Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

ParableOfTheSower(1stEd).jpg

Parable of the Sower (1988) is deeply American SF, all guns and God. Well SF when it was written anyway, 3 decades ago, but now just another story of the US’s decline into hell in a handbasket. Trump, and McConnell’s GOP, too busy harvesting the spoils thrown up by the collapse of the once, recently great empire to offer leadership.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006), a Black American woman, is one of the greats of science fiction writing, deeply thoughtful about race, gender, and class, though not as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

In Parable of the Sower she posits the rise of a new religion, with the slogan “God is change”, and a young black female messiah, against the background of climate induced chaos as America falls back into the unregulated capitalism of mass unemployment, zero social services, corrupt police, and indentured slavery, not to mention roving packs of drug crazed pyromaniacs and walled, armed enclaves in the suburbs.

And I say ‘background’ because though economic and social collapse is central to the story there is not the clear economic analysis of the book’s forbears, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack London’ s The Iron Heel and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instead, Butler focuses on what a new religion might look like, what sort of God would make sense of the ever-present danger and disorder of ordinary people’s lives.

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

I don’t suppose only Americans substitute religion for logical economic analysis, though it feels like it sometimes, and the best of them, as here, make their way back to anarcho-syndicalism – that is, self government and equal opportunity – with some sort of synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and a non-interfering God which seems to offer them comfort without causing us much harm.

Lauren, 13 when she starts telling her story, has already begun discovering not inventing the religion she calls Earthseed with a God it is up to us to shape. She, her college teacher parents and younger brothers live with four or five other families in a walled enclave in the suburbs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Throughout the city and by implication, throughout the country, any unprotected building is occupied and ransacked by the masses of unemployed. Gasoline fuelled vehicles are a thing of the past, the internet is mostly down, schools are closed as it becomes too dangerous to leave the enclave, water is scarce and dirty, food is expensive and must be supplemented by home gardens and orchards. Police, fire brigades, ambulances must be paid to attend, are always late and often turn on the people who called them.

With no chance of a college education or employment, Lauren, already sexually active, faces a future of early marriage, constant child-bearing, crowded accommodation and grinding poverty. The father, a Baptist minister, trains the children of his community to shoot and organizes sentries but it is all for nought. By the time Lauren is 18 one brother has joined the gangs and been killed, the father has disappeared, and the enclave is overrun, ransacked, women and children raped, her mother and remaining brothers murdered.

She escapes with Harry (white), a childhood friend and Zahra (black), a wife sold into polygamous marriage by her prostitute mother. And so they join the long trek north, up the west coast to Canada, with tens of thousands of others, preyed on and preying on each other, slowly accumulating a few companions they can trust, children and parents with children.

The danger, shootings and deaths are a given in this brand of dystopian SF, but well done anyway. And the characters and relationships of the protagonists are filled out in a way not generally managed by the writers of boy-SF derived from war and wild west pulp fiction.

Among the people who accumulate in her train is an older black man, Bankole, to whom Lauren, though travelling as a boy, is attracted. They slowly become lovers and he, though sceptical of the religion Lauren is weaving around her little band, offers to lead them to 300 acres of remote farmland he owns in the mountains above San Francisco.

There they find the farm buildings all burnt and the bones of Bankole’s sister and her children in the ashes. And there with seemingly reliable ground water and arable land, remote from the worst of the marauders, they decide to stay. But that, as is always the case with SF, is another story, Parable of the Talents.

Perhaps to make her story more ess-eff-y, Butler gives Lauren and a couple of the lesser characters the ‘talent’, handicap really, of being able to feel the pain of others, so that if Lauren shoots someone she must die, or feel like she is dying, with them. But what is much more interesting is the feeling which people have, at least while they still have jobs and houses, until quite late in the story that this failure of the state is temporary, that after the next election or the one after, life will return to normal.

You get this feeling from America today. That the GOP, captured by the billionaires’ Tea Party, will be stopped from wrecking civilised governance, that the engineered failures of health, education and social security systems, the headlong rush to climate catastrophe, the hollowing out of the middle classes will all be reversed by a Blue Wave in November, when the opposite is clearly true. The Democrats are as captured by Big Money as the GOP; the South is already lost; the American dream is headed for nightmare as SF writers have been fortelling for decades.

 

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 4W8W, New York, 1988 (first ed. cover)


*Origin “Going to hell in a handbasket”
The phrase originated in the USA in the mid 19th century and the first print record is in I. Winslow Ayer’s account of events of the American Civil War “The Great North-Western Conspiracy”, 1865  (theidioms.com)

The suggested origin I liked best was being lowered down a gold mine shaft in a basket, which would have been quite common during the gold rushes from the 1840s on.

19 thoughts on “Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

      • No, I didn’t. I am taking no notice at all of US politics until they vote out That Man. There is nothing I can do about any of it (since although I like The Rest of the World have to endure the consequences, I have no vote) and it just makes me angry and sad. I put my energies into harassing dictatorships that infringe human rights in other places, because I know that the activism I invest in PEN, gets results.

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  1. I read this book for my book group a few years ago. It felt prescient then; it must feel almost like reality now 😱

    This is from my review: “I admit that I had problems with this dystopian novel. Yes, the themes and issues it presents — about societal breakdown, the importance of empathy and the need to embrace diversity — are particularly relevant and timely given what’s happening across the world right now. But it’s far too long and the prose too pedestrian for my liking. (I had the same problem with Butler’s Fledgling, which I read back in 2010.)”

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    • Ok, I’m home and I’ve read your reviews of Parable of the Talents and Fledgling. I don’t think I had any problems with the writing or with length. I found Butler to be a good, conventional story-teller in the SF tradition but also with interesting things to say about gender and race, often by implication without having to spell them out. I agree when you point it out that there is a fair dollop of YA, both in the coming of age element and in the new religion which I must say I found immature. I definitely plan to get the other ‘Parable’ next time I’m at the bookshop (how I envy you being able to walk to Elizabeth’s (store and warehouse), Bill’s and New Edition).

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  2. It’s always interesting to read your thoughts on novels from the U.S. because you’re stepped back, whereas everything American is in our faces. I never would have thought of God and guns to be uniquely American science fiction. But you’re absolutely right.

    I read this novel years ago, before I started Grab the Lapels, and I think I missed some of what makes it special (it’s true that book blogging makes me a more careful, accountable reader). I do remember, however, wondering which aspects made this a science fiction novel, rather than post-apocalyptic. I can’t remember if I ever came up with anything.

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    • I’m afraid the rest of the world sees all the US as dominated by God and guns which this novel just serves to highlight.

      I’ve never thought about distinguishing between post apocalyptic and SF, they’ve always been closely entwined in my reading, as far back as HG Wells. You and Liz have given me something to chew on during those long miles out across the desert.

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      • You’re not wrong about god and guns, not at all, but I just didn’t realize our SF was tied up in it, too. It’s disconcerting to walk into a gas station and see someone with a hand gun stuffed down their gym shorts. I used to have this friend (I’ve since stopped contacting him) who recently attended a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest with an assault weapon. I can’t support or even begin to understand someone who would do that, nor do I want to in close proximity.

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      • I’ve been listening to a space opera all day – Endymion – which is about a galaxy ruled by the Catholic Church, who send out a nice priest/soldier to capture another young female messiah. I’ve had enough religion for this week (year, lifetime).

        I can’t imagine what it would be like to have young men walking around carrying guns, it’s bad enough that police and security guards do.

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      • No – says she still trying to catch up from the last month or so’s general absence – I wouldn’t have thought of separating post-apocalyptic from SF. I probably would see it as a sub-set or sub-genre.

        I’ve heard of Octavia Butler, but didn’t realise she was SF. But it sounds like this is not your usual SF – rather, the sort I might like, if I ever found time for it.

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      • Talking of catching up, Sue. I don’t think you’d dislike Butler but there are other writers who’d suit you better, I think. The problem is that it is difficult to know from my perspective as a lifelong SF reader how much any one SF work depends on the reader being familiar with SF conventions. I’d say Le Guin first, then the second generation feminists who wrote for the Women’s Press.

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  3. I agree with GTL that this sounds more dystopia than sci fi although Mr Liz was looking for sci fi by POC so I will mention her to him (he’s reading one at the moment but can I remember who it’s by? No, I cannot).

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      • Definitely feminist, Lauren in Parable doesn’t need any guys – except one to keep her bed warm.

        If dystopian is just ordinary people a few years in the future, then I guess Butler chucked in the pain sharing thing to take Lauren (and a couple of others) out of the ordinary.

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  4. A few months back, I read an essay in the NYT by a young woman who observed the Little-Women-question of whether one is a Jo or a Beth-Amy-Meg and noted that we do not ask whether we are a Lauren or a Joanne (her friend, to whom she confided her plans to look beyond the known borders).

    Also…did you know that Butler planned to write a third book in this set? I thought it was originally intended as a duology.

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    • Most of us are Joannes I’m sure, afraid to chance the unknown. I hope I’m also a Jo, if guys can be Jos. My research for this review was pretty sketchy so no, I didn’t see that about a trilogy.

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      • I was thinking that too. But now I’m reconsideringt, because it was more the idea of thinking beyond the known borders that made Joanne so afraid, even just learning about identification (of plants? was it plants? the book she loans to Joanne that was Lauren’s father’s book?) made her fearful. Back then, Lauren looks courageous because she was willing to read about possibilities, so maybe it’s as much about curiosity as it is about specific actions? (I would have been too afraid to leave too but, as it happens, Lauren doesn’t have a choice about leaving, so maybe she wouldn’t have chosen to leave either. Even that choice was a luxury she didn’t have.)

        Well, in my book, guys can be Jos, for sure. Have you seen the recent PBS version of Little Women or the recent Greta Gerwig film? For different reasons, I thought they were both remarkable.And I just learned about the third, planned volume when I was trying to make sure I’d remembered Joanne’s name correctly when writing my comment, so thanks for that.

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      • Lauren was definitely planning to leave. She’d told her fiancee and had a go bag ready (with water, seeds, clothes).

        I saw the recent LW movie. Interestingly, like the 1970s My Brilliant Career movie, I saw it as about the writing of the book, rather than a straight retelling of the story

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