Parable of the Sower (Grand Central Publishing, 15.00 USD) has been near the top of my TBR list since at least 2004. Funny, then, that I didn’t come across a nearly-perfect first edition (it was first published in 1993) in my favorite used book store until this year – the year Donald Trump was elected president – and add it to my Book Riot reading challenge under “Dystopian or Post-Apocalyptic Novel” and also “First Book in a Series by a Person of Color” (it’s getting down to crunch time, so I’m doubling up where possible).
(Image credit: The Bookloft)
Lauren Oya Olamina is fifteen years old at the start of her story. The year is 2024. She lives with her father, stepmother, and younger brothers in their walled community near L.A.. Her father is a Baptist minister who teaches at a nearby university. He is also the center of Lauren’s universe, even though she doesn’t believe in her father’s God anymore; she just goes through the motions (such as baptism) to please him. While she goes through the motions of her father’s religion, she is developing her own, called Earthseed, in her journal.
Lauren suffers from hyperempathy syndrome, which causes her to feel the pain – or pleasure – of those around her. If she can see it, she feels it. Killing someone can cause her to black out in agony – not the best kind of empathy to share in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Going outside the walls of her community is rare but becomes necessary when “paints” – addled psychopaths addicted to the street drug “pyro,” which makes watching fire more pleasurable than sex – burn down her community and murder her family. Lauren has been certain that the safety of her enclave was coming to an end for some time, and has prepared for a hasty departure with supplies and money squirreled away. Still, when the time comes, she is only 18, and she is alone.
To survive, Lauren bands together with two other former members of her enclave. The three help some of the more vulnerable fellow travelers they encounter during their journey and slowly make their way toward Canada, in hopes of finding safety. Although Lauren keeps it mostly to herself, she hopes that her growing migratory community can eventually settle down and start the first Earthseed community.
Although the story took place over 30 years in the future when it was written, reading it in 2016 makes the events seem less far-fetched than they may have seemed in 1993. No specific event is identified for the dystopian society Lauren lives in, but global warming, racial tensions, and unchecked corporate greed have all all clearly contributed to society’s demise. Slavery has returned in a big way with factories paying workers not with cash but with company scrip, which was accepted only at the company store. Rent is charged for the pitiful shacks the workers live in, and workers never quite make enough money to live, so they become indebted to the company. New legislation is said to exist allowing the companies to force these indebted slaves to work overtime to clear their debts, but no one can say for sure if it’s real or made up by the drivers who work for the companies.
Lauren can’t remember a time when towns and cities existed without walls, when average citizens owned cars, or when strung-out addicts weren’t a fixture at every street corner. Even as a fifteen-year-old, she’s not convinced the world she knows will ever get better, so she reads all she can while she can, knowing full well that when she has to leave the safety of her walled city, she won’t be able to take all the books with her.
This leads to the only part of Butler’s chilling vision that this modern-day reader struggled with: technology. Obviously, the book was written in 1993, a time when most households didn’t have computers and most people didn’t have personal email, let alone internet access. However, the internet as we know it was in its infancy. Butler probably couldn’t have predicted the way it would take over our lives, or the way smartphones would put most of the world’s collective knowledge at our fingertips by 2016. Still, as amazing as these advances are, the recent inundation of fake news in social media demonstrates how this incredible network of data could lead to war, chaos, and implosion of society as we know it – or at least to the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps, in Butler’s universe, the internet age did arrive – but rampant corruption saw the need to roll back government transparency and data networks were disabled to keep the proletariat in the dark about minor details such as labor laws. This is the only stumbling block I encountered in terms of willing suspension of disbelief; otherwise, I had no issue believing that Butler’s harrowing vision of the future is a mere nine years away.
I’ve read a few of Butler’s works, and one thing I admire about her writing is her ability to float racial tension near the surface of the narrative – it’s always there, though it’s often understated – without constantly addressing it. For instance, Lauren’s last name, Olamina, is an African name that her father adopted in the 1960s along with many African Americans. This significance of her name is not mentioned – in fact, her name is hardly mentioned at all – until she meets a fellow African American traveler with the last name of Bankole, who is of her father’s generation and also chose a Yoruba last name. This coincidence instantly bonds Lauren and the newcomer and also ties the racism in the futuristic present of the novel with its historical roots in reality. Entire chapters go by without race being addressed within the group of travelers, even though the original three from Lauren’s enclave are two black women and one white man, and they plan out how to present themselves to the world to incite the least trouble: Lauren cuts her hair and dresses as a man so that she and Zahra, the other black woman, can be a couple and Harry, the white man, can be their white friend. Mixed-race couples still receive a lot of unwanted attention in 2027, and that’s what Harry and Zahra are.
Still, that fact is left alone until a discussion of employment opportunities near the end of the book brings that tension front and center again. The group has grown, but Harry is still the only white man – a fact that I had forgotten in the events of the story. Someone mentions that he could get a job as a driver of the indebted slaves for one of the big corporations. He is horrified and asks if anyone really thinks he could do that. The implication, of course, is that Harry would be the only person in the group “qualified” to take such a position.
At the beginning of each chapter is a passage from Earthseed. These passages express the basic tenet of Earthseed that God is Change, and the followers of Earthseed must learn to shape Change to suit their needs over time. The followers must be proactive; they are their own salvation. Lauren and her new followers spend half the book doing just that; perhaps this is the reason I waited 12+ years to read Parable of the Sower. This year was, finally, the right time to do so.