Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Grand Central Publishing, horror, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, USA

‘Fledgling’ by Octavia E. Butler


Fiction – paperback; Grand Central Publishing; 310 pages; 2005.

While I’ve studiously avoided the current Twilight craze, I’ll admit that I’m not averse to reading novels about vampires. I loved Anne Rice’s early work (which I read in my 20s), very much enjoyed Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and thought John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In was a surprisingly intelligent horror story.

But Fledgling, which presents a new twist on the vampire legend, lacks the spine-tingling horror I’ve come to expect from the genre. Instead, this is a book, deeply rooted in science fiction, which examines issues of race and identity, sex and sexuality, biology and genetic engineering. There’s even some law and politics thrown in for good measure.

In this novel Butler portrays vampires as a much-maligned race called Ina. The central character, Shori, looks like a little black girl but she is really a 53-year-old vampire who has been genetically modified so that she has extra melanin in her skin to allow her to walk in sunlight. This is supposed to be a step forward for the Ina, but there are some who think that Shori poses a threat to the purity of the Ina race, and will stop at nothing to destroy her.

When the book begins we find that Shori is recovering from one of those plots to kill her: she awakens in a dark cave, burnt from head to toe, and with no memory of what has happened to her. Indeed she has no knowledge or awareness that she is a vampire. It is only when she is picked up by a young man, as she walks along a deserted road, that her desire to feed off him reminds her that she is an Ina, not a human being.

Much of the book revolves around Shori and her symbionts (the humans she feeds off in a kind of mutually dependent relationship) going on the run from those who want her dead. There’s a lot of gun-slinging before the story morphs into a kind of courtroom drama in which those responsible are held to account for their crimes.

I have to be honest and say that this book didn’t exactly grab me by the throat (pun fully intended). The prose felt a bit pedestrian and the dialogue awfully contrived. There were elements that just made me go ewwww and there were times I wasn’t sure I really wanted to continue. But… there was something about the narrative that sucked me in (another pun, I’m sorry) and I did want to keep reading if only to find out who was after Shori and how she would go about saving herself and those like her.

Octavia E. Butler was a highly regarded prize-winning author of science fiction. Fledgling, published in 2005, was her last book before she died, aged 58, in 2006.