Book Review: Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)

May 14th, 2014 11:37 am by Kelly Garbato

200 Billion Stars

five out of five stars

Lauren Olamina isn’t like the other kids in her neighborhood, a walled-off city block in Robledo, just twenty miles outside of Los Angeles. Born to a drug-addicted mother, Lauren is afflicted with hyperempathy – the ability to share in the pain and pleasure of others, whether she wants to or not. This makes her an especially easy target for bullies – brother Keith used to make her bleed for fun when they were younger – so Lauren’s weakness is a carefully guarded secret, one shared only with her family. In this crumbling world, a near-future dystopia that’s all to easy to imagine, humans already devour their own: literally as well as figuratively. Lauren won’t make herself an easy meal.

As if her hyperempathy isn’t alienating enough, Lauren has another secret, one that she only shares with her diary. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Lauren no longer believes in her father’s god. Instead, she’s cultivating her own system of belief – Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Lauren gathers these verses into a book that she comes to think of as “The Books of the Living.” Her new religion? Earthseed. Its destination? The stars.

Parable of the Sower is Lauren’s journal (of a sort). Begun on the eve of her 15th birthday and concluding more than three years later, through her diary we witness the collapse of Lauren’s fragile world. In a country wracked by poverty, climate change, mass unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, class warfare, and unspeakable violence, Lauren’s small community is a fortress of sorts. Though they’re far from well-off, the diverse neighborhood manages to produce enough food and goods (and occasionally for-pay labor) to sustain itself. The residents put personal animosity aside to protect and care for one another: rotating night watches keep would-be thieves at bay; when one resident’s garage catches fire, everyone becomes a firefighter; and Lauren’s step-mom Cory schools the neighborhood kids in her own home, since it’s too dangerous to venture outside the walls.

It’s not much, but it’s home. But even at the tender age of 15, Lauren can see it unraveling: “We’ll be moved, all right. It’s just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces.” (page 136)

After a series of blows – the disappearance of Lauren’s father; several successful infiltrations by thieves; a fire that claims all but one member of its household – Lauren’s community finally falls. Drugged out on “pyro,” a group of painted arsonists torch the neighborhood, killing and raping its residents. Lauren is just one of three to escape. Along with Zahra – the youngest of Richard Moss’s wives – and fellow teenager Harry, they hit the road in search of water and work. A safe place to pitch their (proverbial) tent. And, for Lauren, a safe haven in which to establish the very first Earthseed community.

Parable of the Sower is a must read. A straight-up masterpiece. Originally published in 1993, it’s still painfully relevant – and painfully realistic – today. (Even as the gap between present and future has narrowed to a scant ten years; Parable of the Sower takes place between July 20, 2024 and October 1, 2027.) Butler weaves together myriad social and environmental justice issues into a powerful social critique that feels neither forced nor preachy. Antebellum slavery, indentured servitude, police abuse, sundown towns, the underground railroad, the conflict between security and privacy, the privatization of public resources, polygamy, human trafficking, sexual slavery, child rape, border wars, water scarcity, passing as male – all of these and more merit a mention (or sometimes many mentions) in Parable of the Sower.

Butler’s also created a cast that’s not only incredibly diverse – but also mostly lacking in white protagonists. (How refreshing!) In this future America, racism is alive and well: neighborhoods often segregate themselves according to race, making Lauren’s mixed-race home an anomaly. (Lauren is black, with half-brothers who are of African American and Mexican American descent.) As her mixed-race, mixed-gender group of refugees/would-be converts trek through California, they earn more than their fair share of suspicious stares. In a world where people distrust those who don’t look like them, Lauren’s community’s principle of “we all look out for each other” is a source of confusion – and not a little hostility.

After finishing Parable of the Sower, I was pissed – pissed that I wasn’t taught Butler in high school, right alongside Atwood and in lieu of the half dozen+ works of Shakespeare I labored through. (Someone please tell me this has changed?) My first Butler book was Lilith’s Brood, which I loved; Parable of the Sower is even better! I think I was more easily able to relate to the characters and the situations in which they found themselves minus the alien elements of Lilith’s Brood. Parable of the Sower is just a more accessible and easily-imaginable story.

I was worried that I might be put off by the more religious aspects of the Earthseed series, which is one reason why I put off reading it. Instead, I found Lauren’s new religion rather enchanting, and well in keeping with my own beliefs. (Two words: starstuff and dust.) More of a philosophy than a religion per se, Earthseed posits that the ultimate truth is change: everything changes. Change is constant. Change is unstoppable. Sometimes we can mold change; other times, change molds us. Rather than fight change, shape it when you can; when you can’t, bend to its will as needed. God is not a person; rather, God is change personified. Because a humanoid deity is what people have come to expect from their religion, Lauren makes the tactical decision to give it to them. Fellow traveler Bankle describes Lauren’s new religion as a blend of Buddhism, existentialism, and Sufism.

Just as God is change, Heaven is the stars: it is Earthseed’s destiny to travel to the stars and settle other planets in the universe. Humanity’s past is here on Earth; its future is there in the stars. As much as I love the idea, this is where I must part ways with Earthseed: humans have already destroyed one planet, and I’d rather not see it do the same to any others.

Parable of the Sower gets 200 billion stars: one for each star in the Milky Way.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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