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Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

May 25, 2011

I like to imagine the Apocalypse begins with a big ball of fire and continues with a small badass population fighting over resources. Everyone has big awesome hair and wears a lot of leather and metal. The good guys are attractive, and the bad guys all look like that inbred uncle of yours (making us all, yes, inbred, too). However, this is a product of watching The Road Warrior and Mötley Crüe music videos; the real Apocalypse isn’t going to be as fast or as stylin’.

For just this reason I really appreciate The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. The Apocalypse didn’t happen as one wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am Judgment Day, but a crumbling of civilization. We sold ourselves and starved ourselves until we were all against each other. No big event revealed the truth—that humanity is depraved. It just happened. Not the explosions you were hoping for, but the results are the same: how could you argue this isn’t the end times?

The novel starts in 2024, with precocious fifteen-year-old Lauren narrating and journaling the events that happen to her family and neighbors in their walled California compound. Don’t get the wrong idea; they’re not walled-in as a sign of wealth, but walled-in to protect themselves from robbers, looters, rapists, et. al. Some places are worse than others, yes, but all of the U.S. is in shambles, it seems (47):

“There’s cholera spreading in Southern Mississippi and Louisiana,” I said. “I heard about it on the radio yesterday. There are too many poor people—illiterate, jobless, homeless, without decent sanitation or clean water. They have plenty of water down there, but a lot of it is polluted…Tornadoes are smashing hell out of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and two or three other states. Three hundred people dead so far. And there’s a blizzard freezing the northern midwest, killing even more people. In New York and New Jersey, a measles epidemic is killing people. Measles!”

I imagine if our characters traveled outside the U.S. they’d be seeing the same things, if not worse. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge disparity of wealth: people have literally nothing or they have a lot. Lauren’s situation is out of the ordinary; her family has some income as her dad works at a college (can you imagine school sticking around at a time like this? I honestly can’t). The neighbors take care of each other, even sharing communal citrus trees. This is the best situation one could be in as a character in this novel, for they have something—and have souls. However, that’s all shattered one day as their compound is finally broken into. Most everyone dies—many murdered brutally—and the houses are burned to the ground.

Our heroine, a survivor, Lauren heads north, maybe to Oregon, maybe to Canada. Like the sea of refugees she passes on I-5 and 101, she just wants to get somewhere that has housing and employment. At this point we’re about halfway through the book, ready to get to the whole point: The Parable. Given the title of the book, how could you not expect a spiritual side?

All I’ve mentioned of our heroine is that she is young and precocious. She is also black, strong, and the daughter of a minister. This is all important: life, like today, is easier if you are white and male. But she is determined to survive, and her world falling apart forces her to take her ideas seriously and begin to implement them. The past several years haven’t been inventing this religion, but “stumbling across the truth [which] isn’t the same as making things up” (233). She forms Earthseed, a religion that maintains that God is Change—but the only lasting truth is Change. Earthseed’s destiny is among the stars, as there certainly isn’t anything left on Earth. Lauren isn’t being hopelessly metaphorical. She literally means that Earthseed’s followers, no matter how removed they are from her generation, will take root off-world. This is quite a goal for a teenaged girl. However, her commitment is unwavering, and you can’t help but side with her.

Butler’s character Lauren is the sort of strong female I am always excited to read about. It’s definitely sad when one is pleasantly surprised to read a strong, smart, candid female, but I am. (It is really good for me to be reading less canonical literature and more sci-fi!) In this novel Lauren is 15-18 and all sorts of kickass. She leads a group of survivors, picking up more along the way, to ultimately form the Earthseed community (see, she’s a Sower, eh?) And if I want to see how her character and community progress, I can, for there is a sequel.

I won’t bore you with what I didn’t care for in the novel (it isn’t much; I just didn’t feel affected by it). What I liked:
1. Realistic depiction of the world going to hell (I hesitate to say dystopia, for while it seems dystopian, it’s not a unified society we are dealing with).
2. Lauren is the kind of character a girl can look up to (although I’m a 27-year-old woman, I still find this very important)
3. There are so many moments that caused me to proclaim, “Ah! That just happened!” or “That is totally going to happen!” or “That should be shocking, but it isn’t.” You know I’m a sucker for all that’s relevant.

I recommend this book if you’re into strong female leads; if you want to trace a religion’s inception (yep, this seems how one would start); if you are into survivalist/post-apocalyptic literature (though it didn’t make me cry like The Road did); or if you like an engaging story.


P.S. I learned that the end is nigh.

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