Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Published originally in 1993, Octavia Spencer’s futuristic novel is set in 2025. Well, that’s scary on its own. Although there wasn’t an apocalypse, everything is changed. No one drives cars anymore because gas is largely gone, a drug called pyro causes addicts to light fires, people pay the police/EMT/firefighters an expensive fee to come (it takes hours for arrival), and dead and dying bodies lay around the streets as feral dogs eat them. But things are the same as today, too. Climate change is a overwhelming the ecosystem, unemployment is high, people build walls around their communities to keep out unwanted folks, and sex trafficking is a problem.

Parable of the Sower begins with fifteen-year-old Laura Olamina, whose father is a professor and preacher and step-mother raises her younger brothers. Both adults have PhDs but can barely find work in California. Thanks to home ownership, the Olaminas aren’t living in the streets, working instead with their walled off community to share food and money any time someone’s house is broken into. Walls can only do so much. Lauren is a survivalist, reading books about plants and medicine her father has kept. She’s also compelled to write about what she calls “Earthseed,” a new religion she’s crafting that states God is change and people belong in the stars (surely a metaphor for starting humanity over off Earth).

Her small community is content and doesn’t want to hear her ideas about keeping an emergency pack by their beds in case they have to flee in the middle of the night. She continues to help her step-mother educate children, for reading and writing are uncommon in Butler’s 2025. When people despair, Lauren chastises their unwillingness to survive:

“It doesn’t make any difference,” [Joanne] said. “We can’t make the climate change back, no matter why it changed in the first place. You and I can’t. We can’t do anything.”

I lost patience. “Then let’s kill ourselves now and be done with it!”

Lauren’s strength is surprising, given her disadvantage: she has hyper-empathy. She feels the pain of others in a world full of killing and bodily harm, which can cripple her or leave her unconscious until the person physically harmed dies. Yet, she wants to live.

But as years pass and things get worse, Lauren knows leaving is imminent. Where will she go when she has no other place? Whom can she trust when anyone would cut her throat, rape her, steal her water and food? California highways no longer carry cars, but rivers of people heading north where they hope to find jobs that pay money and water. It’s a start.

Octavia Butler’s choice to write Parable of the Sower as a diary is effective. We get Lauren’s thoughts, but also her reflections on the day as she processes what happened. This gives you the sense that you are there on the road with her, but it comes through as more mature because she’s trying to figure things out herself. Her narrative is compelling.

Reflecting California’s actual population, not the one Hollywood would have you believe, Butler writes characters who are black, white, Mexican, old, babies, men, and women. On the road, Lauren is an eighteen-year-old black woman disguised as a man, and while race is acknowledged as something that can help or hurt a person’s chances of getting a job, we don’t see racism play a big role in group dynamics. This means a strong young black woman leads people both older and younger, some male, and some white. I was interested in the way Butler captures a protagonist who is valued for her ideas and skills instead of doubted over her skin, age, and gender.

Given the way the world is, Parable of the Sower does contain physical and sexual violence, though coming to you through Lauren’s diary, it feels just distanced enough to not be gratuitous, even when you know what happens. It reads like Buter felt it was important that we understood Lauren’s world as it is, one that is corrupt, desperate, and divided. We just didn’t need a play-by-play.

A minor complaint: for as much emphasis as is placed on Earthseed, I didn’t quite understand it. If Lauren’s God of Earthseed “is change,” then why not call change, change? A man in her group asks the same question, and Lauren explains that ideas get forgotten, so if she calls her idea God, they won’t forget Earthseed when they are scared. If religious texts comfort people and change scares them, Lauren doesn’t care because her God makes her care about herself. Her God is shaped by Earthseed followers; her God is change and can be changed. While I like the concept, I only have the notion that God is change, change is painful, and Lauren feels the pain of others. There’s something there.

Parable of the Sower is a dark, frightening look at a futuristic America in which survival is key for a band of travelers led by a young black woman travel up the western coast. Beyond Earthseed, there is no talk of dreams or normalcy, because Lauren was born after what was “normal” to us pre-pandemic stop existing. Highly recommended.

I want to thank Gil @ Gil Reads Books for doing a buddy read with me. As she got into Butler’s novel and started taking about how much it resonated with her and the current political climate in the Philippines, I decided to join along. I’d read Parable of the Sower years ago, but never read the follow-up novel, Parable of the Talents. Gil and I read both.

27 comments

  1. I read Parable of the Sower just a little while ago and yes it’s a powerful novel. I got the impression with the new religion that there were things in it the Butler really wants us to believe, but her biggest point for me was that so many people believe things will eventually return to “normal” and so fail to adjust to what is really going on about them. Just how prescient she was we will all know in November – will the USA still be a democracy in 2021?

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    • Oooooh, I really like your point about the people waiting for things to return to normal. I heard that so much around April and May of this year, and I really had to push the idea that things will never be normal in the way that we think of it again. What’s happening is some people are so eager to get back to normal that they’re just living like there is no economic crisis and virus, and it’s harming things. For instance, the University of Notre Dame opened last week, and they already have almost 60 cases that are traced back to two off-campus parties that were held the week students arrived. I don’t think Notre Dame is going to close right away, but the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill was open for all of a week before it closed up and sent thousands of students back home.

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      • I’m so focussed on your elections (and your deranged president) that I overlooked that yes, people are behaving in relation to Covid exactly as Butler predicted. We see it here with some states having zero cases and the people believing that they have somehow tricked Covid into going away. Sorry! but it’s gonna come. And then it’s gonna come again.

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        • I read a book about the 1918 pandemic, and weirdly it sort of DID go away on its own, but that’s nothing we should count on, nor is it scientifically smart — they don’t know why the 1918 flu virus went away.

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  2. Interesting. It seems like Butler unpacks a lot in a small space with Parable of the Sower. Is the whole book epistolary? If so, I’d probably love it. For some reason that caught me off guard mid-review and now my brain is imagining part epistles part narrative. Don’t ask me why. COVID brain is insane.

    I’m intrigued about following a new religion from the perspective of the founder right at the beginning. Does Lauren gain followers throughout the text?

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    • The entire novel is Lauren’s journal entries, so sometimes she’s backdating things to the day the event happened to keep track in a methodical way. I’m not sure where she got the idea for the religion, but Gil has some theories in her review, which I linked at the bottom once it went up. In this first book, Lauren talks about Earthseed all the time, as it is not only her ideas but her way of living. People are interested, but it can be challenging for them to follow along with certain aspects, such as if Lauren’s God is basically change, why call change God?

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      • Thanks for pointing me towards Gil’s review. I’ll check it out.

        Without reading the book, here’s my take on why Lauren might call change God: She comes from a Theistic background (assumption based on her father being a preacher). For many people, particularly those who believe in Theism, struggle with the idea of anything beyond diety from whom truth comes as a basis for religion. By calling change God, Lauren is connecting to a preexisting and potentially deepseeded belief that there must be a Supreme Being who drives religion.

        Now, I am making the assumption that her father wasn’t a deist, so Lauren is connecting this to what she knowns and understands. If you expect a figure like Jesus to drive religion and bring people together, play on that. It can be hard for people to switch their mind to deism (which is really what it sounds like Lauren is trying to do) — a philisophical position on religion from reason and observation is very different than blindly believing in a Supreme Being.

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        • I love, love that you have this theory and enjoyed reading it. I think at one point Lauren answered the question — why call change God? why not call change Change? — and she responded that people can forget about change, but they are so steeped in monotheism, especially Christianity, that they will remember God, even her God, in trying times.

          I keep thinking about the chart of Jewish holidays you sent me. I’m not sure what to add to that….just that I keep thinking about it.

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  3. Great review! I’m very intrigued about this one, especially as you mention that it’s interesting to read in light of the current pandemic. I’m not overly fond of epistolary styles, but I like what you say about Lauren’s diary putting the violence of this world at just enough distance to keep it from feeling gratuitous- that makes it feel like the narration style serves a worthy purpose, which helps me deal with stylistic choices that I might not like on their own. I’m also very curious about Lauren’s religion- I just came from Gil’s review actually and found her criticisms of society needing a foundational religion to be very fair and something I would agree with, but Lauren’s take on change as a god is fascinating in itself too. I’m not sure when exactly I’ll get to this one but I would like to read it at some point. Preferably while its setting is still futuristic! Great review.

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    • I did like that her religion wasn’t so simple that I “got it” right away. There’s something complex and interesting there. The ultimate goal comes fro the mantra “Our destiny is in the stars.” I wondered, though, why the religion didn’t have a more science bent if Lauren felt that people should leave Earth. Also, since public schools are no more, it would only be rich kids or the children of people who earned advanced degrees teaching children on the side who had any education that could get the into science and planning trips to leave Earth permanently.

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      • That’s an interesting point. ‘Our destiny in the stars’ does seem like an overt hint for a desire to move life off of Earth; it’s odd that the book would drop a concept like that without exploring it more fully. Even if only a percentage of people would’ve had the education to do that sort of research and planning, they should still have been able to manage a mass exodus if that was the goal- not everyone on board needs to be fully cognizant of the science, I think, as long as enough are to make it work. But the class divide does perhaps make it more difficult, with a smaller overall number of students that could devote themselves to the project.

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  4. It’s interesting that you found the diary format effective! In retrospect, this did contribute to the sense that Lauren was processing things from a more mature perspective. I guess it’s a consequence of this format that I didn’t feel there was any plot—rather things just happened to them, just like things often happen to us in the real world. Hmm, maybe that was Butler’s intention?

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      • Hmm, I think I’m perhaps comparing her to Vanessa in My Dark Vanessa, whose writing did feel like a teenager to me. I think it’s the general sense of being impressionable and unsure of herself, while I found Lauren exceptionally ‘put together’ as a character. Then again, she lives in exceptional times too.

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        • I thought it was wild how public education was basically dead, but both Lauren’s dad and step-mom had PhDs, so she got the benefit of two people with advanced education. I’ve met some professors’ kids. They always act decades older, which makes me…..maybe a tiny bit sad.

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  5. Great review! You’ve sold me that I need to read this lol. I wasn’t interested in it prior- but the hyper-empathy sounds really interesting and I kind of like the diary format.

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    • I thought the diary format benefited the story, though Gil didn’t like it as much when she read. I do think you’d like this one, though. It’s got this combo of science fiction/futuristic thing going on, plus the action and drama.

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  6. Great review! I feel like the quote you included (about there being no point waiting for the climate to change back) could be written about contemporary times. My sibling just read this for a book club and had really similar thoughts to you — between your review, theirs, and Gil’s I REALLY want to read this now!!

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    • And then you can choose if you want to read only the first book and wonder what comes after, or read the second book and prepare for a world that can always get worse! Ack!

      The quote about climate change scares me because we’ve got so much going on right now with other problems that I’m not sure people are even thinking about climate. Then again, when we all quarantined, plants and rivers and animals were doing better. You could see animals coming back into cities, even, which was weird!

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