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.