Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler

Book cover

Last fall, I went to a book event with Nora Jemisin, in which she mentioned that it’s a good time for us all to read Butler’s “Earthseed” books again–or for the first time. I took this as a motivation to get at least this first volume off my “to-read” list and onto my “read” list. As usual, Jemisin did not steer me wrong. I found myself quite moved by this book, and particularly the protagonist Lauren Olamina–more so that by Butler’s “Kindred,” which I read late last year. I think perhaps “Kindred” had less impact on me because, while it was innovative at the time of its publication in depicting the evils of slavery quite graphically, it heralded a broader movement in that direction, so that the perspective was already familiar to me from works such as “Twelve Years a Slave.” By contrast, “Parable of the Sower” makes a new world for the reader to explore.

I take it as a sign of a good book, when I am constantly put in mind of other (good!) books while reading it. That was certainly the case with PotS. Probably the closest parallel that came to my mind was Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Both of these are sci-fi books (sorry Atwood, I’m calling it that) that extrapolate a dystopian future by combining and extending currents already in our society, with little or no new technology or science needed to support the narrative. (The only “invention” I can recall from PotS are various drugs–one of which does trigger the key plot item of Lauren’s “sharing”–but which seemed basically plausible.) There’s a pretty significant difference in tone, though, with THT being more “hours of boredom punctuated by unpredictable moments of terror,” and PotS adopting a more over-the-top style of dystopia that reminded me a bit of “The Hunger Games” and, frequently, the Reavers from “Firefly.” PotS records many, many rapes and murders, although for the most part they are not described graphically–Butler is certainly not taking a prurient view of the violent aspects of the setting.

I was also reminded a lot of the 2018 movie “Sorry to Bother You,” in particular the pseudo-slavery of StB’s WorryFree Corp. echoing the same arrangement described in PotS. (A lesser-quality artistic reference point would be “Elysium.”) The linkage isn’t much of a surprise because both works are fundamentally about societies of extreme economic inequality. This may be a good place to note that I found PotS to be extraordinarily prescient for a book published in 1993. (Certainly I would say we are closer to the world of PotS today than to the world of THT.) In particular Butler has astonishing foresight in incorporating climate change into her novel. The term “global warming” had barely just come into the public eye based on James Hansen’s Congressional testimony in 1988. Butler accurately depicts the disruptive impacts of climate change: increasing the frequency of extreme storms, increasing conflict over water, creating large numbers of climate refugees that in turn trigger a locking down of borders, and burdening the poor much more than the rich.

Of course, the heart of the book is not the setting, but the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, and the philosophy/religion of “Earthseed” that she develops. Outside of the book, Butler has spoken on the record about wanting to portray the life of someone who might in later eras come to be worshiped as a messiah or other religious figure. As such, while reading the book, I was constantly thinking about contrasts between Lauren and Paul Atreides/Muad’dib, the messianic figure from “Dune.” For me, Lauren is a much more compelling character than Paul. Paul (and later his son Leto II Atreides) comes to power and exerts power through carefully planned strategy, and his main “superpower” is prescience. In complete contrast, Lauren is feeling her way through, and literally writing the verses of Earthseed while she takes her first tentative steps toward introducing it to others. What’s more, the main tenet of Earthseed is “God is change.” Ultimately I don’t think Butler’s view of the situation is all that different from Herbert’s, as Herbert (at great length) finally comes around to show the oppression and stagnation of Leto II’s “golden path”–but Lauren is just a much more relatable image of the messiah avant la lettre. She is also not a white messiah who comes from afar to save a benighted people, but a black messiah who stands up to save her own people. Oh also, her only “superpower” is that she “shares” the pain (and pleasure) of people around her, in a way that is mostly crippling. Yet, she is also an admirable and distinctive character. She can be ruthless when needed yet also puts herself at great risk to help others. She has a powerful conviction in her philosophy, while simultaneously struggling to put it into words that will make sense to others. I also really appreciated that

The last major comparison work I want to mention is “The Grapes of Wrath,” that other great American novel of economic inequality. Both books feature forced “road trips” involving somewhat motley casts of characters thrown together, and you can see some aspects of Jim Casy in Lauren. The biggest innovation I see Butler adding to this road trip story is the slow accretion of new members into Lauren’s community. The subject of trust is a huge one in PotS, and Butler does a wonderful job of depicting the slow and iterative process of developing mutual trust in an unforgiving environment.

Finally, I’m still working to understand the intended significance of the title. There is a fairly obvious connection, in that Lauren is a messianic figure and much of the book describes her efforts to share her philosophy with others. (The Biblical PotS is about sharing the word of God, and all the ways that people can fail to receive it fully.) Yet the further content of the Biblical story seems to contrast with the story of Lauren. We do not see different people having clearly distinct types of reactions to Earthseed, like the nice taxonomy in the Biblical story. Rather, we see most of the people she shares it with having a similar reaction–starting out mostly skeptical but being willing to listen due to the respect they accord Lauren, and gradually coming to accept the ideas more and more. My tentative conclusion is that Butler means to alter the emphasis of the story to match the title; that is, to re-focus it on the sower herself. The Biblical story has virtually nothing to say about the actual character of the sower–in fact if anything we might conclude that the Biblical sower is some automated process operating at random, as he seems to scatter seed with equal probability on all sorts of unsuitable locations. Butler’s innovation is to show us the process of Lauren deciding to become a sower and working out how best to play that role.

The only thing I can recall not really liking about the book is how it is told through the construct of Lauren’s diary. I wasn’t really sure what this bought Butler beyond a more standard first-person limited narrator, in Lauren’s voice. At times, the content stretches the credibility of this frame–particularly when dialog is being recounted. A person writing a diary would almost always just paraphrase the nature of a conversation, and long stretches of quoted dialog just kind of take me out of the “diary” concept. I suppose Butler may have chosen this to reinforce the messianic nature of Lauren–that perhaps we are to take it that Lauren’s journals have been preserved and treated as holy texts. It may be that the “Parable of the Talents” will make this clearer.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars