Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is quite horrible in places, not least because the world Butler creates is so similar to our own – indeed, it could be our own in certain slants of light. It’s set in the 2020s: climate change has made swathes of America into deserts with little rain. Society and the rule of law has all but broken down: poverty is common, money is worth less and less, and anyone venturing outside small walled-off communities risks being attacked. The police and the fire department do nothing without a bribe. And a popular demagogue who promises to relax labour laws for companies who’ll offer bed and board to employees is running for President.
Lauren Olamina is a teenage resident of one of those small walled-off communities: a cul-de-sac occupied by ten or so families. Her father’s lucky enough to have a job – he’s a lecturer at a local college, and so has to leave home once a week or so to go to work – but money’s still tight: she and her stepmother run a school for the local children to make a little extra, and everyone in the community grows food in their gardens.
For the past few years Lauren’s been developing her own religion: Earthseed. Earthseed’s central tenet is that
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
And it considers humanity’s ultimate objective to be travelling to other planets, “liv[ing] among the stars”.
She’s also been taking note of conditions outside; she knows something’s coming for their community, even as the adults who have known a better America deny it. And then, one day, it does: the community is attacked by street poor and scavengers, for their food and their money. Her family are killed (and the women raped; sadly this is one of those novels that uses sexual violence against women as a shorthand for How Bad Things Have Gotten), and Lauren’s only choice is to flee with the last remnants of the community, into a world where everyone is competing for food and water and money, in the hope of founding the first Earthseed community.
The most obvious thing to focus on, formally speaking, is Butler’s choice to narrate the novel through diary entries of Lauren’s, with no framing paraphernalia save the occasional Earthseed verse, which are also written by Lauren. I think we can link this with the fact that the community that’s destroyed is made up almost entirely of people of colour, and that most of the characters in the novel as a whole are people of colour. Unlike a lot of SFF, this is not a novel that centres power; it does, in fact, the opposite, centring people who don’t have power; people left behind by a retreating wave of privilege. (Lauren’s father, a lecturer and a Baptist minister, would once have been middle-class.) What’s more, Lauren is a hyperempath: she experiences the pain and pleasure that others feel. Like a lot of minorities today, she’s expected to take on the emotional burdens of others and to think of this as a gift (at one point a character comments that the world would be a better place if everyone was a hyperempath; Lauren soon sets him straight); whereas, in fact, it places her life in danger – being temporarily disabled by someone else’s pain is a real concern for her.
And, although Parable of the Sower is occasionally horrible, hard to read in the way that only near-future dystopia can be, it’s also full of hope. As the nascent Earthseed community grows, as they walk north, they can afford to be kinder; a group of five can risk more altruism than a band of three. It’s a practical demonstration of why community is important – there tends to be a lot of abstract feelgood moralising about the benefits of kindness, which is important too, but very rarely is it put into such terms: a small kindness making bigger kindnesses physically safer down the line. And it’s also a story about people without power rejecting a system that turns them against each other; choosing to follow the path of altruism and mutual support. And as such, it’s a novel that probably couldn’t be more important than it is now, in a time when forces from all sides are trying to divide us in the name of an increasingly unsustainable neoliberal system.
That’s not to say I didn’t have problems with Parable of the Sower. In particular, I found myself pushing back against Lauren’s self-presentation as an unusually wise teenager who knows best in every situation. I’m all for teenagers who are competent and brave and able to deal with complex situations; but I’m also all for realistic teenagers, people who are still young and who make mistakes. I feel like we’re asked to read Lauren as a kind of Chosen One: a visionary with the determination, the strength of mind and the practical knowledge to build a new world. I wanted to read her more as the leader of a cult, asking her followers to believe in her absolutely – her way or the highway.
And, perhaps because I couldn’t place my faith entirely in her narrative voice, I also couldn’t help side-eyeing the book for thinking that a romantic relationship between a teenager and a 57-year-old is appropriate – even if said teenager is unusually emotionally mature (which I’m not convinced is the case with Lauren at all). I admittedly can’t remember exactly how old Lauren is, but she’s a teenager who’s recently lost her family – a vulnerable teenager, that is – and we’re expected to ship her with a randomer who could be her grandfather. Really? (I mean. It’s nice that Butler doesn’t ask us to judge her for starting up a new relationship after her teenage boyfriend dies in the attack on the cul-de-sac, but it would also be nice if her new relationship wasn’t entirely inappropriate.)
Parable of the Sower is a book that contains multitudes. There’s a lot in here to think about; you can see the novel being taught on university undergraduate courses on a wide range of literary subjects, actually. Some of those multitudes are problematic; but if you can stomach them (and I completely accept that not everyone will be able to), it’s worth a read.