Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1995)

To get along with God,

Consider the consequences of your behaviour

Parable of the Sower is one of the most harrowing, intense novels I’ve ever read.  I had a feeling that I shouldn’t read it while in a raw emotional state, but I picked it up one afternoon, started it and couldn’t stop.  Butler has a deceptively simple writing style that hooks you quickly and then grabs you round the throat and shakes you to your core.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another writer who has less pity on her readers.

The narrative, which begins in 2024, is presented as the journal of a teenage girl, Lauren Olamina, who lives with her family in a small walled community eking out an existence in a nightmarish future Los Angeles. Massive environmental and economic collapse has resulted in out-of-control inflation, mass unemployment and homelessness. Food and clean water are running short in the US and company towns are making a come-back recruiting desperate people into slavery. New drugs have appeared with terrible effects, especially Pyro, a drug that makes its addicts want to set fires.  People can expect little protection from the corrupt police who extort exorbitant fees for their services. This world is all the more terrifying because it’s just close enough to our own to be a possible future.

Lauren has hyper empathy syndrome as a result of her own mother’s addiction to drugs, a delusion that causes her to feel that she shares other peoples’ physical pain and pleasure. Lauren knows that the experience is all in her head, but that doesn’t make it any less of a danger in a world in which she might have to inflict pain on another person simply in order to survive herself.

The first part of the narrative describes Lauren’s life with her father, stepmother and four younger half brothers, their day-to-day efforts to survive and their relationships with other members of their community.  During this time Lauren begins to create verses that articulate her religious beliefs.  The second part of the novel follows the battle for survival after the catastrophe in which Lauren loses her family and most of her friends.  She sets out on the road North with a couple of survivors in search of a better life.  On the way they pick up other travellers and begin to entertain hopes of forming a community based on a new religion that Lauren calls Earthseed.

I’m not sure I’d call Parable of the Sower science fiction so much as dystopian, speculative fiction.  It’s completely gripping and utterly horrifying.  As in Lilith’s Brood, Kindred and the short stories in Bloodchild, Parable of the Sower shows Butler’s pessimism about human nature and fascination with putting ordinary people in terrible situations with no good options and then following their story to its logical conclusion.  It is a book that takes an unflinching look at where we might be headed if certain problems are not addressed.

But it’s also a book about hope, about creating community and about faith.  It asks how religions get started and seems to answer that perhaps they come along when people need them.  Earthseed draws on aspects of Buddhism and existentialism to present God as Change that can be shaped by human beings.   The narrator, Lauren, is a memorable female character, a six foot tall young black woman who can pass for male when she needs to, who is prepared to kill in spite of her hyper empathy, who has a romance with a man in his fifties, and who, despite experiencing terrible tragedy, develops into the leader of a new community and possibly the founder of a new kind of faith.

I will be reading the sequel Parable of the Talents, but not yet.