Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 1993
I read Parable of the Sower for my “Make me read it challenge” — blog readers told me which of five choices on my TBR shelf to complete.
I’m not sure I would have gotten through it without the challenge, because this is a helluva bleak dystopian vision of America 30 years in the future — that is, now. It is fascinating how much Butler got right — a California devastated by drought and fire, rampant and destructive drug use, people walling themselves off in fear and distrust and turning to guns as the only answer for self-protection, a hopeless government that is selling out its own people … I could go on, but you get the idea. Butler could see the writing on the wall, and even though things are not quite as dire as portrayed in this novel, it increasingly feels as though we’re teetering on the brink of such total chaos.
The response of the young protagonist, Lauren, is to venture out looking for a place to build a better life, gathering a trusted set of people along the way as her community, and inventing an ersatz religion she calls “Earthseed” to give them hope and purpose. This creed, centering around the idea that “God is change,” does not get much actual play in this book, other than verses from her journal at the head of each chapter, and a few scenes in which she tries to explain it to other characters. To their credit, none of the characters seem very excited about the idea, and some of them consider it absolute bosh — but they like her, so they will go along with it anyway. I can only say, just asserting that something feels true to you, does not make it true. That’s not religion, that’s fanaticism.
The idea of Earthseed is that human beings need to escape from our hopelessly damaged planet and find a new place among the stars. I think it would be far more interesting to consider how people could deal with the problems on this world instead of imagining they can just run away to another one. The human mind seems irresistibly attracted to pouring resources, energy and ingenuity into creating complicated machines and solving technical problems, rather than transforming and healing relationships, but to me the latter is the the real issue and should not be forgotten in the whirl of technological progress. This is probably why I’m not a huge science fiction fan.
Another random aspect of the story is Lauren’s “hyperempathy,” a fetal-drug-induced condition that means she shares the feelings of other people, or rather what she thinks their feelings are. It makes things difficult, since in this world one has to be constantly ready to injure or kill people in self-defense, and that in turn can leave her incapacitated. I wondered why she couldn’t train herself not to imagine their feelings, since it’s her perceptions that are the problem. I suppose that would make her a psychopath, though. As it is, the condition has led her to be very cold and calculating about feelings and sensations, and (ironically) not very sympathetic in a normal sense. A creepy romance with a man 40 years older than her is also off-putting.
I was curious by the end how the community’s experiment would turn out, so I will probably read the next book, but I’m doubtful that I will find it an enjoyable experience, unless something happens to make Lauren click more with me.
What did you think of Parable of the Sower? I know it has lots of fans, since you told me to read it … and I’m glad I did, even though it was an uncomfortable experience.