trilogy, the Patternist series, and the Parables series. She continued writing until her death in 2006.