Perhaps not the most uplifting book to start my new year with, but you cannot beat Octavia E. Butler’s skills. Seriously, she can write. Moreover, this might be my favourite novel of hers so far. It combines some of the insistence on change that marks Lilith’s Brood with the discomfort and hardship of Kindred, yet it does so in a way that hits much closer to home in both respects. I also enjoyed the ending for how it strikes the perfect note between optimism and realism. This is not a dystopian novel, not really, for Lauren is not living in a dystopia so much as an even more dysfunctional society than our current one. And so the message here is less about bringing down the dystopia and more about finding a way to create meaning in one’s life.
Butler, writing in the 1990s, sets her book in the 2020s. Normally when science fiction authors set their stories in the near future, their chosen decade comes round and is nothing like what they have predicted. (And that’s fine—science fiction doesn’t have to be predictive to be powerful.) Um, maybe someone should have told Butler that though, because her picture of California in 2023 is not too far off from where we are here in 2022, and honestly it freaks me out how prescient she was! Environmental crises, break downs of democracy and governance, the return of company towns and corporate slavery—all of this is occurring, perhaps slightly differently from how Butler saw it playing out, but it is present. So perhaps this was the perfect book to read in 2022.
Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a Baptist preacher and lives with him, her stepmother, and stepbrothers in a walled but mostly poor community somewhere in California. Lauren has Hyper-Sensitivity Syndrome, which means that she literally feels others’ pain (and pleasure, but as she notes, it is mostly pain these days). She starts to develop her own religion, which she eventually names Earthseed, and when events force Lauren out of her community to venture forth into the wider world, she takes the idea of Earthseed with her and begins to preach it to those she meets along the way. But trust and allegiance can be as scarce as clean drinking water in this world, and Lauren’s life is destined never to be an easy one.
I’ve largely been avoiding post-apocalyptic stories given that we are edging towards the third year of a pandemic. So take this for the huge praise that it is that Parable of the Sower spoke to me. I think it helps that, as I mentioned, it actually feels very close to home in its setting—this is not some hypothetical world torn asunder by zombies, or another contagion, or an unforeseen natural disaster. This is the world as it is now, just slightly more awry. While that might make it feel scarier, it also helped me connect better to these characters. There but for the grace of God go I and whatnot.
At times early in the novel, Lauren questions her father’s perspective and remarks upon the generational gap between her and the adults (who have memories of the halcyon days before she was born). I related to this. Given when this book is set, I am smack in the middle between Lauren and her father’s generation (she is in her teens, he in his fifties, I in my thirties)—the good days were, for me, in my childhood and have a somewhat dream-like quality. In general, though, I just admire how Butler portrays the stories we tell ourselves to create invisible lines of safety in our community.
The sense of community is central to Parable of the Sower. It is the driving force that protects Lauren’s home neighbourhood for the first half of the book. Later, when Lauren is on her own and then finds her new people, she starts to forge community and introduce them to Earthseed. I’m kind of down with Earthseed! The idea of God being change rather than some kind of omnipotent person seems good to me. But I also appreciate the warning Butler laces into the store with Bankole’s observation that religions tend to metamorphose after their founders die. It would indeed to be interesting to see what layers of mysticism Earthseed’s later followers graft upon it.
Finally, though, I think what struck me so deeply about this book is the way Butler portrays striving. One of my dearest friends had an extremely difficult 2021, more difficult even than most in the pandemic. She has kept on going, kept moving forward, made plans to further her life and her career as best she can right now. Yet I don’t mean to hold her up as a paragon, for I also know that she has moments of intense doubt. When life gets this hard, what is the point? we are liable to ask. Hence my aversion to post-apocalyptic fiction these days, yet my appreciation that this novel embodies that paradox one occasionally finds within that genre: optimism. Lauren and her allies are ultimately optimists; they believe they can build a better world for themselves despite all the events constantly seeming to conspire to teach them otherwise. I suppose I am optimist too, as is my friend, though I suspect she might be loath to admit it.
So, curled up on my couch during the deep freeze that was our first and second days of 2022 here in snowy Canada, I pondered this story of an eighteen-year-old girl trekking north along Californian highways some five years hence. Parable of the Sower gave me so much to think about, roiled my emotions, and left me if not uplifted then at least not empty and dark like much of its genre tends to do. This is not a book I want you to read in your dark days, but it is a book that might, when you do read it, remind you of the incorrigibility of hope.