Spoiler alert: If Parable of the Sower doesn’t give you all the feels (or at least some of them), then you are made of stone.
It might surprise you to learn that in addition to not being much of a fantasy reader, I’m not much of a sci-fi reader either. I’m even less of a sci-fi viewer than I am fantasy: I think the tone of sci-fi is usually bleaker, and I don’t give a shit about space/spaceships/technology/aliens/many of the tropes and oversimplifications that come to mind. I do love the original Star Wars trilogy because I’m not a robot (sci-fi joke?).
I have known many sci-fi fans throughout my life and virtually none of them have convinced me to give the genre a try. Like most other tenth graders, I did have to read 1984 and I was like “whatever.” I did have friends growing up who have always told me, “Octavia Butler is really awesome.” For the oft-discussed Staff Reading Challenge at work, I decided my science fiction book would be Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Parable of the Sower takes place outside Los Angeles in the 2020s (2024-27ish). It’s told from the perspective of Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl growing up in a walled community outside Los Angeles. The U.S. has more or less fallen apart: global warming leads to scarce water and astronomical food prices; bands of scavengers roam around stealing, killing, and setting fires; dangerous street drugs threaten communities; corporations make actual slaves out of their workers. Lauren also struggles with something called “hyperempathy,” a condition brought about by her biological mother’s drug abuse, which causes her to feel the physical pain of anyone she sees.
Lauren’s father is a Baptist minister and she finds herself disagreeing with him over issues of faith. She begins to carve out her own, which she writes in verse in her diary, called Earthseed. As she grows up, she is forced to leave the community she called home and wander in search of a better future. Along the way, she encounters others who have survived horrific circumstances and starts to create a community that she hopes will prosper under her plan for Earthseed.
That’s pretty much glossing over this novel. This novel is gripping, it is heart-wrenching, and it is terrifying. Butler originally published Parable of the Sower in 1993 and she did her research about the threats she recognized to be facing society. Again: corporate greed, wealth disparity, climate change, dangerous drugs. Butler passed away in 2006, but I wonder if she ever talked about how her predictions had actually begun to come to light. They’re sickeningly prescient to me.
A quick diversion: when I was in eleventh grade, we read The Stranger. I loved The Stranger so much I’m afraid to re-read it because in one of my college French classes we read Nausea (or La Nausée because it was in French). I hated Nausea because it’s so obviously a vehicle for Sartre’s schema of existentialism: the characters are all in service of philosophy and it shows even with the language barrier. Perhaps The Stranger is the same if I look at it now that I have an actual literature degree. But this is something Butler manages to avoid beautifully: the problems are speculative and allegorical, but they don’t really feel that way.
My quibble: the love plots. Lauren has a couple of boyfriends both in- and outside her walled community. Now I’m generally not a fan of love stories, but Butler’s treatment was kind of weird. People kind of just get together and when they’re together they’re “together” and when they’re not physically together you kind of forget they are a couple. It was a little jarring, but it kind of makes sense in the novel’s epistolary form. I think Lauren has enough feelings about real shit (like the danger of feral dogs carrying off babies) that she probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about romance. But some element of romance is there and when it occurred, I kind of just went, “wait…what?”
What I really enjoyed about this book is that it wasn’t all bleak, even though it was pretty damn bleak. There is hope for Lauren and her companions, but it’s hope they must struggle to hold onto as they continue to encounter dangers. It’s also not cheesy hope. Like, through the power of community they won’t overcome global warming or melt the icy heart of a corporate slaveowner. They still have to use firearms to defend themselves and don’t think twice about it. It’s the kind of hope that seems appropriate to have given the reality they live in.
So, yes, everyone, go read Parable of the Sower, and make sure you have a box of Kleenex and something to hug nearby.
I’d love recommendations for your favorite sci-fi novels. But if I ever read only one sci-fi author ever, I’m pretty happy to have chosen Octavia Butler.