Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia Butler
*Book purchased used*
Rating: 5 skulls/Grade A++
I am going to start this review off by asking a theoretical question. There is a huge wave coming, it will wash you and everyone you love out to see. What do you do? Do you back up away from the water? Move to higher ground? Build a boat to ride it out? Or do you turn your back on it, play on the beach and pretend that it isn’t coming? Now imagine that it isn’t a wave of water, but a wave of violence, crime and people that will be unstoppable. No wall will hold them back. You may have nowhere ideal to go. But you have access to books, learning materials and you have time to prepare, pack. Octavia Butler speculates that most people would ignore the coming onslaught and attempt to go about their daily business, not prepare and not learn. It is scary to move forward and change behavior and scary to imagine the world as we know it is ending. But change is necessary to survival, according to Butler. This is what Parable is about – change, adaptation and working together in a community to accomplish the change in order to survive.
The main character in Parable, a teenage girl named Lauren, is an agent of change. Lauren is unwilling to turn her back on the huge wave she knows is coming; instead she teaches herself through books everything she can learn and she prepares for what she knows and fears is coming. Lauren is inspired from inside herself and is somewhat of a prophet of a new religion and philosophy. Her belief is “God is Change.” And she goes out to preach it. The creation of the religion is a vehicle for Lauren’s story to be told and for hope to be seeded among her followers.
Octavia Butler published her book in 1995, so many apocalyptic novels have come after hers have incorporated elements that are present in this book. It is interesting for me that Butler appears to have less acclaim but she is the predecessor of so many well-known novels.
There are books that tell the story of the world ending by an apocalyptic event and then there are books that show you what the world would be like during an apocalyptic even – without holding back. Parable of the Sower is the latter. The images of lives being destroyed and violence being wrought on people just for living and just for having something, anything that is wanted by those who do not have anything – these images are described in details. They are not described, I think, for the delight of reading gore, but to serve as a marker of how far society has fallen. And it is a scary world that Butler describes; scary and realistic. Despite that I have absolutely no point of reference for the scenes described in this book, while reading I felt as though it could have been happening right outside my door. There is nothing about this apocalyptic world that is romantic.
In Parable, much of society’s downfall appears to have been caused by environmental devastation, which has in turn caused economic and political devastation. Polluted water, toxic chemicals, failed pharmaceutical and science experiments resulting in dangerous addictive drugs. Butler’s book is a scary warning of pushing consumer and corporate demands to the extreme.
Reading this book created questions in my mind. Is this book really about an apocalyptic event? It does take place in the US (California) and the society that is disintegrating is American society, but is this an apocalyptic event or the failure of one society? So many apocalyptic books describe world changing events; but in Parable, it is shortages – gas, water, food, governmental collapse (or increasing ineffectualness) but some infrastructure remains. There are police, but they investigate and then charge user fees; there are property taxes and there are colleges; there is electricity and there are entertainment outlets (like televisions, etc.); there are insurance companies and resources — but everything for an elevated price and most people do not have the ability to pay for these items and services. What happens is that these institutions are not efficient, they are not accessible to most individuals and there is a heavy cost to purchase their services. There are still jobs and corporations and apparently very successful corporations. People without education and without jobs, crowd in to smaller housing and share space. Corporations dominate certain sectors of society and provide protection and infrastructure to those who can afford it. Punitive debt policies and employment policies are in place that hurt individuals but benefit corporations. Isn’t this describing the current state of some countries in this world right now – maybe even in this hemisphere? Where there is no protection for the individual beyond what they can obtain from people in their community and families? Don’t people already go on migrations to new places (bordering countries, mega cities, factory rich regions) with nothing but a small savings and a hope for anything different? I see this book as an envisioning of what if these situations happened in the United States. The scenarios described in Parable, the extreme violence, the extreme fear and the absolute lack of choices are just so out of the realm of anything most people in the US experience while living in the US that it is hard to imagine, understand and relate to images like written in this book that we may read about in the news, blogs or in non-fiction books. Butler brings it home; she recreates it here and it is absolutely terrifying.
At one point in the novel, Lauren travels disguised as a man but she travels along side a woman who is described as highly desirable, Zahra. Zahra encounters problem after problem because men will just not leave her alone – and in a threatening way. There is no government, no structure – and no laws to protect the weak. Butler describes horrible crimes that happen to females of all ages and most of them sexual. What point is Butler making about the physicality of being a woman? Is she saying that in the absence of the protection of a societal framework a woman is more at risk, simply because she is a woman? Does this mean Butler believes this threat is inherent? I have a hard time accepting this concept, but I also know I approach this concept of equality and physical integrity from an extremely privileged position. The mass rapes that happen in war torn countries, the use of rape as a weapon of wars, and the kidnapping and use of children soldiers – these horrors that take place and demonstrate this fragile place in society that women and children can occupy.
But again, from my extremely privileged position, I have a hard time grasping that in the absence of government and infrastructure, human beings will turn violent and devoid of empathy. The mass chaos Butler describes is only kept out by walls, guns and guards. However, I have mentioned this and been told by some people, very intelligently, that it does not take a majority to create chaos. A minority of criminals and desparados are enough to create the chaos that endangers people, the forces them to withdraw from society and that puts women and children at risk. If the natural condition in a situation devoid of an effective government is chaos and danger, how could society have evolved? Why would we be here? I do think the answer is that people would join together, form a community, work as a group and attempt to protect the community members. And that, is what I think this book is about – community, bonds, joint action and moving forward as a group. The acceptance of change and the trusting of each other.
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