Parable of the Sower is the second novel of Octavia Butler’s that I’ve read, but in some ways it feels like my first. Six years ago, I didn’t understand why Octavia Butler is venerated as one of the best science fiction authors of the twentieth century. Now that I have a bit more practice at reading critically, I can better engage with her exceptionally strong writing and storytelling, and the many thought-provoking themes and ideas she infuses into every page.
In 2024, the United States is collapsing under the weight of environmental disasters, a barely-functioning economy, and a breakdown of law and order. The middle class has been well and truly erased by this point, water is a luxury for all but the rich, and people live either in walled neighborhoods sealed off from the rest of the world or out on the streets, easy prey for others who are just as poor and desperate as themselves. Add into the mix an addictive drug known as “pyro” that gives people powerful urges to set everything on fire, and California is officially a hotbed of violent chaos.
Lauren Olamina lives in a walled-off neighborhoods several miles away from Los Angeles. A preacher’s daughter who stopped believing in her father’s god long ago, Lauren has developed over the years the beginnings of a brand-new religion she names Earthseed, wherein God is Change, a force that shapes humans and which humans shape in turn. While her dying neighborhood struggles to get by and clings to the memories of a time when the United States was whole and strong, Lauren believes Earthseed is her best chance—humanity’s best chance—for survival in this current world. When Lauren’s neighborhood and family are destroyed in a single blow, she joins the flood of people traveling north seeking refuge. And along the way, she experiences the progression of Earthseed from an idea to a prototype and maybe—just maybe—a community, held together by a newly-shared faith.
Dear god, this book. This book was an experience. Action-packed and tense, then slow and contemplative in turn, Butler’s prose is so confident and self-assured that it doesn’t even “read” like writing. Really, Parable of the Sower feels like the actual origin story of an existing religion, the opening epic of its founder Lauren Olamina as she travels the length of the West Coast, gathering together the people who will be the first to hear and learn the tenets of Earthseed.
Reading this book in 2016, the future Butler wrote of the United States in the 2020s is both terrifying and familiar. With the sole exception of the drug pyro, all the world-building details create a believable future that’s all-too easy to see how we would get there. In 2024, there are zero paying jobs to be had, leaving young people with no chance of earning money and thousands of people homeless and having to steal from everyone else in order to survive. Not that money’s worth much anymore, what with soaring food and water prices, exacerbated by the terrible drought California’s been experiencing for years. Federal, state, and local government has long become a joke—towns are being privatized by corporations and turned into early-20th-century-style company towns, and indentured servitude and slavery are on the rise in farms and factories. People turn north looking for jobs, cheaper water, a new life, but there are guards and walls keeping everyone out. This believable near-future is even more remarkable given that Parable of the Sower was first published in 1993.
Lauren is a fantastic character through which to view this future United States. It took me a while to get into her head because she is so serious and sensible and insightful than what appears to be normal for her late-teenage years. But all these qualities are what give her the forward-looking attitude she possesses, doing what’s necessary to survive now while thinking ahead for how to ensure survival as time goes on. And then she’s also smart, strong, level-headed, and a natural leader, filled with purpose and desire when it comes to the tenants of Earthseed she’s developed.
Her semi-detached perspective also throws into highlight just how brutal and dangerous her surroundings are. This is a purposefully violent book, where armed robbery and rape and murder are unavoidably common. Lauren was born with a condition she calls “hyperempathy”—whenever she sees anyone in physical pain, she feels it alongside them. And throughout Parable of the Sower, Lauren has to mediate between feeling another’s pain and hurting and killing others in order to stay alive.
Regarding Earthseed, I was continually impressed and inspired throughout Parable of the Sower at how Octavia Butler developed a belief system and basis for an entire new religion that felt realistic and that I didn’t automatically discredit. The fundamentals of Earthseed about the power and inevitability of change, and of human ability to work with, through, and be change themselves honestly felt inspiring as a philosophy to genuinely think about. (The copy of my book contains an interview where Butler says she took some amount of inspiration from Buddhism, but that there are major differences regarding what to actually do with change.)
Other things I loved include the enclave Lauren somewhat inadvertently gathers around her as she’s traveling north. This group of disparate, ragtag individuals hits all of my “found/forged families trope” buttons hard. I loved everyone sharing their collective stories and histories of hardship, supporting and giving what they have to protect each other, and drawing ever closer into what might be the seeds of an Earthseed community. Many of them such as Travis and Bankole even debate with Lauren over Earthseed, forcing her to think through and strengthen the fundamentals of her beliefs.
One fascinating aspect was that, unlike in probably every other dystopian novel, or any novel with a large group of adults on a long journey in which people seemingly inevitably pair up into couples, the coupling never becomes a source of tension or conflict. There’s no jealousy, no intra- or inter-couple problems—even when people pair off, the primary aim is still the survival and protection of the entire group and all its members.
I couldn’t stop reading Parable of the Sower. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about what I’d just read and looking forward to my next bus ride or bit of free time so I could get through a few more pages. Not only is the book an excellent science fiction story, it’s a wonderful story—I kept turning the page, wanting to see what happened next, biting my nails over Lauren’s fate and that of her friends, family, neighbors, and traveling companions. This book made me think about how individuals and groups of people cope in times of chaos, lean on each other, and strive to create and build something even as the world is burning down around them. It made me think about the future of the United States, and how forward-thinking Octavia Butler must have been to write a future of the United States that in 2016 feels like we’ve been on that track for a while now.
What this entire review boils down to is Parable of the Sower is freaking fantastic. I already have the next book Parable of the Talents in my possession, and while it’s not next on my reading list, it’s pretty close. I haven’t read this meaty and satisfying a science fiction novel in a long time, and I have a much better understanding for why Octavia Butler is one of the great science fiction authors. If you are in any way interested in near-future science fiction, read this book. If you’re not interested, read it anyway.