Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the SowerTitle: Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1)

Author: Octavia E. Butler

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Publication Date: November 1, 1993

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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
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

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.

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  • This book sounds fantastic. I’ve only read one other book by Butler (and that was ages ago!) but remember thinking it was very thoughtful & well-written, sounds like this is a trend for her! Definitely want to check this one out.

    • It really is! Octavia E. Butler is seriously amazing. My introduction to her was through one of my English classes – we had to read her short story “Bloodchild” and it was fantastic. Her books are readable but deal with some very challenging themes. If you like her style, definitely check this one out!

  • I’ve never read anything by Octavia Butler, but have heard what a good writer she is. This sounds very good.

    • I think Parable of the Sower is a great place to start if you’re interested in her work. It’s very accessible and fast-paced. Definitely one of my favourite reads of 2014 so far!

  • Tammy

    I actually own a copy of this but have never read it. She was an amazing writer and I love that she wrote a dystopian long before they became “the thing.” Now I shall have to dust it off and read it!

    • I know, she was kind of an unintentional SFF hipster that way – she wrote dystopian novels before they were cool. If you’ve liked any of her other stuff, you will love Parable of the Sower. It’s just so odd and different and searing and brilliant. Cannot praise it enough really.

  • I know that I’ve heard of this book, but I don’t think it ever made much of a dent interest-wise . . . until now 😉 Great review, Danya! Will definitely be checking this one out.

    • Excellent! What’s the point of reviews if not to convince people to read your favourite books, am I right?! I think you’ll really like it! Octavia Butler’s writing is just beyond compare.

  • Grace Troxel

    Great review! I’m a big fan of Octavia Butler, although I haven’t read this one yet. She’s brutal in the way that she gets her points across; she doesn’t shy away from exploring the evil that mankind is capable of.

    • Thank you! Brutal is the perfect way to describe Butler. She’s not afraid of portraying real suffering, but she’s skilled enough to keep it from being gratuitous. I’ve got to read more of her work – I’m actually planning on reading Kindred soon!

      • Grace Troxel

        Oooh, Kindred is one of my all-time favorite books. The fact that she throws a modern character into the past makes it even more of a shock, because you can’t tell yourself “Oh, that’s just how society was back then”. It’s very powerful.