Parable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler (1993)
Review by Nicolette Stewart
Parable of the Sower begins on July 20th, 2024 – narrator Lauren Olamina’s birthday and what will be, assuming I manage to live that long, my own 42nd birthday. This coincidence gave me a head start – I felt connected with the narrator before Butler had lifted more than a couple of fingers, felt the chill of how close this future could be to our own.
On my 42nd birthday America could be going to shit (let’s forget for a second that I don’t live there). On my 42nd birthday I could find that a group of drugged out Robin Hoods who thought I was rich had broken into my community, killed my neighbuors, and burned down my house. I could be forced to take to the road and fight to survive. To steal, to starve, to endure rape, to bury my friends and family, to learn to shoot, to learn to kill. It isn’t just the date that makes Parable of the Sower feel so close, but the disturbing normality of the situation. There are more and more poor, more and more homeless. People squat houses, the police are corrupt, public schools are all but extinct, and clean water will cost you. This isn’t The Road, with its mysterious, unexplained circumstances. This isn’t an epic plague story like The Stand or a whacked out King Arthur mash-up like SM Stirling’s Emberverse series or a suspenseful (and racist) “will the asteroid hit the Earth?” thriller like Lucifer’s Hammer. This is plausible to a banally horrible degree. This is already happening. Open up today’s paper and you will see the signs there already, and it is these signs that, according to the interview in the back of my book, Butler decided to follow to one of their possible conclusions in writing this.
It takes almost half of the book for the chaos to creep over Olamina’s community’s gated wall. And when it does she flees, meeting people along the way, gathering them to her as allies and disciples. Because this book isn’t just about survival in a crisis situation, it is about the religion that Olamina has created: Earthseed. A quick browse of other internet reviews of the book tell me that Earthseed was a disturbing element for many readers. I loved it. This collection of verses are an expression of the truths Olamina has seen in the world and written down, and their basis is that change is the most powerful force in the world:
“All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
The entire philosophy – and to me Earthseed is more of a philosophy than a religion – strikes me as rational, a way of thinking meant to help people describe the world as it really is and to successfully cope with those realities. I’ve never liked the “delay your happiness in this world to gain the eternal carrot in the next” fantasy that most religions are selling. Earthseed isn’t even about God (or gods). The point is that there is no God, not as anyone has ever imagined him/it/whatfuckingever before. (There is a moment in the text when Lauren admits to using the word God, even though that isn’t really what she means, to get people’s attention. This sentiment seems to fade in time, however.) There is the world and your participation in it can shape it and it can shape you. There is no anthropomorphic being in the sky who gives a single shit about what you or I do, loving or angry or indifferent. Prayer is a way of talking to yourself that helps you to focus your concentration on achieving certain goals. They are all thoughts I have had before. Not only that, but it is a philosophy, religion, whatever you want to call it, that encourages personal responsibility, something that seems to have leached out of most of the world and something that is incredibly important to me.
“Your God doesn’t care about you at all,” a skeptic tells Olamina after she has told him about Earthseed. And her reply? “All the more reason to care about myself and others.” To take care of the world. To feel responsible for taking care of the world. That’s the good shit.
If it weren’t for the fact that Earthseed was also based around humanity’s “destiny” to settle on other planets – not really my thing, though if it happens, neat – I would have been a ready convert in the universe of the book. See? Butler’s already got me joining a fictional cult. She’s that good.
All this to say that depending on your take on things, Earthseed will either be a slight irritant or a very enjoyable reading bonus. For me it was another delicious layer among other delicious layers: a story that I devoured; full, interesting characters and relationships; a complex world that felt intensely real for the lack of white- and hetero-washing; post-apocalyptic survival stuff (my favourite aspect of the genre); travel; and philosophy.
A few quotes to savour… Before her world ends, Olamina tries to convince a friend to learn about survival, to join her in preparing for the worst scenario. Sometimes it sounds like this in my head:
I’m trying to learn whatever I can that might help me survive out there. I think we should all study books like these. I think we should bury money and other necessities in the ground where thieves won’t find them. I think we should make emergency packs – grab and run packs – in case we have to get out of here in a hurry. Money, food, clothing, matches, a blanket… I think we should fix places outside where we can meet in case we get separated. Hell, I think a lot of things. And I know – I know! – that no matter how many things I think of, they won’t be enough. Every time I go outside, I try to imagine what it might be like to live out there without walls, and I realize I don’t know anything.
On being dirty (and this reminds me so much of punk, and how it integrates things like having holes in your clothes into fashion):
Fashion helps. You’re supposed to be dirty now. If you’re clean, you make a target of yourself. People think you’re showing off, trying to be better than they are. Among the younger kids, being clean is a great way to start a fight. Cory won’t let us stay dirty here in the neighborhood, but we all have filthy clothes to wear outside the walls. Even inside, my brothers throw dirt on themselves as soon as they get away from the house. It’s better than getting beaten up all the time.
This review originally appeared on Bookpunks.
2 thoughts on “Parable of the Sower, Octavia E Butler”
Ah, I adore this book. One of the few I can quote from memory.
You make a good point re: The Stand, The Road, and other sorts of post-apocalyptic novels in which some plot device wipes out most of humanity, rather than the too-real hubris and hedonism that’s so omnipresent in our culture *right now*. I’d never really thought about it before, but I think that adds to PotS’ resonance, as does the lack of whitewashing/straightwashing. (As well as manwashing. Seriously, what’s up with all those post-apocalytic novels where at least 4 of every 5 survivors just happens to be a dude?)
This is one of the books that makes OEB one of my favourite authors, but I find it a very hard book to read. It’s made harder by the context of the world it is set in – it is clearly the same world as the Clayark books which are in a slightly further future setting. The voyage to the stars ends up bringing even further disaster to the beleagured world: so much for Olamina’s destiny, even though she was right to push for it.