God, I hate this place.
I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough.
As often as she appears on “best SF authors you ought to read”-type lists, I get the feeling that Octavia Butler is not half as well-known as she ought to be. (Probably a perception issue on my part due to her showing up on all those “authors you’ve never read but should” lists… and because I think everyone should have read at least one of her books by now.) It’s a surprise to me; despite any flaws and quibbles with her novels, they’re some of the most thought-provoking and innovative SF out there. I’ve meant to re-read her Patternist and Xenogenesis series, but before doing so, there was one series of hers I’ve yet to read: Earthseed. It started with 1993’s Parable of the Sower, and continued in 1998’s Parable of the Talents, and would have continued with Parable of the Trickster if Butler’s writing career hadn’t been cut short at the age of 58.
Lauren Olamina grew up in the mid-2020s, watching the world deteriorate from the relative safety of her middle-class gated community outside of Los Angeles. Due to catastrophic climate and social change, society is coming apart at the seams. The new presidential administration has cut back investments in the sciences, and removed labor and safety regulations, in an attempt to “restore America to its former glory.” Police show up hours late, if at all, and cost too much for most citizens to use them. The firemen rarely show up at all—there isn’t enough potable water for drinking, so wasting it to put out fires costs an egregious sum. And there are plenty of fires from a new wunderdrug, said to make watching (and setting) fires “more enjoyable than sex” for its users. (Lauren’s addict mother took yet another substance while pregnant, which gave Lauren “hyperempathy,” a kind of mental link where Lauren feels the pleasure and pain of others.) And Lauren sees the first foreign corporations buying up American cities: “company towns” where the wealthy live in safety and security, and others can trade their labor for the privilege of living behind their sturdy walls.
This gated cul-de-sac has become the only family and world Lauren has known, a safe zone nestled in the anarchy, and its inhabitants soldier on against increasing adversity. Things are bad and are only getting worse, but the adults refuse to accept this societal decay as anything other than a temporary setback. Even Lauren’s father—a Baptist preacher and the community’s leader—is reluctant to admit the dark reality of everyday life. But thieves and arsonists keep breaking in; the deaths mount, as do the number of families leaving to work in corporate cities. Laruen’s family begins to collapse; after the community shatters from a series of attacks, Lauren heads forth from the wreckage with a multi-racial cast, reborn through change with new purpose: that of Earthseed.
Earthseed itself is hard to explain; it’s a religion Lauren builds as she struggles to understand it, a new God—a new philosophy—to help understand and guide her through this world. It’s both her construct and an outside force that motivates her. It’s a series of poetic verses which headline each chapter, the meaning of which builds as you progress through the novel. This recurring refrain is both explanation and teaser for the depth of Earthseed: “The Destiny of Earthseed / Is to take root among the stars.” Earthseed is the crux of the novel, somewhat ironic given that it’s given second billing behind the apocalyptic setting and atmosphere. I’m a bit of an agnostic skeptic myself, and found Earthseed too ’90s New Age-y at times, even though Butler handles the subject with a gentle but firm hand. Aside from bringing manifest destiny to the stars, it’s a reaction to the only world Lauren has known, a religion that promotes tolerance and understanding to bind together the remains of a human race fractured along geopolitical, ethnic, and class lines. It raises a fascinating concept: what would the idealistic philosophy of this grim future be?
And it is one grim future, festering in the aftermath of an unexplained catastrophe—Butler is coy with details on how this world messed itself up, perhaps because the narrator herself is coming of age well after the decline started. Prepare for dogs running around with children’s limbs dangling from their mouths, teenage cannibalism, and a depressing amount of background rape (several of the characters in Lauren’s band are former sex slaves). Butler has a very cynical view of humankind, portraying it as willing to destroy itself and spoil its environment in a frantic scramble for self-preservation; her 2026 California is as brutal as Earthseed is optimistic. There’s this rich, intoxicating atmosphere of decay that pervades the novel, humanity clinging to the last vestiges of society. It’s shocking how vivid and plausible this future can feel, a nightmare vision extrapolated from our worst predictions for climate change and income inequality. Yet it also had elements that don’t feel at all realistic—things I wouldn’t hesitate to take a lesser writer to task over. It hasn’t rained in six years, but everyone has thriving citrus/vegetable gardens. In one or two generations, dogs have gone from loyal companion to roving in packs eating children. Society is all but gone, but people still go to work and get paid; everyone is scraping by without enough food and water, but Lauren’s group never lacks supplies since every fifty pages there’s a guy selling food out of the back of a truck. I could go on.
Truth be told, I found myself drawn into this novel, warts and all. I think the epistolary style works against the novel—it’s composed of diary entries written by a confused teenager, but it gives the reader an inside view of Lauren’s thought process. The aforementioned plot holes were nits I couldn’t help but pick. The narrative is distant and detached, as Lauren builds—finds?—her religion and explains it through emotionless journal entries. And the ending doesn’t give finality or closure, as this novel is just a few steps of the journey of Earthseed. Butler had a grand vision for the series, following in the wake of Lauren as humanity’s new messiah; Parable of the Sower is just the first step on a long, six-book journey that ended two books in. There’s a good article on the LA Review of Books that charts the intended progression, and makes me wonder how amazing the full cycle would have been had Butler been around to complete it.
The Parable of the Sower tackles complex issues in a rich and disturbing apocalypse, a world that felt more real due to its detailed and diverse cast. While some elements were vivid and realistic, others are awkward and poorly thought out, and the author’s cynical view of humanity is a downer—with enough cannibalism, rape, and so forth to probably deserve a trigger warning. Still, I couldn’t put it down—I found it well-written and very readable; Butler has a strong, sure voice as a writer, and uses it to her full advantage as Lauren founds a new religion for all humankind. Parable of the Sower doesn’t rise to the same heights as Wild Seed or Kindred, but it offers some thought-provoking insight into religion, gender, and race in the dystopic remnants of society. I just wish Butler had been around to complete this series.