I’d seen the above quote before in a number of places around the web, and I remember bookmarking it (back when people bookmarked things) to return to later. I’ve always felt the quote succinctly captures the fact that positive change cannot happen in a vacuum, and that change itself is one of the toughest things in life to accept. I’ve long been curious about the book that these wise words had come from.
Enter Parable of the Sower, the first book in the Earthseed series that Butler unfortunately wasn’t able to finish before she passed away (though she did leave behind one sequel, Parable of the Talents). In Sower, Butler creates a world where mankind is headed toward demise. Climate change has ruined much of the environment and economy, and people are left to eke out a life with relatively little support from any sort of formal government.
The protagonist, Lauren, lives in a gated community of several families that have banded together for safety. The families in the community are poor and always struggling to get by, but outside the walls is an even more grim environment, where violent drug addicts and the very poor roam the streets and live in abandoned houses, stealing from everyone else. All in all, it’s a pretty terrifying stage, especially since Butler chose to set the novel only a few decades in the future from where we are today.
Lauren is intriguing because she suffers from something called “hyperempathy syndrome,” where supposedly she experiences other people’s pain and pleasure. The condition makes it challenging for her to be around people who are hurt — and usually someone is hurting in this post-apocalyptic world — making the syndrome a threat to her being able to survive. Butler is always playing around with these interesting scenarios and factors in her novels.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the fragile balance of Lauren’s world gets upset and she’s forced to completely rethink how she’ll move forward with her life. And throughout the book she begins to shape her own religion, called Earthseed. The initial quote, for instance, is one piece of her new religion’s writings.
I really enjoyed the way Butler challenged me to think about the U.S. as a third-world country and what it would be like to live in a world of rapidly dwindling resources. Children who grow up in America are taught that they live in the most powerful and influential country in the world, and this book made me reflect on what we lose through that kind of thinking — perhaps a shared sense of humanity and a deep appreciation for the natural resources that keep us alive.
I’m really interested at some point in reading Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of short stories that use this science fiction idea of renvisioning the world, but particularly for the means of social justice. Butler’s works seem to have inspired a lot of this kind of big thinking.
I do have to admit, the plot does move a little slow sometimes, and there are a lot of different characters to keep track of throughout the book. So the reading itself wasn’t as all-engrossing as I hoped it would be. But I do plan on reading the next book in the series though at some point, since Butler leaves you with a bit of a cliffhanger.
I’d also encourage anyone interested in Octavia Butler to read Kindred, which also plays around with the idea of alternate realities and draws in more explicitly themes of race.