Review: 'The Parable of the Sower' by Octavia Butler

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The plan was to leave the apartment by 10 a.m. and get at least four hours of research and writing done before making my way back home to take Lady on a long walk and swiftly jump on the 4 p.m. train to Little Five Points. But here I am, sitting in the sci-fi corner of Barnes & Noble. It’s a quarter past three and I’m just reeling from the end of Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower.

What was meant to be a short 30 minutes of reading while fueling with iced white tea and a slice of day-old spinach focaccia turned into a mindless fixation on Earthseed, a Darwinian religion developed by Butler’s “Parable” protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina set in a dystopian 2024 California.

Global warming is doing its deed. Drought, loss of drinkable water, displaced populations. The pharma industry still prospers, of course. A smart “pyro” drug makes watching fires burn feel even better than sex, resulting in pyromanic addicts chasing the high, leaving the world’s few existing walled communities up in flames as they fade to black.

Perhaps the most gripping aspect of the book is that our protagonist suffers from what she calls hyper-empathy. A “sharer” in Butler’s world, Lauren feels the pain and pleasure she causes. In no way does Lauren, through her character, make a good case for the value of this disease of empathy. She shows us the evils. Shoots and only jumps from the jolt, if she’s lucky and her victim is dead. She feels the pain of being raped and the pleasure of her rapist. And she exposes the way weak, colored men and women with the disease are used as obedient slaves by racist masters. Yes, racism, of course, makes a more concrete comeback.

Lauren’s primary motive to live, to survive is Earthseed. Earthseed, in essence, is a religion worshipping evolution and change as the only worthy deity. God, Lauren believes, is change.

“God is Change— Seed to tree, tree to forest; Rain to river, river to sea; Grubs to bees, bees to swarm. From one, many; from many, one; Forever uniting, growing, dissolving— forever Changing. The universe is God’s self-portrait.”

So what does it take to be part of Earthseed?

“The essentials,” Lauren says, “are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny.”

Sound a little too simple? A little too…open to interpretation? A little…like every other religion in its origin? That’s fine. As long as it gives purpose, and keeps some believers alive, Lauren feels.

“Belief Initiates and guides action— Or it does nothing.” 

Butler, as The New Yorker wrote in 2017, birthed the Parable series from what she read in the news, “forecasting what kind of collapse might result if the forces of late-stage capitalism, climate change, mass incarceration, big pharma, gun violence, and the tech industry continued unhampered.”

Dispiriting, I know. But there’s something warm about Lauren’s perspective, told through her diary entries: her hope for better. “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you,” Butler writes. “I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.” 

Butler wanted to write four more books after “Parable of the Talent,” but found the task “too depressing.”

The Parable series, she urged the public, was not about prophecy. No, “this was a cautionary tale,” she said.

“Your teachers
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you--
If you will learn.
God is your first
and your last teacher.
God is your harshest teacher:
subtle,
demanding.
Learn or die.” 

Five stars.

Other reviews:

- Circe by Madeline Miller
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza