The Parable of the Sower, by the brilliant Octavia Butler (author of Kindred), is a piece of dystopian fiction set in California in the 2020s. It’s not clear precisely what happened, but rule of law and access to utilities, education, and basic necessities have been severely curtailed. Our narrator is Lauren Olamina, a teenager who lives inside one of the remaining walled communities on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Lauren is a “sharer” or “feeler,” i.e., a person who has a condition called hyper empathy syndrome. This means she shares the pleasure and pain of others to the point that in her childhood she bled at the sight of others’ bleeding. If she sees someone wounded, she feels their wound. Her condition is a secret to all but her immediate family and it doesn’t seem to weigh down on Lauren too much most of the time, but she knows that a time is coming when the walled world as they know it will end. Lauren wants to be prepared.
Lauren’s community – Robledo – is an interesting mix of people who have learned to live together for mutual protection and survival. Lauren’s family and several others are African American, but there are Latino and white families within the walls, too. None are “well off,” but they would have been middle class before the troubles. Now they try to grow food in their own gardens, raise rabbits, access limited amounts of radio/TV/computer time, and travel armed and in groups when they leave the compound. In Butler’s dystopian future, race relations are still problematic. While Robledo is multi-racial and largely peaceful, mixed marriage is still taboo and in the outside world, people of color are not welcome in some of the newer walled communities. Women are generally second class citizens in this future world, too, and have a very difficult time finding work outside the walls.
The world outside is rife with violence and chaos for the homeless poor; drug addicts and gangs rule the streets. The police and fire departments work for hire and are inherently corrupt. Gunfire is constantly heard and arson is a typical occurrence due to a street drug known as “pyro.” Users get an intense high from setting and watching fires, and then committing atrocious acts of brutality against any who cross their path. At the age of 15, all the kids in Robledo learn to handle firearms. Lauren’s father, who is both a university employee and the local minister, oversees gun training, which is done outside the walls of Robledo. Lauren’s hyper empathy causes her some painful moments but she becomes an excellent shot, largely because she knows that whatever wound she inflicts, she will feel herself. Better to make a clean kill than wound.
Within the walls of Robledo, some of the young people, like Lauren’s friend Joanne, seem content to continue to live as their parents live. The parents remember “the good old days” of the 1990s and expect that one day, they’ll have their old way of life back again. Lauren wisely sees that this will never happen and that it won’t be possible to live much longer within the walls. Either some violence from outside will force them out or the desire of some of the younger generation to find something better will break them apart.
Thus, Lauren begins her preparations. She reads whatever she can about survival tactics, native plants, self-defense, and she prepares an emergency pack to grab if the worst happens and the walls come down. She also begins a diary in which she develops the ideas that form the basis for her new religion, Earthseed. This is the part of the novel that I find fascinating. For Lauren, God is not some all powerful being; rather God is change. Change is inevitable but we can influence change by anticipating it, being prepared, and adapting accordingly. “…God [change] is better partnered than fought.” As a couple of her friends point out, Lauren’s religion sounds like it’s based on the second law of thermodynamics — change is inevitable. But for Lauren, the problem with people is that they try to live as if life didn’t change.
…there’s no power in having strength and brains, and yet waiting for God to fix things for you or take revenge for you.
When a friend asks her why she doesn’t refer to Earthseed as an idea instead of “God,” Lauren replies that people forget ideas but when they are scared and desperate, they remember God.
Lauren also sees the importance of community, that no one can make it alone in the world. For reasons I won’t explain (you should definitely read this book!) Lauren does find herself outside the walls with a few others. She has to put her ideas into practice now in a quest to find a new, safer place to live. One of the tenets of Earthseed is that we must embrace diversity or be destroyed, that we can create communities and “shape God.” The ultimate goal of Earthseed is “to take root among the stars.” In other words, Lauren sees the future of humanity in the colonization of space.
As Lauren and her band move northward for safer land, they encounter quite a bit of violence, natural disasters, and a few travelers whom they come to trust. And we learn more about the political and economic situation in the country: the return of company towns, debt slavery, factories run on slave labor, the possible political motives of pyro addicts. Lauren for the first time meets other “sharers” and discovers how their condition was used against them and their children. It’s quite chilling. Incidentally, the sharers we meet are all people of color and the male sharer seems to have a much harder time dealing with his hyper empathy than the females. There’s a discussion topic for you!
This book is full of interesting characters (like the members of Lauren’s family, whom I’ve not really discussed here, and her fellow travelers on the road), and it raises a lot of important questions about race, sex, economics, politics, and God. If you read and enjoyed Station Eleven, I think this book would appeal to you. The violence can be quite graphic, but ultimately both novels want us to think about moving forward, building a new world instead of lamenting what’s lost, doing more than surviving.
God is Change, and in the end, God prevails. But God exists to be shaped. It isn’t enough for us to just survive.