Friday, July 1, 2011

Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993
Series: Book 1 of the Parable Series
Award Nominations: Nebula, Locus SF

The Book:

“Amid the breakdown of modern civilization, the more fortunate citizens have sequestered themselves in carefully guarded gated communities.   Outside their walls lies a terrifying world where theft, arson, rape, murder, and even cannibalism are becoming commonplace.  As people grow more desperate for food and shelter, they are growing more willing to accept slavery to get it.  In addition, new drugs are on the market, including one that makes watching fire orgasmic.

Another drug, taken by her late mother, caused the teenage girl Lauren Olamina to inherit ‘hyperempathy’, a psychosomatic disorder that forces her to experience the pain she imagines from witnessing others.  Lauren is lucky to live in a walled community with her father, who is a Christian minister, and the rest of their family.  However, she knows that this haven will not last forever, and she has already begun making plans for the future.  She is also working on the development of “Earthseed”, a religion and philosophy that she is slowly shaping in an attempt to make sense of her reality.   Lauren rises to meet the future not only determined to survive, but determined to create a life worth living.” ~Allie 

This is the first book I’ve ever finished reading by Octavia E. Butler, though I started reading Lilith’s Brood (which is good so far, but very long) at the same time. I’m sort of getting the impression that Butler wrote a lot of fiction about the collapse of human society, but maybe I just chose an odd sampling of her work.

I’d also like to mention that my review rate should be back to normal (2-3 reviews a week) in a week or two.  For the past few weeks I’ve been dealing with a combination of picking some very long novels and some major deadlines at work.  Once I finish reading Lilith’s Brood (I’m at ~50%) and All Clear (I’m at ~25%), I should be back on schedule.

My Thoughts: 

Parable of the Sower feels like a more realistic look at how civilization might collapse than most apocalyptic fiction.  Instead of a nuclear war or a pandemic, Lauren’s world is just slowly getting worse and worse.  The quality of life is plummeting as a result of many factors—an economic depression, government and police forces slowly losing credibility, a rise of crime, disease, and other things.  Despite how bad things are becoming, many people refuse to acknowledge the changing world.  They desperately believe that the current situation is just a rough patch, and that things will go back to normal eventually. In some ways, this was more interesting than an undeniable, cataclysmic event.  The focus was less on the mechanism of destruction, and more on how regular people coped or failed to cope with the changes in their world.

Despite its future setting, Parable of the Sower actually has very few of the common science fiction elements.  The level of technology appears to be similar to our current civilization, with the exception of some new drugs.  One of those resulted in Lauren’s hyperempathy, and another causes people to sexually enjoy burning things and people.  Honestly, I did not really feel like these elements added all that much to the story, since the topics they brought up could have been addressed in other ways.  In contrast to the realism of the rest of the story, the hyperempathy and fire drugs felt a little out of place.  In general, I liked that the characters and their interactions were close enough to modern society to feel familiar and realistic.

The story was related through Lauren’s diary, which also helped to ground the story in daily life and the lives of ordinary people.  I thought that Lauren’s voice seemed very authentic for a teenage girl, particularly at the beginning.  She was perceptive and intelligent, but did not seem unnaturally wise beyond her years. The one drawback of seeing the world through the filter of Lauren’s thoughts and writing is that it created a certain distance from the other characters in the story.  Lauren describes the many people she knows or encounters, but only when their actions or stories are particularly significant to her own life.  Overall, I thought that Lauren was compelling enough as a protagonist that I didn’t really mind not getting quite as deep a picture of her companions.

Reading Lauren’s thoughts about her new religion of “Earthseed” made the theological aspects of the book easier to accept. She started putting Earthseed together when she was an adolescent.  I think this makes a lot of sense, since that is the age that most children begin questioning their parents’ religion.  To Lauren, her father’s religion (Christianity) did not adequately describe her reality or her ideal way of life.  She formed Earthseed as an attempt to explicitly define her own perception of the current world and the way she believed people needed to live in it.  She was trying to get people to let go of the structure of their old, dying civilization, and apply themselves to creating something new.   I think the novel dealt really well with her development of Earthseed and her attempts to convince others of its validity and worth.  I was glad that Lauren’s new religion did not feel like a excuse to preach to the reader, but rather a discussion point to help the characters to cope with their world.

My Rating: 4/5

Parable of the Sower is in some ways a bleak and depressing book, but it also carries with it a message of hope.  The world is always changing, but we can survive and find a worthwhile way of life.  I was a little afraid that it would end up being a rant against current organized religion.  On the contrary, Lauren embraces religion as a way that people make sense of the world.  Her Earthseed is less a rejection of established religion than it is her attempt to define her own experience of reality and share it with others.  Aside from the religious aspects, Parable of the Sower is a compelling survival story set in the middle of the death of our modern civilization.  Lauren’s diary entries keep the story grounded in everyday events and their continuing struggle to survive.


  1. She does walk this delicate balance between complete despair and promising glimmers of hope throughout the entire book. I had a similar concern about Earthseed being an attack on current organized religion in general, but in the end it was not only pretty compelling but aside from the dystopian future I think it was the most science-fictional element in the book! One of Butler's projects in this book seems to be showing how easily society can fall apart into barbarism, and that spreading ourselves among the stars we can (hopefully) avoid the complete self-annihilation of our peoples and cultures. It's a pretty compelling read. I've got a copy of the second book, Parable of the Talents, and definitely want to see what happens to Lauren and the others. I read somewhere that she may have been intending to write a third novel in this series--to be titled "Parable of the Trickster"--but didn't get to it before she died. Great Review!

  2. Thanks for the comment! I'm really looking forward to seeing how Lauren's group will fare in Parable of the Talents, also. It's so sad that Octavia Butler passed away so young.