Monday, February 19, 2018

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler: A review

Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, but Octavia Butler was eerily - scarily - prescient in the mid 2020s world that she imagined. Who could have dreamed twenty-five years ago that this broken and divided country would elect a president who promised to "Make America Great Again" by eliminating the space program and getting rid of all environmental, health, and labor protection laws and opening up the nation to be carved up by large corporations and the greedy wealthy? Well, Octavia Butler did. If she were alive today, I wonder what she would think, seeing her vision come true.

This book was planned as the first in a trilogy (the "Earthseed" trilogy), but after completing the first two books in the series, Butler reportedly suffered from severe writer's block in relation to the third book and was never able to complete it. Nevertheless, we have the first two, and, judging by this initial entry, that was a remarkable achievement.

Once I started reading this book, every time I had to put it down because duty called me elsewhere I couldn't wait to get back to it. When I wasn't reading, I was thinking about what I had read. I even laid awake at night thinking about it. Perhaps that tells you everything you need to know about what an impact the book made on me.

If the book were first published today, it would be categorized as YA lit, because the protagonist is a teenage girl, but at the time that it was published, the term YA had not yet been thought up by some media-savvy publicist. So, it was just considered as dystopian literature.

It is the mid-2020s and 18-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her family in a walled middle-class community in a Los Angeles suburb. It is a California that is barely recognizable. Society is disintegrating under the pressure of global warming, wealth disparity, and economic stagnation. All communities have fortified walls to keep the predatory gangs out. Police and firefighters will only come when called if the caller will pay them, and when they come, they are just as likely to arrest the person seeking help or to pillage the home as they are to actually take action to assist.

Many people are leaving, trying to make their way north to Oregon, Washington, or Canada in search of a better and more secure life, but the borders between states and between the countries are guarded and patrolled to ensure that the unwanted immigrants do not make it through.

In the midst of this anarchy, Lauren's community is attacked and overrun, most of the people, including what remains of her family, killed, and the houses burned. Lauren had prepared for such an eventuality by putting together an emergency pack to get her on her way. (She had planned to leave anyway and go north with the other emigrants.) Now she is forced to start her trek before she had planned and she heads north with a couple of companions.

Lauren is a special person. First of all, she has a disability called hyper-empathy which means that she feels the pain that she witnesses inflicted upon others. In the violent world in which she lives, this is a serious disability indeed. If she is put in the position of having to fight for her life, how will she manage if any pain that she inflicts on her opponent is felt equally by herself?

Also, Lauren is a visionary. She has an idea for a new religion/philosophy of life and she hopes to found a community based on her ideas. She calls her vision Earthseed and she writes verses expounding upon it. It is a philosophy of self-sufficiency in which god is understood as change, but a change that can be molded and shaped by the individual.

We follow the teenage Lauren as she continues north, more people join her group, and she starts teaching them her Earthseed verses and attempting to mold them into a community.

This was a powerful and affecting read, one that I am sure I will still be considering for a long time to come.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars         

8 comments:

  1. I have read some Octavia Butler (Bloodchild, the Xenogenesis trilogy) but not this series. In reading your review, I intend to change this soon - I think I would love this book. Butler was a visionary, taken from us too soon, someone who suffered from so much writer's block - just imagine her works if she hadn't. Alana ramblinwitham.blogspot.com

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    1. This is the first book of hers that I have read. It will not be the last.

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    2. I found this book at a library booksale last week, and I've started to read it. It is so painful I can only read a few pages at a time. I haven't gotten to the "overrun" part and I can only imagine things will get worse..and worse.

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    3. It is indeed a painful read especially because so much of it seems torn from today's headlines.

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  2. It's amazing what some authors are able to conceive way ahead of the times. I'm glad that you found reading this novel to be an affecting experience.

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    1. I've been on a roll with dystopian themed books recently, but some of the things that Butler imagined truly are uncanny.

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  3. Well, I have been planning to read Octavia Butler for many years. It sounds like it is time for me to get started. I even have some of her books on my shelves. Great review!

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    1. I think you will find her books a rewarding read.

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