Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Parable of the Sower (1993) is the first book in Octavia Butler’s PARABLE (EARTHSEED) series. It is one of her most well-regarded novels, along with Kindred (1979) and Wild Seed (1980), and depicts a near-future United States that has collapsed due to environmental catastrophe into roving bands of thieves, drug addicts, rapists, murderers, scavengers, corporate towns that impose wage slavery, and gated communities protected by armed guards that strive to survive amidst the chaos.
It is an unforgiving world in which the strong, violent, and ruthless dominate the weak and powerless. The story centers around Lauren Olamina, a 17-year old girl born to a Black Baptist preacher and Hispanic mother. Due to drugs her mother was taking when pregnant, Lauren has ‘hyperempathy,’ which makes her feel the pleasure or pain of those around her. In a world of violent social collapse and anarchy, she is subjected almost entirely to the latter.
This story has all the familiar dystopian themes of post-apocalyptic stories, and it reflects in its relentlessly grim tone Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The first two thirds of Parable of the Sower depicts a steadily-escalating series of violent incidents that show us JUST HOW BADLY people behave when the only rule is that of power and violence. As frequently happens in Butler’s novels, it is the women and children that are frequently victims of men who have become predators.
Her young protagonist, Lauren, is definitely a tough survivor, but when a new drug called ‘pyro’ grants pleasure greater than sex to those who set fire to things, society truly begins to disintegrate. And Lauren’s small gated community outside Los Angeles, which has survived repeated attacks by thieves and roving thugs, finally succumbs to a raving band of psychotic addicts who slaughter almost everyone. Lauren writes down in her notebook a stark description:
When apparent stability disintegrates.
As it must — God is Change — People tend to give in to fear and depression, to need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough to unify people they divide.
They struggle, one against one, group against group, for survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones, they create chaos and nurture it.
They kill and kill, until they are exhausted and destroyed, until they are conquered by outside forces.
Or until one of them becomes a leader most will follow, or a tyrant most fear.
Lauren and two others survive the carnage through foresight and luck, but are then forced to go on the road and head north in the hopes of finding some vestiges of civilization in Oregon, Washington, or even Canada. They join a steady stream of refugees shuffling along the highway, fighting off human scavengers that prey on the refugees. Lauren, however, has been quietly assembling thoughts in a notebook that she calls Earthseed: The Books of the Living. They begin as her observations of the world around her, and the central tenet is “God is Change.” Once she shares her teaching with other refugees, it takes on the shape of a religion, one suited to the grim new conditions of a collapsed civilization. Here are the main tenets of Earthseed:
We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed,
And God is Change.
In this new and brutally anarchic world, Lauren has reconciled the evils around her by discarding her Baptist father’s belief in a just God, who looks after his creations, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. She rejects the idea of a God that responds to prayer or faith. Instead, she embraces Change, for that is what surrounds her, and it is those who can shape Change, i.e. those that can adapt to even the most brutal conditions and survive. It is a stripped-down philosophy, in which only those who help themselves can continue to prosper and live.
It would be easy to say this is not a religion at all, measured against the existing religions of the world, but supposedly it brings her and her followers some measure of succor. In essence, Earthseed suggests that people stop expecting God to come to their aid in a careless world — they need to take care of themselves. Given the relentless brutality with which Butler pummels the reader and her characters throughout the book, perhaps this is what is needed for survival, but it strikes me as hardly any different from atheism — i.e., we are on our own.
Nonetheless, Parable of the Sower ends on a note of hope, as Lauren and her followers find a place to found a new community, where “The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” The story of Lauren and Earthseed continues in Parable of the Talents, which won the 1999 Nebula Award for Best SF Novel, and Butler planned to write a third installment, called Parable of the Trickster, but struggled to finish this and wrote Fledgling instead. Sadly, that was Butler’s final novel, as she passed away far too early at age 58. So we can only judge her EARTHSEED series based on the first two books, well before the series could “take root among the stars.”
There are many admirers of Parable of the Sower, but I struggled to derive much reading satisfaction from it. While the community and family relationships in the first third of the book are depicted with care, we know that it is just a matter of time before this small bubble of peace and stability will be shattered by the violence and chaos of the outside world. Witnessing the inevitable tide of anarchy engulf Lauren’s world is emotionally draining, and Lauren often seems resigned to the death and misery that surround her despite her ‘hyperempathy.’ Perhaps Butler wanted to show that Lauren’s strength of spirit could survive even the depths of hopelessness, but I began to feel numb as the atrocities mounted. The small victories towards the end, particularly Lauren’s gathering of followers, did not provide any inspiration. If we could see more of Butler’s vision of taking Earthseed to the stars, perhaps this would have been more rewarding, but as things stand, I don’t really feel any enthusiasm for reading Parable of the Talents.
The audiobook is narrated by Lynne Thigpen, an American actress. She does a good job as Lauren, showing both her resilience amid horrific circumstances and growing belief in Earthseed. However, the story itself is so grim that there’s no way for her to inject any levity or variation in emotional tone without betraying the source text, which I blame on the story itself.