Book Review: Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the SowerPARABLE 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
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

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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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler

  1. Pingback: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler – Grab the Lapels

  2. I didn’t mention this before, but it seems strange that Lauren would spend so much money on journals and writing utensils when they have very little money for food and water. While it’s harder for me to believe, it also suggests she truly is a creative person, a writer, and for that reason it was easier for me to believe that she was into more creative arts in the second book, such as drawing. Reading her journals didn’t bother me because I felt like she had time to process the event before sharing it, but would it have been much different, then, if the novel had been in third-person limited?

    1. Hmmm, I never questioned that because she always seemed to have spare cash that she never showed anyone else—I remember feeling good about her survival when she was able to retrieve the packet of money from the ground that her brother Keith left them. But yes, the fact that she got into drawing made me feel that she really was creative, too. Oooh, come to think of it, it might have been harder to ‘sell’ Earthseed to readers had it been told from a third person limited! It sounds more convincing seeing Lauren develop it from scratch.

  3. “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….” I didn’t want to repeat the whole paragraph, but I completely agree and couldn’t have put it better myself. Actually, I am currently reading Camus’ The Sisyphus Myth – he writes about something related (at least I think he does, to be fair it is quite difficult to read 😉 ). He attacks a lot of the existential philosophers who try to move on from having religion as the underlying foundation for everything and then in the end they still fall into some sort of “religion trap”.

    Wonderful review – it sounds interesting, but not sure it is for me. 🙂

    1. Ah, I have tried to read Camus before but my progress was so slow that I stopped! He’s definitely not easy to read. 🤣 And yes, that’s a great and concise point he makes—falling into a “religion trap” is the perfect way to put it. Thank you! Glad it helped you rule it out, then 🙂

  4. Literary Elephant

    Excellent review! I’ve been wanting to read Butler’s work for a while, and this is one of the titles I was curious about, but I think after reading your thoughts I might start elsewhere (Kindred is always so highly recommended!). I really like what you say about this book criticizing monotheistic religions, and I would agree about feeling that religion not needing to be a societal foundation. I do think that one of the main functions of religion is to build and maintain a like-minded community, and another is to establish morality, but there are definitely ways in which both can go wrong, and a society than work together and agree more or less on right vs wrong does not need that particular method of framework. That said, Lauren’s perspective sounds fascinating even if I wouldn’t necessarily agree with her, so I think I’ll still check this book out at some point!

    1. Melanie has also highly recommended Kindred! She mentioned that she found herself more emotionally engaged with that novel over this series, too, and that it had a very interesting moral conundrum at its heart. I would definitely pick up Kindred in the future, too.

      And yes, that’s a great point about the functions of religion! It’s probably why Lauren might have wanted religion to hold the community together in the first place—it’s one way of implementing the group’s common goal and moral code—but today we know that isn’t the only way to do that. Lauren is a truly fascinating character (I suppose one who starts one’s own religion is!) so I hope you do find the books thought provoking when you can pick them up! 🙂

  5. great review! this definitely sounds interesting enough that i’ll probably get around to it eventually, but with middling expectations. 🙂 i’m reading Kindred right now and am enjoying it but am not sure I really get along with Butler’s writing style.

  6. What a great, thorough review! I’m sorry the world and the writing didn’t work well for you, but I’m glad that the novel still gave you a lot to think about! I love the point you made that “once you accept something as irrevocably true, as Lauren does with her idea of “God is Change”, this can easily ossify into dogma.” Based on your review, I’m still fascinated by this book – but less hyped about it than I was before.

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