Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
Grand Central Publishing (2019)
In this dystopian modern classic, the story of Lauren Oya Olamina is told through her diary entries taking place in California during the 2020s, set against the backdrop of draught, violent political uprising, and mass addiction. While the United States is sliding into chaos, Lauren is lucky that she grew up under somewhat “normal” circumstances. That is, in a protected community that is behind a gate and a wall, where her neighbors were organized, and most importantly, they were armed. Led by Lauren’s father, the local minister, the community wants to believe that one day things might return to the way they were. They cling to the notion that someday the hills around their community won’t be riddled with corpses, packs of rabid dogs, and the starving homeless. Lauren, however, never believes—that the community is safe, or in her father’s interpretation of God. She sees God as a force of change and begins to meditate upon her own religion, called Earthseed, all the while preparing for a time when she might have to survive outside of the walls of her community.
From the first entry in the first chapter of this book the language stands out as alluring. Butler has a way with words that is simultaneously easy to read and rich with intelligent sentences. In Parable of the Sower, this is driven by the poetic religious verses that make up the basis of Earthseed and punctuate each chapter. Butler’s novel blooms beautifully into a tale that is rich with detail, easy to navigate, and that never loses sight of the forward momentum of the story.
Adding to the beauty of the language of this novel is the potency of its central figure, Lauren Oya Olamina. The story spans over the course of a few years and sees Lauren becoming a woman, but her journey is one of softening while maintaining her healthy skepticism of the people in the world. Lauren’s transformation is from a person who wears a mask in her community because she is taught that that is what is best, to someone who deals in honesty and who invests her energy into trying to build bridges of trust as the basis of her new community. To add to this, she must deal with a condition that she has had since birth called hyperempathy, that causes her to share physical pain and pleasures with others. Making for an interesting barrier in this violent world, as Lauren cannot inflict pain onto someone else without feeling it herself.
While this book is fun to read and one hell of a page turner, it is also full of eerie wisdom, and even though it is nearly thirty years old, it has a lot to say about the moment that we are living in right now. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Butler writes a future that now more than ever seems possible. She explores the distortion the human spirit undergoes when it is denied clean water to drink, reliable food to eat, a place to stay, and a future to count on, making this book feel as important as it is entertaining.
If you are looking for a frightening tale that starts as a quest for independence and ends as a lesson in the strength of community, this book is for you. If you are looking for a strong female lead character who does not lose her edge, but who most soften for the better of the world she wants to create, this book is for you. If you enjoy reading well-written and entertaining books about a gruesome, violent, and slow burning end of the world, this book is for you.
Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “The Heart of You,” by Anna Calvi with this post.