Parable of the Sower - predicting the shambles of the 2020s
Considering I write a book blog, it’s been way too long since I wrote a review.
But we’re back!
In honour and memory of the late Octavia E. Butler who would have celebrated her 72nd birthday last week. An American science-fiction author, Butler was a multiple recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards and became in 1995 the first sci-fi writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
1993 and Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower is published. The first in a duology of dystopian science-fiction, followed by Parable of the Talents in 1998. I wasn’t born yet. Friends wasn’t on TV. Mobile phones were bricks with little antennae that popped out the top. But Butler was envisaging the futuristic world of the 2020s which oddly (if you haven’t noticed) we now inhabit.
Butler’s America is plagued by violence, unemployment, skyrocketing food prices [and] the privatisation of the emergency services
Parable follows Lauren Olamina as she journeys north up the West coast of a crime-ridden America. Butler’s America is plagued by violence, unemployment, skyrocketing food prices, the privatisation of the emergency services and a dangerous drug called pyro which drives its addicts to find orgasmic pleasure in committing arson. Except it’s not just buildings they’re burning. Oh, and it’s run by President Donner who vows to make America great again by being tough on crime and creating more jobs of impoverished Americans.
Behind the razor-wire walls of her little community, Lauren grows up in relative safety, hearing the gunshots and screams of the world outside which in the decades since her parents’ childhood has descended into anarchy. Lauren is lucky. She has never missed a meal and always has a pair of shoes unlike the children outside the wall. She complains about her father’s Baptist preaching, her stepmother’s indifference to her, her brothers’ teasing of the hyper-empathy disorder she has been saddled with since her biological mother’s drug abuse during pregnancy. But when the walls of her community are breached by the street poor and arsonists of outside, Lauren’s world is decimated beyond recognition.
[America is] run by President Donner who vows to make America great again by being tough on crime and creating more jobs of impoverished Americans
In Lauren, we see a young woman determined to survive in a world where her hyperempathy has her literally feeling the pain of every atrocity she sees. It is interesting how Butler predicts the regularity of pain we see in the 2020s. In Butler’s pre 9/11 world, she predicts the cyclical traumas of the 2020s. Innocent people killed by the police. Civilians dying in terror attacks. Indifferent power structures. Idiocy in the White House. Yet Lauren is a survivor.
In the King James Bible (Luke 8:5-8), the 'Parable of the Sower’ reads:
A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And others fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit a hundredfold.
In a novel gritty enough to shock twenty-first century audiences with its explicit descriptions of violence and the relevance of governmental failure, I am impressed with how diverse Butler’s characters are. Unsurprisingly from a phenomenal writer and powerhouse woman of colour, associated with the Black Power and Afrofuturism movements, but it is still great to read a book from the nineties with multiple black main characters, Latinx and Asian characters.
My only complaint:
Why has the eighteen-year-old Lauren fallen for the fifty-seven-year-old Bankole? A year older than her own father? Maybe there’s something to be said for Lauren’s abnormal maturity in the face of trauma or for Bankole’s reassuring father-figure ways but it remains a bit ugh to me.