PARABLE OF THE SOWER (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in October 1993
This edition published on November 8, 2016 by Seven Stories Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆
TW: Graphic depictions of violence, rape, slavery, mentions of cannibalism, romance with a large age gap
I’ve been hearing about Butler’s works for awhile, so I was finally glad to be able to buddy-read her Earthseed duology with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. (Melanie’s reviews will also out this week, so head over to her blog to check them out!) One thing that struck us both about the Earthseed series was how 2020 it feels despite being published nearly two to three decades ago. While there’s no pandemic in the series, there is a general sense of anarchy, chaos, and suspicion that pervades the atmosphere of these two works, so that reading it feels eerily similar to watching the news headlines today.
The first book in the series, Parable of the Sower (1993), is set between the years 2024-2027. We follow the perspective of the 15-year-old protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina as she tells us her story in the form of journal entries. In the first half of the book, we watch Lauren and her family struggle to survive within their small walled community in L.A. In her world, basic necessities like water and food have become scarce; technology and education are luxuries that only the very rich can afford; crime is rampant; and the police cannot be trusted to enforce law and order. Every family is left to fend for themselves.
Perhaps a result of her environment, Lauren is practical and tough-skinned from a young age. While she does have a special condition called hyperempathy, which allows her to feel the pain and pleasure of other people, her condition ironically makes her more suspicious and wary rather than empathetic and trusting of others. She explains this is because sharers (those with hyperempathy) are typically looked down upon and exploited, so she does her best to hide her condition.
Just when things seem terrible enough, the story takes a turn for the worse towards the second half of the book: Drug addicts who get a sexual high from watching fire (yes, really) storm into Lauren’s community and raze it to the ground. During the panicked flight from the fire, Lauren is separated from her stepmother and her brothers, and she is forced to fend for herself. However, she journeys to find a safer community, she meets people along the way that she comes to trust and befriend. They eventually form their own community around Earthseed, the religion that Lauren creates (more on this later).
I’ll be honest here: I badly wanted to love this duology, especially since I admire and respect Butler’s work as a writer and activist. However, after finishing this book, I realized that I appreciated what Butler tried to attempt with this novel more than its execution.
I’ll start with what I liked about it. First, I appreciated Butler’s natural incorporation of BIPOC characters in the story without anyone feeling like the “token” minority. This was a rather eye-opening experience for me, since it revealed to me that I’m used to assuming a character is white unless otherwise stated. It was refreshing to finally be able to assume otherwise.
I also agreed with how Butler explored the themes of community, inclusivity, and human resilience. Butler’s imagined future is very much like our present in that misogyny and racism still exist, but in the community that Lauren creates, she clearly condemns those. Instead, she urges everyone to live as equals and to help each other according to their capacities. Butler’s vision of what an inclusive community can look like is also a vision I share.
However, Butler also imagines religion as necessary to hold such a community together, and this is where I diverge with her. As I’ve mentioned, Lauren creates the religion of Earthseed from scratch, initially done as a reaction to her father’s Baptist teachings, but eventually to capture what she thinks is “the truth” about the divine. Here are verses that form the backbone of Earthseed:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Earthseed views God as neither male nor female—in fact, God is not human. To Lauren, God is the impersonal force of change that shapes circumstances and that can also be wielded to shape circumstances.
I can appreciate this as a critique of monotheistic religions, but I don’t believe that inclusive and supportive communities require a religion as a foundation. Once you accept something as irrevocably true, as Lauren does with her idea of “God is Change”, this can easily ossify into dogma, at which point it risks becoming just like the religions it was founded to critique in the first place.
Aside from that, I also had some minor issues with the world-building. For one, the mechanics of Lauren’s hyperempathy is never fully explained. Lauren can only feel physical pain and sexual pleasure, but not emotions like sadness, fear, or confusion. While we were talking, Melanie mentioned how much more interesting the story would have been had Butler explored this hyperempathy more fully, but as it is in Sower, it just felt like something tacked onto an otherwise near-invulnerable protagonist.
Finally, the plotting also seemed haphazard to me. Since the story is told through a series of journal entries, Lauren often prefaces each entry by explaining the main event before letting us know the lead-up to it, which really killed the suspense for me. There were also a number of coincidences in the novel that seemed like easy solutions to the characters’ problems, but this actually didn’t bother me much—they were all struggling so much already that it was nice to see something good happen to them for once.
In the end, while Parable of the Sower wasn’t as emotionally gut-wrenching as I thought it might be, I still cared deeply for the characters and was content to ‘follow along’ with them on their journey, coincidences and all. And while I wasn’t convinced of the “truth” of Earthseed, I truly admired Butler’s attempt to criticise extremist monotheistic religions and to envision an entirely new belief system that would be more compassionate and inclusive to people from all walks of life. Overall, Parable of the Sower is a gritty, thought-provoking, and ultimately hopeful work about the power of community and human resilience. I recommend it if you’re interested in dystopian fiction, particularly in dystopian fiction that can help us re-envision social justice.
Have you read any of Butler’s works? What did you think of them?
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