Review of Octavia E. Butler’s Novel “Parable of the Sower” (2000)


Cover art for the novel “Parable of the Sower”





This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from award-winning author Octavia E. Butler “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale” (John Green, New York Times)–now with a new foreword by N. K. Jemisin.

I’ve heard the name Octavia E. Butler for some time now, and have been meaning to read one or more of her books. She has an interesting background and is generally considered one of the most important science fiction authors of her generation, particularly as a woman of color. Sadly, she passed away in 2006, although the cause is attributed either to a stroke or a head injury acquired during a fall.

Here’s more about her:

Octavia Estelle Butler, often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction,” was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. She received an Associate of Arts degree in 1968 from Pasadena Community College, and also attended California State University in Los Angeles and the University of California, Los Angeles. During 1969 and 1970, she studied at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor), and which led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories.

Butler’s first story, “Crossover,” was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology. Patternmaster, her first novel and the first title of her five-volume Patternist series, was published in 1976, followed by Mind of My Mind in 1977. Others in the series include Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), which won the James Tiptree Award, and Clay’s Ark (1984).

With the publication of Kindred in 1979, Butler was able to support herself writing full time. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for her short story, “Speech Sounds,” and in 1985, Butler’s novelette “Bloodchild” won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and an award for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle.

Other books by Octavia E. Butler include the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989), and a short story collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995). Parable of the Sower (1993), the first of her Earthseed series, was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The book’s sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), won a Nebula Award.

In 1995 Butler was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

I felt it necessary to share something about this writer before plunging into my review of 1993’s (renewed in 2000) novel Parable of the Sower since who she is, her background, and her understanding of many religious, social, and environmental issues are at the heart of this book.

The novel centers around a black teenage girl named Lauren Olamina who lives with her family in a walled community outside of Los Angeles in the early 2020s. Global climate change has created an environment where food, water, and jobs are all in a short supply, and people have banned together to form self-sustaining (for the most part) closed communities to protect themselves against, the street poor, criminal gangs, drug addicts, and other threats.

Lauren suffes from “hyperempathy” as the result of her mother’s drug use when pregnant with Lauren. It’s an effect whereby she feels intense pleasure or pain of anyone she sees who is undergoing such a state. If she sees someone break their leg, she feels the pain, though she does not suffer the damage. The importace of this quality is revealed late in the novel.

Her Mom gone and her Dad, a university instructor who is also a Baptist Minister for their community, has remarried and had several sons. In a silent rebellion against her father’s faith, Lauren begins to create a new religion, “Earthseed,” the god of which is “Change.” The author, according to the interview at the end of the edition I read, studied numerous world religions, including African religions, in crafting “Earthseed.”

Earthseed has two basic components. The first is to create a self-sustainingcommunity of diverse individuals who complement each others skills and attributes.

The second is to “seed” such groups in off-world colonies to make sure humanity survives.

In her world, there is still a government and still institutions such as law enforcement and fire fighting, but they charge for services, often more than their clients can afford, and are often inept or corrupt.

Lauren believes that her community will eventually be overrun by gangs and addicts. Already, many climb over their walls to steal money, equipment, and food. Everyone over the age of fifteen carries a gun, if they can afford one, and there are regular patrols at night, but they have limited effectiveness.

When she turns eighteen, Lauren plans to leave the community and go north, where it is believed that food and water are cheaper and jobs are plentiful. However, the borders to Oregon, Washington, and Canada are closed and guarded by armed agents who will shoot anyone who tries to get in.

Disaster strikes, and the community is invaded. Lauren manages to barely escape, but later finds out her family was murdered. She goes back the next day, posing as a scavenger, and collects money and supplies. She discovers the brutally raped and dead bodies of girls and women, one as young as eight, as well as most of her neighbors. After leaving, she is found by two survivors, a 21 year old black woman and a teenage white male. Together, they start the long trek north.

Slowly, they gather allies, including parents with small children. Lauren manages to convert some of them to her Earthseed religion, but others remain skeptical. Traveling across California’s freeway system, they encounter numerous perils, but finally, a 57-year-old black man who has joined them, becomes lovers with the now eighteen-year-old Lauren, and he reveals that not only was he a medical doctor, but that he owns a large parcel of land in northern California he is willing to share with “Earthseed.”

It isn’t a total victory. The man’s sister and brother-in-law who were supposed to be working the land were found murdered with their children, and their house burned to the ground. The local police don’t know or don’t care what happened. There’s still danger, even in a semi-isolated community, but the group settles there facing an uncertain future.

Science fiction is replete with end-of-the-world dystopias, but what makes this one stand out is how it tends to mirror many of the actual events of the second decade of the 21st century. Still, it’s a dystopia with all of the standard earmarks including a heroic group of outcasts, corrupt cops, drug-crazed gangs, and tons and tons of graphic violence.

I have to believe that Ms. Butler channeled some of her lived experience into her rather grim future.

In spite of her research, Ms. Butler, who describes herself as a “former Baptist,” seems to make the classic error of mistaking aspects of the universe for the universe’s Creator. Change is simply a process, and her book even mentions the second law of thermodynamics or entropy, the characteristic of matter and energy by which is moves from more organized to less organized over time. Yes, change is inevitable, but it is not causal. A more modern interpretation would be to worship the “god” of progressivism, the idea that socially, everything just keeps getting better and better. They don’t by the end of Butler’s novel, but she sows the seed of hope within Earthseed. The world, however, is going to pot more and more each day with no let up in sight.

Relative to “God is change,” on page 262 of my edition, the question was asked, if Jesus were here today, would he be Baptist, Methodist, Catholic…?” Butler missed the obvious and eternal, he would be Jewish.

As far as hyperempathy goes, it seems Lauren isn’t the only one. It also seems that large corporations are buying up communities and hiring the inhabitants, paying them in company script instead of real money, perpetually keeping them in debt, and hampering any means of escape. Thus slavery has returned to the post-modern world and hyperempaths seem to be more easily controlled.

It seems in her world, a lot of people have grown up illiterate. Both her Dad and Step-Mom were teachers, so Lauren reads and writes well. The book is crafted as a series of her journal entries plus the Earthseed verses, so she has a valuable skill to offer. In her world, literacy is power, to which wholeheartedly agree.

Although Butler has researched firearms for this and previous novels, she obviously has never used one. She committed the classic mistake of referring to a semi-automatic weapon’s magazine as a “clip” (and I’ve done that before myself).

While this tale is much like many other SciFi dystopias that have appeared over the past fifty or sixty years or more, what sets it apart is how topical it is in our world, and Butler’s unabashed presentation of how disadvantaged populations would be the most impacted.

Given the immigration crisis at the southern border of the United States, people living in constant danger, victimized by corrupt governments and corporations, lack of food, water, and jobs, and the looming threat of an ever-heating world seems to be reflected from this novel into today’s headlines…and tomorrow’s. I think that’s why she wrote the book.

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