‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline Publishing; 308 pages; 2014.

First published in 1993, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower seems remarkably prescient.

Set in the year 2027 — just 10 years from now — in a small town 20 miles from Los Angeles, it depicts a world in which the normal rules of society have broken down. People live in walled communities to protect themselves from rampaging mobs; food is so expensive people either grow their own or steal it; and water is in short supply.

Jobs are scarce and wages are so low many workers are indentured to the companies that employ them. Guns are a way of life and everyone learns from an early age how to defend themselves in case of violent attack. And most people despise politicians because they’ve failed to “return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century”.

But there is a glimmer of hope:

Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner is our new President—President-elect. So what are we in for? Donner has already said that as soon as possible after his inauguration next year, he’ll begin to dismantle the “wasteful, pointless, unnecessary” moon and Mars programs. Near space programs dealing with communications and experimentation will be privatized—sold off. Also, Donner has a plan for putting people back to work. He hopes to get laws changed, suspend “overly restrictive” minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws for those employers willing to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.

How eerily familiar it all sounds, right?

A young narrator

The story is narrated by 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a black Baptist preacher. She has a rare condition called “hyperempathy syndrome”, which means she feels other people’s pain as well as her own, the result of her late mother’s addiction to a drug called Paracetco.

Having this syndrome is shameful, so Lauren keeps it a secret from everyone she knows, but it puts her in mortal danger, for if she sees someone near her dying, whether by gunshot wound, violent rape or something else, she experiences the same symptoms.

So when her community succumbs to a devastating fire attack, which kills all her immediate family and many of her friends, she finds herself in the dangerous “outside world”, confronted by all manner of threats to her hypersensitive “antenna”.

A story of two halves

The book is essentially two halves: the first sets the scene and shows us how complicated, messy and violent the world has become; the second charts Lauren’s time on the road as she heads north with a small group intent on finding refuge in the wilderness. It’s a bit like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but instead of an apocalyptic wasteland Lauren must trudge through an America consumed by paranoia, violent crime, murder, rape and drug addiction.

I admit that I had problems with this dystopian novel. Yes, the themes and issues it presents — about societal breakdown, the importance of empathy and the need to embrace diversity — are particularly relevant and timely given what’s happening across the world right now. But it’s far too long and the prose too pedestrian for my liking. (I had the same problem with Butler’s Fledgling, which I read back in 2010.)

I also didn’t much like the religious overtones, for Lauren’s aim is to set up her own religion called Earthseed. This is designed to help people adapt to a new, constantly changing world in which so many inadequately prepared people have to fend for themselves.

In some quarters Parable of the Sower is billed as a Young Adult novel, so it may just be that I’m not the target audience — yet pretty much everyone in my book group liked it.

Parable of the Sower is the first book of the Earthseed series; the second is the Nebula Award winner Parable of the Talents. As much as I’d like to know what happens to Lauren, I don’t think I will race to read the sequel.

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6 thoughts on “‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia E. Butler

  1. I’m a SF fan and enjoy ‘dystopian’, that’s the way the world’s headed. Too much SF in the past 20 years has been magic and fairies, and I put religion in the same category. Still, if this one’s badly written then I won’t look out for it.

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    • Butler is massively respected and has a devout following, but I’m not sure she is for me. Someone in our book group said this would make a great short story, rather than a super-long occasionally dull novel, and I agree.

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  2. I really enjoyed Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, but I admired the ideas more than the execution. I think I may try this one out on my daughter, though – I like the notion that they’re creating something new, sounds hopeful.

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  3. It sounds like a great premise for those who enjoy dystopian novels (I have liked many, but have to be careful which ones I choose) – too bad it felt too long.

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    • I don’t normally seek out dystopian novels (I read far too many in my teens!) but this one was chosen for my book group. I admired it and liked the premise, but not sure it was executed very well. It was too long and in the end became a rather dull story about people on the road trying to avoid danger…

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