Cbr13bingo Gateway, Bingo #9-11 (horizontal, vertical and inner square)
Parable of the Sower (1993) is an astoundingly prescient work of science fiction. Octavia Butler (1947-2006), winner of Nebula, Hugo and MacArthur prizes, tells the story of hyperempath Lauren Olamina in mid-2020s California. I reviewed this novel for the 2015 Cannonball Read, and I do believe that it (or really any written by Butler) would be a Gateway to reading more sci-fi/fantasy, and I hope a Gateway to reading more by Butler. Butler writes powerfully and passionately about a world in the throes of self-destruction. It is in many ways an accurate depiction of the world we currently inhabit. In this world, however, a condition known as “hyperempathy” afflicts some, including Lauren, causing them to feel the pain that those around them experience. Is this a weakness in a world being ripped apart by violence, chaos, and natural disaster? Or is it a strength that will propel Lauren toward building a new and better society? Parable of the Sower is book one in a duology, so those questions will not be answered yet, but Butler shows her readers the dangers that Lauren and her friends face in their mission to escape and against all odds create their own community.
The book begins in the year 2024, in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Robledo. Like most other communities, it is walled and gated as a means of survival. Outside the walls, chaos reigns. Gangs, drug addicts, the poor live outside and will resort to any and all means to survive. Guns are everywhere, and although expensive, they are necessary for protection. Lauren Olamina and other teens in her community are taught how to use them; guns are an essential tool for survival in a world where police and other first responders most likely won’t respond to a crisis, and if they do are as likely to engage in crime as to fight against it. Lauren is the oldest of five children. Her father is both minister to their community and a university employee outside it. Her step-mother and younger half-brothers mostly stay within the walls of the community. They and the neighbors have their own school, neighborhood watch, and social support system. Lauren and her father are Black, as are some others in the neighborhood. For the most part, whites and Blacks get along ok, but outside the walls, those who are not white are targeted. Lauren’s condition as a hyperempath is a secret, known only within her family. Her father’s fear is that it could be used against her, to hurt her and perhaps force her to do things in order to protect herself from pain. Lauren is a very smart teenager who is sharply aware of the dangers surrounding her and her community. She knows that the walls that protect them won’t last forever, and she gets frustrated when her friends and family shut her down for trying to talk about this and prepare for it. Her father understands and encourages her to read books on survival, learn to be a good shot, and have an escape bag ready when the time comes. For several years, the community stays together, but eventually, Lauren’s worst nightmares come true. The descriptions of the violence that rocks her community are graphic and hard to read. The end of the Robledo community marks the beginning of Lauren’s new life, one she had prepared for and yet is not prepared for.
Unbeknownst to anyone else, Lauren had planned to leave the community when she was 18 anyway (she is 18 when the walls come down), and she had plans to start a new kind of religion or belief system called Earthseed. In her diaries, Lauren writes the principles of this way of living/believing. The idea is that God is change; those who look to the past and hope for a return of the good old days are fooling themselves. The only constant is change, and in embracing that change and trying to shape it, trying to shape the world to come, there one experiences “God.” Lauren also believes that the key to the future is in the stars, as in space travel and not astrology. When Lauren finds herself on the outside of the walls with her pack and just a couple of other Robledo survivors, she and they begin a journey northward to what they hope will be a safer environment with a chance at building a new life.
The story of this journey is full of dangers — both from criminals and from natural disasters. Lauren and her friends are not the only ones on the road. Thousands of people are doing the same thing they are, migrating northward on foot and in need of basic things like clean water (more expensive than gas) and food. Entry in to other states and Canada is guarded, making crossing borders perilous. Drugged up arsonists are a real terror, as are California wildfires. Other travelers are not to be trusted, and yet on this journey, Lauren will find the number of people traveling with her, trusting her sense and even sometimes listening to her ideas about Earth Seed, expand. By the end of this novel, she has 12 “disciples.”
When I read this book 6 years ago, I didn’t continue to the second volume for some reason. I am going to rectify that mistake with my next review. Parable of the Sower is a fascinating, terrifying story that is more gripping now because so much of what Butler imagined happening in 2020s America is coming true. Those who shun sci-fi because it’s too “out there” or unrealistic should pick up this novel and get ready to be amazed by her incredible story telling and compelling characters.