Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Damian Duffy, John Jennings, & Octavia E. Butler (2020)

February 13th, 2020 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A spectacular reincarnation of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher, ABRAMS Books. Trigger warning for violence, including rape. Click on the images to embiggen.)

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for upwards of fifteen minutes, trying to figure out how best to summarize the first half of (what I consider to be) Octavia E. Butler’s magnum opus, the Parables duology. In the interest of expediency, I’ll just lift the synopsis from my review of the original:

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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.”

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.

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Butler is one of my all-time favorite authors, second only to Margaret Atwood (who, admittedly, often suffers from some pretty glaring blind spots when it comes to race; see, e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale); and her Parables duology occupies a special, even vital, place in my heart.

So when I heard that Damian Duffy and John Jennings were working on a graphic novel adaptation, I did an ecstatic happy dance in my seat, and wondered at its progress at least once a week for the next nine months or so. If it was just half as good as their treatment of Kindred, I reasoned, I could die a happy fangirl.

As it turns out? Parable of the Sower is every bit as good as Kindred. Which is to say, not quite as good as the source material, but pretty damn close.

The artwork is gorgeous, and quite similar in style to that found in Kindred. The dull browns and beiges evoke the dreary hopelessness of Lauren’s world, and are juxtaposed with pages of vibrant (yet often threatening) reds and oranges, and moody, atmospheric blues.

The narrative text appears on ruled paper, expertly calling up images of Lauren’s journal, the birth place of Earthseed.

I love how Lauren’s style evolves with time as she adapts her appearance to the world around her: when she and her friends hit the road, Lauren chops all her hair off so that she can pass as a man.

As for the plot, Duffy manages to distill Butler’s wisdom from a 350-odd page book to a much shorter graphic novel with ease. It’s been a few years since I’ve read Parables, but I didn’t spot any significant changes to the plot or message. (Though some of the verses of Earthseed might have migrated from Talents to Sower. To wit: “In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn,” the latter portion of which will grace an upcoming science fiction anthology edited by Patrice Caldwell and featuring “16 stories of Black Girl Magic, resistance, and hope.” I CANNOT WAIT.)

While I am indeed a sucker for feminist dystopian fiction, it’s Lauren’s science-based religion that really resonates with me. I feel like we’re kindred spirits in this way. I’m an atheist who understands that, sometimes, being an atheist sucks. It can be harsh and hurtful and bleak. Religion offers comfort in the face of adversity and loss. Saying goodbye to someone you love is painful; saying goodbye for forever is downright crushing. Sometimes I wish I believed in the afterlife, in a Good Place and a Bad Place, or in karma and reincarnation. I wish I had hope that I’d see my lost loved ones again.

But I can’t make myself believe in something I don’t, and so I stitch together my own little safety blanket of quasi-religious truths. Lauren’s Books of the Living plays a pretty hefty role, as does Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (especially the scenes where Lyra and Will lead the despairing spirits from the World of the Dead so that they can reunite with their daemons in the natural world).

There’s Carl Sagan’s starstuff and Aaron Freeman’s “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.”

The collective consciousness known simply as the Library in Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies trilogy, and Griffin’s ideas about alternate universes in Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me.

Theo Pappas’s ideas about thoughts, memories, and electrical impulses; heat and light; gas and carbon and star parts, given life and form and structure by Erika Swyler in Light from Other Stars.

The wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff in Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel, and the implications this mutability of death holds for the grieving.

And then there are maxims like these.

While Parable of the Sower is a grim story, all the more so for its prescience, it is not one without hope: like a phoenix from the ashes, Lauren rises from the rubble that was her home and introduces her fellow survivors and refugees to a new way of thinking, believing, and being. A spirituality that celebrates harmony with the natural world, rather than a system of dominance and destruction. A journey rooted in truth, yet propelled upward by visions of something better. Earthseed is lovely and brimming with promise, and I hope it takes root (though not among the stars – not until humanity can be entrusted with its own home planet, anyway).

(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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