You made me read it: Parable of the Sower

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.

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13 thoughts on “You made me read it: Parable of the Sower

  1. „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 than just running 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 only way to go. This is probably why I’m not a huge science fiction fan.“

    My feelings exactly!

    Not about this book, which I haven‘t read (and am unlikely to read), but about SF in general. Kudos for wanting to tackle the sequel even though you‘re not favorably impressed with the first book.

    How are you getting on with Hotzenplotz, btw … if you‘re still reading that, too?

    1. I finished Hotzenplotz, very chuffed with myself that I completed a whole book in German! I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’m looking forward to the Summer in Other Languages project and Die Kleine Hexe.

      Anyway, I’m glad you can sympathize with my SF feelings. Maybe food for a discussion post some day.

      1. I‘d love to see that post.

        And congrats on finishing Hotzenplotz! I hope you likedit, too …

        Did we ever set a start date for Die kleine Hexe?

  2. No, no, no, no, no! The idea of Earthseed is only about space travel on the surface. The idea is that the only constant–the only thing we can count on–is change.
    In the Parable of the Talents, a president arises whose motto is “Make America Great Again” because he is a symptom of the backward thinking of adults. Lauren is teaching the young people to look ahead, to change, to adapt (Bankole doesn’t take to this as easily, being old).
    The idea is not “to escape from our hopelessly damaged planet and find a new place” but to have an idea that brings people enough hope to go on. In the process of inventing space travel–of valuing scientific endeavor–Lauren and her people might discover ways to halt problems like climate change.
    I really, really hate it when people say we have to “deal with our problems on earth before we can go to space.” Space is not a luxury; it is a way to learn more and apply what we know.
    Learning how to deal with change is definitely not a luxury. As Butler’s uncanny predictions show, it’s a necessity if we don’t want to end up with backwards-thinking thugs in power. This already happened in the US and if we don’t want it to happen again, we’ve got to give “the deplorables” some hope for change, to keep them from longing for some mythical time in the past when supposedly things were good.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough comment. Apologies that I did not acknowledge the centrality of change to the Earthseed creed. Learning to deal with change is indeed much needed in our world and it’s interesting that Lauren gives it so much importance in her ideas. But I’m not sure that calling it “God” is enough; for religious development to take place there have to be practices, not just intellectual statements. I also found the doctrine to be lacking some important nutrients, like love and compassion.

      I’m not saying we need to deal with problems on earth before going to space. I’m just saying that I personally find space travel uninteresting compared to the problems posed by inner soul development and human relationships. If you go into space with those unaddressed, you’re going to carry them right along with you. In our time, I think we have an unhealthy obsession and over-preoccupation with technical progress that blinds us to other things that are equally or more important.

      It’s the same if you leave space out of the equation and focus on earth problems alone, e.g. climate change, adverse political developments, etc. Any problems you solve “out there” in the world, in other people or external systems, will ultimately be failures unless there is personal, individual, inner transformation. I did not perceive any of the latter in this book, but I’m happy to have it pointed out if I missed something.

  3. All of Butler’s books are uncomfortable reading, in my opinion. That is one of the things I like about her, though I wouldn’t read her books back-to-back. She never pulls her punches.

    What impressed me most about The Parable of the Sower was her prescience about the future American society and politics. It was written almost 30 years ago and much of what is depicted in the book is now fact.

    I think this was supposed to be a trilogy but Butler’s untimely death meant that the third book remains unwritten. I have’t read the second book yet either. But I wlll one of these days.

    1. Yes, I’m going to wait a little till my next Butler read, and arm myself inwardly. Sad that the third book could not be written. I guess that’s the one where they would have actually reached out for the stars.

    1. Yes it was interesting to say the least. I have to say that there have been good developments too which she did not foresee. It’s harder to remember those – the human brain is biased toward disasters. I could have done with some of that balance here but I’ll have to settle for trying to keep it in mind in real life.

  4. The prescient aspect in the book, in terms of recent history and present ills, is something that despite expressions of hope I would struggle with; it’s why I stalled on Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here when I began it in early 2017.

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