I have been meaning to read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower for a while now. I can’t exactly remember what impressed me to add it to my list anymore. I sorted by to-reads shelf by date and aimed for books that I added back when I just started my Goodreads account, and Parable stuck. It also happened to be available at the UW library, so it had that going for it as well.
The Parable is the generation of dystopian novels before it was cool– before Hunger Games and Divergent and the like, but not a classic like 1984 and Brave New World. It doesn’t have some of the elements that have come to dominate the genre recently, and perhaps wouldn’t be as enthralling to Hunger Games fans. It doesn’t have a system of factions or districts into which every is sorted. The book brings religion center stage, with the protagonist being the dedicated founder of her own new faith. And everything evil in the world isn’t centered into one central bureaucracy or dictator like a Mustafa Mond, a President Snow, or the Bureau of Genetic Welfare.
However, I thought what it lacked in action, it more than compensated in depth. By not centering all the bad into a single entity, it challenges you that there is a dark side to everyone. You can’t split the world conveniently into good guys and bad guys. By confronting pain and suffering in this way, it doesn’t over-simplify the problem of pain. To some, it may make for a boring plot. The book doesn’t end with a direct confrontation. There doesn’t seem to be a strong climactic moment. But I think Butler handles it well.
It took me a while to grapple with the religious aspect of the book. The main protagonist, Lauren, was raised a Baptist, but she secretly doesn’t believe with her family, instead building her own faith system accompanied by a book of verses. She calls her new faith Earthseed. The central tenet of the faith is accepting change, as change is the only thing that is all-powerful. By accepting change, you are both shaped by it, but you can also shape it in turn. The first chapter begins with a verse from the book of verse The Books of the Living:
All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth is Change.
God is Change.
As she travels, she shares her faith with her companions. But even by the end of the novel, it doesn’t seem that any of the characters take her faith very seriously. Even is she considers some of them to be converts. The discussion with the author at the end explains that “I wanted to tell the story of Lauren Olamina, who begins a new religion and who, sometime after her death– after people have time to forget how human she was– might easily be considered a god. I wanted her to be an intelligent, believable person. I didn’t want to write satire. I didn’t want to write about a hypocrite or a fool. I wanted her to believe deeply in what she taught and I wanted her teachings to be reasonable, intellectually respectable. I wanted them to be something that someone I could admire might truly believe and teach.” For a religion that was completely fabricated for a novel, Earthseed is pretty good. I do respect Lauren, and I appreciated how her faith guided her in the novel.
But I felt like there was something lacking, something that her lover, Bankole tries to get across as well. “It sounds too simple…. I mean it’s too… straightforward. If you get people to accept it, they’ll make it more complicated, more open to interpretation, more mystical, and more comforting.” Perhaps that is what my faith has that Earthseed does not. Seeing a religion in its infancy, it hasn’t been around long enough to be internalized and interpreted by multiple people. It hasn’t had time to establish depth. But I think the think that really made me uncomfortable was a different aspect of Earthseed: “Your god doesn’t care about you.” God is Change. And Change doesn’t care. I recently read The Prophets by Abraham Heschel in which he defined the central characteristic of the Hebrew God as pathos, divine concern for man. I too think Earthseed would be a faith I could respect in another person. But it also helps me see why I appreciate my own faith.
The Parable takes place not too far in the future, 2026, and the current world order is still recognizable. There is still a POTUS, federal, state, and local governments are all running. However, crime has become so commonplace and resources so scarce, that the only viable communities are small neighborhoods forced to wall themselves in to prevent outsiders from coming in and looting the place. Debt slavery is a reality, with large businesses taking advantage of all those desperate for work. Two aspects Butler introduces that perhaps bring her book into the realm of science fiction are (1) hyperempathy syndrome and (2) a drug called pyromania. Lauren’s mother did drugs while she was pregnant, causing Lauren to be born with hyperempathy. This condition causes her to feel that pain of all those around her. This creates multifaceted problems for her. She has to hide it, because its a vulnerability that others could take advantage of. When confronted with attackers, she has to shoot to kill, or else she will become incapacitated. I think it also helps her empathize with other people. She reaches out to strangers, even when her teammates, and even herself, know that it could turn out to be a liability. If there is a “bad guy” in the book, I would say it is the drug pyromania. Users of the drug derive pleasure from acts of arson, and burn property and people, causing destruction in their wake. Both of these aspects drive the plot along for interesting results.
I would warn readers that the book does have some language, violence, and sex in it. It’s not Hollywood-like, in that it is not gratuitous. It’s there for a reason. Call me a moral relativist, but I think that reading the book with these parts included are vital to understanding it as a whole.