Book Review: The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower was published in 1993 and tells the story of Lauren Olamina, a minister’s daughter growing up in a vaguely dystopian future Southern California. The story is told through Lauren’s journal entries, the first of which is recorded on Saturday, July 20, 2024. A couple of years before I was born, Butler created this science fiction world by combining her observations of the world around her with her imagination. Now, only four years away from catching up to this narrative’s fictional time, we get to see which of Butler’s projections have become reality and which remain science fiction. Butler’s ability to create haunting, compelling, and ultimately believable science-fiction worlds is really impressive; she was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur “Genius” Award and the first African-American woman to win the Nebula Award for best novel for her sequel to this book, Parable of the Talents, which I can’t wait to read.
As the title may suggest, the influence of religious imagery is felt throughout the novel; Lauren grows up as the oldest child of a minister. Though she no longer believes in the teachings of her father’s faith, Lauren creates her own religious framework through which to understand the world called Earthseed: The Books of the Living. I can’t help but marvel at Octavia Butler’s layered creativity — writing a belief system on behalf of a character in her novel and beginning every journal entry with an excerpt from Earthseed. Having also grown up as the son of a minister and no longer believing in the faith of my childhood, I can identify with Lauren’s desire to create an alternative system of morality, meaning, and community. Her system identifies Change as the God-like force that influences the world around us. Some of the Earthseed beliefs come off as childish or naïve, but I’m not sure if that’s because the fictional religion that Butler created lacks profundity or if it fits into Lauren’s identity as a teenager trying to make sense of the world (I suspect the latter). I wonder what science fiction religion I would create as an expression of my current beliefs.
Lauren’s journey takes her through much of California, through and around cities that have been a big part of my life. The harshness of the environment and the perils of the journey in Parable of the Sower reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The edition of the book that I read (published in 2000 by First Grand Central Publishing) ends with a short interview of Butler, asking her about her process of researching for and writing this book. It was fascinating to hear her talk about researching firearms and their various components, survival skills, gardening, world religions, and accounts of walking, biking, or horseback-riding through California. It was wild to simultaneously listen to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of walking the Pacific Coast Trail in a moment of crisis in her life, on a parallel path through an extremely different version of California. I thought the narrative structure of journal entries added to the story’s believability — for example, a few entries are marked as having been expanded on a future date when Lauren was better able to record what happened; it’s cool that the storytelling itself is impacted by the events in the story being told.
Though many of Octavia Butler’s other stories prominently comment on race in America, I felt that Parable of the Sower commented on race less explicitly. I am wary of my expectation that Butler’s works, as a result of her own identity as a black woman, must contain social commentary on race. I’m listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power, and he talks about his frustrations at being typecast as a spokesperson for the black experience, simultaneously pigeon-holing him and reducing the black experience to a monolith. I’m wondering how Octavia Butler felt about the way her identities influenced how her work was read. If I were to write a novel, would it be inherently tied to my experience as a Korean-American? How would I feel to hear someone project my race onto my work when I hadn’t meant for it to? What if I had intended my work as a commentary on my experience, as influenced by my racial identity? I’d like to approach my role and responsibilities as a reader in the same way that I’d approach other people — with humility and an open mind. Perhaps that’s why I have a hard time making more definitive judgments on books as being “good” or “bad.”
This novel tells a harrowing story that had me on the edge of my seat, wondering whether Lauren would survive — and if she did, how the journey would change her. Octavia Butler’s creativity really stood out to me in little details like a drug that gives its users intense, nearly-orgasmic pleasure at the sight of fire or a medical condition of hyper empathy that makes someone viscerally feel any pain they see another person feeling. The most haunting aspect of the world that gives birth to Earthseed is how much it resembles the world we currently live in.