The OF Blog: Blogger Book Club: Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

Monday, March 09, 2009

Blogger Book Club: Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

The neighborhood wall is a massive, looming presence nearby. I see it as a crouching animal, perhaps about to spring, more threatening than protective. But my stepmother is there, and she isn't afraid. I stay close to her. I'm seven years old.

I look up at the stars and deep, black sky. "Why couldn't you see the stars?" I ask her. "Everyone can see them." I speak in Spanish, too, as she's taught me. It's an intimacy somehow.

"City lights," she says. "Lights, progress, growth, all those things we're too hot and too poor to bother with anymore." She pauses. "When I was your age, my mother told me that the stars - the few stars we could see - were windows into heaven. Windows for God to look through to keep an eye on us. I believed her for almost a year." My stepmother hands me an armload of my youngest brother's diapers. I take them, walk back toward the house where she has left her big wicker laundry basket, and pile the diapers atop the rest of the clothes. The basket is full. I look to see that my stepmother is not watching me, then let myself fall backward onto the soft mound of stiff, clean clothes. For a moment, the fall is like floating. (p. 5)
Too often for me, SF is too optimistic, too focused on progress, too...something that doesn't ring true for me. Perhaps it is too "whitebread," too much a reflection of a bourgeois Caucasian-centric world-view. I often am left wondering if the writers have ever considered those who too often are left behind in our society, those whose voices aren't heard as much in SF tales, those whose life experiences might be more alien to certain others than any imagined "first contact" could ever be.

The few times that I have read Octavia Butler's stories, I have come away impressed with her imagination and even more with her ability to combine empathy for her characters with a sometimes-harsh judgment of human society. This is my second time reading her 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower (I have also read the sequel, Parable of the Talents), and in the re-reading, I found more things to consider than I did when I first read it almost 14 months ago.

The story is set in southern California from 2024 to 2027. The United States is now a post-industrial scarcity society, in which clean drinking water is a precious resource and a new form of quasi-slavery has emerged as people are desperate for food, clothing, and safety. While it perhaps is not the sort of society many reading this could imagine happening here, it is quite plain from the text and from Butler's comments in my edition's afterword that this is only a slight extrapolation of a very real and dangerous present for millions of underfed, underprivileged, mostly minority Americans today. Yet there is hope embedded in this horrific environment in which fires burn constantly, where drug addicts seek to "escape" the world around them, where families struggle to hold onto some semblance of order and of faith in a world where it seems that even the gods have gone crazy. How can a young person survive and find hope in this environment?

Butler addresses that question through a precocious, teenage African-American girl named Lauren Olamina. A Baptist minister's daughter, she is cursed due to her biological mother's drug usage during her pregnancy with a false sense of hyperempathy. If she strikes a person, she "feels" the pain as much as the other does. Butler is careful to limit this element of Lauren's character to specific, threatening scenes in the novel, scenes which serve not just to underscore the dangerousness of 2020s southern California, but also how this relates to Lauren's development of a new religious faith which she calls Earthseed.

Change is a scary prospect. It is Hamlet's "undiscovered country," where people would rather die surrounded by familiar evils than to risk something new and strange. But yet change lies at the heart of hope. After all, despite fears of bad things happening, don't parents often risk so much to give their children the chance for a different, hopefully "better" life? It is this hard-to-grasp, barely fathomable notion, change, that Butler has Lauren wrestle with throughout the novel.

Parable of the Sower refuses to provide easy, pat answers to any of life's ills. As Lauren matures, she experiences the loss of her father, of the last remnants of a home life, and she is forced to confront those changes. In her diary entries over this three-year period, she ponders just what it is about change that scares and appeals to people. Ultimately, she develops the notion of a God who embodies change, as is expressed in the epigraph for Chapter 20:

God is neither good
nor evil,
neither loving
nor hating.
God is Power.
God is Change.
We must find the rest of what we need
within ourselves,
in one another,
in our Destiny. (p. 245)
Butler is on record as stating that one of her main ideas for writing this book was to explore the ways in which religious thought could arise from oppressive situations. Once she settled upon centering Lauren's new religious faith around the notion that Change is God, she set out to create situations in which this could be explored. As I read the story, I kept noticing how Lauren's religious writings (as recorded in her diary entries) began to change and to reflect what was happening in her life. In some ways, it strongly resembled Buddhist or Taoist thought on the need to maintain separation from the present lest elements within the present would cause harm through the separation or decay of cherished people or objects, but Lauren's Earthseed was more active, more centered in creating a heaven on Earth or among the stars. Just as Lauren becomes more and more active in her environment, so too does her religious thought evolve to represent the changes taking place in Lauren's life.

Butler did an outstanding job creating a nasty, almost-hopeless environment to serve not just as the backdrop, but as the near-living embodiment of the challenges facing those who desire positive change. Lauren was a well-drawn character whose subtle character shifts underscore the theme of Change quite well. Parable of the Sower is a powerful tale that I expect will be read and discussed decades from now, when all sorts of changes, expected and unexpected alike, will have occurred.


Anonymous said...

Nitpick: You mean a scarcity society. A post-scarcity society is the opposite of your description. Think the Culture in Iain M. Banks's novels.

Larry said...

Actually, I left out "industrial," as I meant to type "post-industrial scarcity society," but thanks for alerting me to that omission!

E. L. Fay said...

Great review! (And beautifully written.) Your comment about how change is frightening reminded me of a passage in Eugene D. Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, which I'm reading right now. He says that "those who romanticize - and therefore do not respect - the laboring classes would fail to understand their deep commitment to 'law and order.' Life is difficult enough without added uncertainty and 'confusion.' Even an oppressive and unjust social order is better than none. People with such rich experience as that of the meanest slaves quickly learn to distrust utopian nostrums. As Machiavelli so brilliantly revealed, most people refuse to believe in anything they have not experienced. Such negativity must be understood as a challenge to demonstrate that a better, firmer, more just social order can replace the one torn down." Octavia Butler sounds amazing - I'll have to pick this one up!

Alexander Field said...

I remember reading this book in a lit class in college and just being stunned after putting the book down. Butler is a genius in creating a unique and shocking milieu , but she truly excels with her characters. Thanks for posting, and for reminding me of this fantastic little book. : )

Fábio said...

Larry, this is just to let you know that I´m finishing the book and I´ll be posting my review today or tomorrow!

Larry said...

Cool! I'll be sure to link to it here when you do have it up!

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