Author: Octavia E. Butler
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: November 1, 1993
When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.
The year is 2024, and protagonist Lauren Olamina lives in a walled community in Southern California. Predominantly lower class, this neighborhood is rich and thriving compared to those living unprotected beyond the wall. Add to that the fact that this walled community is predominantly black and Hispanic and you’ve got the makings of some serious class and racial resentment.
Many dystopian novels address the disregard for the law that inevitably crops up when the world appears to be/has ended. Butler pushes this farther by exploring how social norms can become warped or be transgressed in these societies. This phenomenon is evident throughout the text in the palpable, visceral racism of this dystopian world. Lauren frequently remarks upon the romantic relationships of her travelling companions, noting that their inter-racial love affairs are bound to get them all killed. In a world where nothing makes sense anymore, people must stay in their clearly defined categories lest they become targets of violence.
And man is there a lot of violence in Parable of the Sower. Anyone who finds sexual assault triggering may want to leave off this one.Butler doesn’t shy away from the horrors of a devolved society, including rape and torture. These scenes are not graphic: rather Lauren notes the evidence of these occurrences with the detached calm of someone traumatized and in shock. Admittedly the combination of overt racism and rape made me very upset, but in a way I think that references to these instances were necessary. Parable of the Sower deals with the nature of humanity, and the sad fact of the matter is that some people will manipulate social circumstances in order to control, overpower, and suppress others.
But where there is tragedy and darkness there are also those willing to help. That’s where Lauren and her rag-tag band of followers come in. It’s also where things start to get a bit weird. Lauren suffers from hyper-empathy disorder, a condition where she internalizes the pain that she sees around her. Although she knows that this disorder is psychological in nature, she cannot control it and is subjected to physical trauma as a result. The most obvious example occurs when she shoots a wild dog in self-defence and is thrown to the ground in crippling pain, feeling as though she herself has been shot. It’s trippy, but you’ve just got to ride the wave.
Lauren’s hyper-empathy puts her in a unique position to understand the suffering and joy of those around her, a useful skill for a prophet of a new religion. She calls this religion Earthseed and preaches its doctrine to her comrades, gaining a few tentative converts along the way. I found Earthseed fascinating. The central tenet is this:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Clearly a religion about change would have a certain appeal in a dystopian society. It gives Lauren and her followers hope for the future, hope that all of this destructive change isn’t a sign that God has abandoned them. Lauren believes that the ‘destiny’ of Earthseed is to be among the stars, which is just a fancy way of saying that she things humans must leave the wreckage of Earth behind and seek new life on another planet.
Parable of the Sower is the most philosophical dystopia I’ve ever read – in fact I think it’s the only philosophical dystopia I’ve read. If you’re not put off by some disturbing content and you’re interested in issues of gender, race, and religion in SFF, I highly recommend this one to you. I think it’s going to stay with me for a long time.