In the year 2024, water and gasoline have become rare, electricity is unreliable, fire and police departments charge fees, and the steadiest work available is for companies that pay only in company scrip—and never quite enough of it to pay the bills. Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the few islands of safety, a gated community near Los Angeles. Her father, a minister and college professor, instills in Lauren essential survival skills, a thirst for knowledge, and an appreciation for spirituality, although Lauren’s own secret spiritual beliefs differ a great deal from his own.
Lauren chronicles her life and her emerging beliefs in a series of journal entries that comprise Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. The journal covers the years 2024–2027, beginning with Lauren’s 15th birthday. For Lauren, these are years of extreme change. She goes from living with her family in relative safety to watching her brother destroy himself out in the world to being thrust out into the world herself. But Lauren is prepared for change. The idea that God is change is the belief at the heart of Earthseed, the religion that Lauren develops in her journals and hopes to spread all the way into the stars.
Butler is known as a science fiction writer, but this novel includes few of the trappings of science fiction as most people define it. There’s talk of space, but no one goes there. The setting is only a few years into the future (the book was written in 1993), and the technology doesn’t seem all that different from our own. In fact, the few advances that had been made stalled out because of shortages and economic and governmental chaos, and the medical advances seem to have done more harm than good. The novel is more of a dystopian apocalypse, and compared to a lot of dystopian fiction, what this novel offers is a slight tweak on current conditions, rather than a complete societal overhaul. Take away a few services, change the climate just a little, provide a drug that makes destruction feel better than sex, widen the rift between the rich and everybody else, and there you go. Apocalypse now.
At age 15, Lauren has known nothing but change. She’s young enough not to be wistful for some lost past and old enough to need to plan for the future. Her interest in the past is more about learning basic survival skills than about recovering what was lost. She anticipates more change and wants to be prepared for whatever comes next. Change is the only constant in her life, and so for her, God is change. It’s her religion, but it’s a religion born from observation, not from the spirit. She writes:
I’ve never felt I was making any of this up—not the name, Earthseed, not any of it. I’ve never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation. I wish I could believe it was all supernatural, and that I’m getting messages from God. But then, I don’t believe in that kind of God. All I do is observe and take notes, trying to put things down in ways that are as powerful, as simple, and as direct as I feel them. I can never do that. I keep trying, but I can’t. I’m not good enough as a writer or poet or whatever it is I need to be. I don’t know what to do about that. It drives me frantic sometimes. I’m getting better, but so slowly.
The thing is, even with my writing problems, every time I understand a little more, I wonder why it’s taken me so long—-why there was ever a time when I didn’t understand a thing so obvious and real and true.
Lauren’s beliefs grow out of her life, and they seem to be exactly the beliefs that are needed in her world. Lauren herself, thanks to a side-effect of a drug her mother took during pregnancy, is literally able to feel others’ physical pain and pleasure, but I think her empathy goes deeper than that. She understands people and what they need. That empathy makes her vulnerable, but it’s also a key to society’s survival.
Through Earthseed, Lauren is able to inspire people to take control of their own fates, to shape God. However, they’re not shaping God for their own sake, as so many people do, but for the sake of others. Her hope is to build communities in which people shape God—shape change—together. It’s an interesting mix of fatalism and empowerment, sad but hopeful.
I enjoyed this book every bit as much as I did Kindred and Fledgling, although on the whole, I didn’t find the ideas within it to be as complex as in those other books, particularly Fledgling, which is so murky and transgressive. Still, it’s a very good book, one in which lots of things happen to people you can’t help but care about. If you do decide to pick this up, you might want to seek out a later edition, as the first hardcover edition, which I read, had an alarming number of typos (mostly of the its vs. it’s variety), a problem I also encountered in Fledgling. As a copyeditor myself, I know things slip through, so I’m pretty understanding of the stray typo, but I’ve rarely seen so many mistakes in a professionally published book. I would hope that later editions cleared most of these up.
If you think you’re ready to try Butler soon, consider signing up for A More Diverse Universe, a Sept. 23–29 blog tour highlighting works of speculative fiction by people of color. If I have time to read the sequel, The Parable of the Talents, soon, I’ll probably join in myself!