publication date: 1993
What is it about the Northwest that causes writers to craft dim and dark apocalyptic worlds? Seattlite Octavia E. Butler certainly did just that in Parable of the Sower.
Parable of the Sower presented the story of Lauren Olamina, a young girl living in the western United States in the not-so-distant future. The story began with Lauren living in a working-class gated community in the middle of an economic wasteland, where residents armed themselves against the “street poor” on their commute to work and cities were infiltrated by a new drug – called pyro – that caused the user to start fires and revel in them. The book only hinted at what caused this societal breakdown – was it climate change, income inequality, racial strife? As Lauren grew older and her life crumbled around her, she concentrated on a spiritual set of rules she was creating that she called Earthseed.
Although the plot sounds distinct and suspenseful, it was actually somewhat boring. Terrible things were happening in Lauren’s life, but Butler’s dispassionate writing style meant the whole plot seemed detached and unimportant.
Butler’s style wasn’t necessarily bad, however. The book was written in a diary format from Lauren’s point-of-view. Her unemotional style yielded several stark and impactful sentences. For example, Lauren’s diary entry from Wednesday, August 26, 2026, which contained just one sentence:
Today, my parents had to go downtown to identify the body of my brother Keith.
Additionally, although the book wasn’t necessarily interesting as I was reading it, it was thought-provoking and left me with lingering thoughts and questions. For example, Lauren’s relationship with Earthseed was provocative. Earthseed was a religion she was forming and creating and would perhaps one day be some sort of messiah for. However, she felt like she was just uncovering something that already existed. This implied creation myth imbued Lauren’s every action with a larger-than-life quality.
Butler also raised issues of labor and employment. In a world where labor vastly outweighs employment, what would happen? In Parable, the government and employers wrung as much as possible out of labor. Corporations reverted to the “company town” system, where workers lived, worked, and shopped at the company. Workers were paid in scrip that could only be spent at the company store. It sounds like a preposterous system that would never be allowed because of the human rights abuses that would easily occur. But company towns existed quite unchallenged for decades in the 19th and 20th century, a time when commentators thought of the United States as enlightened.
Butler also addressed the issue of race. Race is not a focus of Parable, but the issue is raised occasionally. I thought Butler handled it more realistically than other dystopian novels in that she did not just sweep it under the rug. Instead, some characters worked together but other characters were more aware of race and more divided by it.
4/6: worth reading
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