Sowing a Terrifying Future from the Seeds of Our Failures

The Parable of the Sower is a wonderfully constructed vision of the world following a climate related collapse of western society. I mean wonderful in the sense that this world that Octavia Butler has brought to life inspired in me a genuine sense of wonder. Sci-fi books are supposed to create in the reader a sense of disbelief, a longing for the future and what could come with it, and this book did exactly that, while at the same time attacking and conquering huge themes like religion and racism. Racism in particular is a theme that I would like to spend quite a bit of time addressing, but religion is also something that I will touch on in some detail. There are a variety of other details and issues that could be addressed, but these are the two that stuck out to me like a sore thumb, and also the two that I was most interested in writing about. This book was excellent, compelling, and definitely worth more than one read.

The story that Octavia Butler tells is a compelling story of survival and community. The opening of the book starts en medias res, exactly as a good futuristic novel can. I personally feel that telling too much of a back-story can destroy the reader’s ability to concoct one itself, it also takes away from the author’s ability to create suspense and mystery in the novel itself. Butler does a very good job of giving us a gripping story without boring us with the details of the failing of the society that once existed. It is very easy to take on the mindset of a young girl while reading, and that makes digesting all of the new and sometimes confusing information much more easily. The novel then goes on to talk about the sense of community that is felt in the walled “neighborhood” that Lauren, the main character and narrator, lives in. This neighborhood seems to be a well-oiled machine, despite the immediately apparent racial tensions to be found inside of the community. There is a division among the white members of the community and the other racial groups. This makes a lot of sense considering the racial tensions that exist even in the world today, but it was interesting to see that Butler does not envision a post-racial world for our future.

One of the bigger themes of this book is “new slavery”; I put this in quotes only because I believe it to be a coined term and not merely an expression that I have made up. “New slavery” was introduced around the same time, as prisons became an industry rather than a place of reform. Butler speaks of this issue in a speech she gave which is the secondary reading for this week, “Every now and then you hear– and I’m not talking about ante-bellum slavery but modern-day slavery–every now and then you hear about some group of homeless people or illegal aliens or other people who have been held in slavery and I sort of combined slavery and throw-away workers and prison problems because in Parable of the Sower there is slavery and it is entirely legal because it isn’t called “slavery.” This quote speaks to her inclusion of the “new slavery” in her novel. This kind of slavery is found encapsulated in the city of Olivar, the fictional city being built where “skilled” workers are needed. The characters in the novel fear that this city is merely an excuse to capture people and indenture them to the larger corporate structure. This is a frightening reality because it is not unrealistic. There are certainly places in this dystopian America where slaves are found. They are people who do not have money and then work for company credit, but they never make quite enough money to afford their living expenses, so they become indebted to the company they work for, and end up owing the company massive amounts of money, and passing that on to their children when they die, creating a system of debt slavery that persists indefinitely.

Butler definitely set out to make this a main feature in her book, but what is interesting is that the people of color in the novel feel that the city of Olivar would only want white workers. This is interesting because for as taught as the racial tensions are in the future, there does not seem to be hope for anyone who did not already have money when the country collapsed. Some people are simply “slightly better off”.

The effects of this “new slavery” can be found in the people that the characters meet later on in the story; some of the people who they run into like Emery and Tori. They are both escaped slaves who are now dealing with the consequences of living a slave’s existence. They are also both hyper-empathetic, just like our narrator. This means that not only can they see someone in pain and relate, but also they actually feel it, and it is considered to be debilitating. Our narrator does not like to share with people that she has this condition, but she notices that the newer members of the group share her condition and immediately bonds with them over it. This hyper-empathy is a big reason why Lauren makes such an interesting character, because it shows how painful killing is for her, and how everything she does has a reason, and also is in part why she founds her religion, Earthseed.

Religion is an interesting topic in any book, especially so in this one, as our character has spread the seeds for her own religion to take root, Earthseed. Earthseed is a new religion that has some elements of a bunch of already existing belief systems worked into it. The basic idea of Earthseed is that “the destiny of mankind is to take root amongst the stars,” this is interesting because it is both a spiritual philosophy, and a very real belief of the narrator. Lauren believes that the discontinuation of the space program is foolish, and that they should abandon the Earth and that they should try again somewhere else.

Earthseed fascinates me, and I think I know where it stems from. Lauren lives in a firmly Baptist community, but does not have the faith of her father. Earthseed is a comfort to Lauren, and it is that simple. It is a basic philosophy that has sprung out of her discomfort with the world around her. She is living in a virtual hell, and has had to come up with some way to make her own truth. The truth she chooses to believe rather than a truth that is told to her. This is exactly where all religion stems from. People as a whole would not believe in something and it was not comforting to them. This is why I think the theme of religion is so interesting a Cli-fi book. With or without realizing it, Octavia Butler has created a wonderful comparison between a religion founded by an 18 year old, and hundreds of thousands of scientists’ conclusive evidence that climate change is very, very real. In the secondary reading Butler quotes a cartoon, the interesting part was this, “Make up your own truth and stick to it, no matter how little sense it makes. And sooner or later, you’ll have converts. Trust me.” This rings the truth to me about the world in general. People are so much more likely to believe in and idealize something that comforts them, rather than something that tells them they need to change. This is the whole fundamental issue we have had with the class. Our big question, “what can we do?” is answered by this simple quote. We need to make up a truth that people want to believe in, we cannot keep throwing the discomforting truth in their faces or they will continue to believe their own truths, namely “there is nothing that I can do.” Octavia Butler draws a comparison between a people who are still in disbelief about how broken their world is, and their deep belief that things will return to what they once were. This is a constant theme throughout the beginning of the book. Instead, a new religion is formed, which has the potential to have hundreds of followers, all because it is comforting and simple. This struck me as genius, and I may be reading a little too deeply, but I gleamed from Butler’s speech that this may have been on purpose. I liked that in particular about this book.

The Parable of the Sower has struck me in a way that a lot of books have not. I do not however think that this book will make waves in the ocean of denial surrounding climate change. I don’t think that the book deals closely enough with what we, as a species, have done to destroy the planet, and therefore keeps us from feeling particularly guilty. This book is rather a story about survival, friendship, and faith. I liked it immensely and would even consider adding it to my course syllabus when I am finally a teacher rather than a student.

 

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central, 2000. Print.

“”Devil Girl From Mars”: Why I Write Science Fiction.” “Devil Girl From Mars”: Why I Write Science Fiction. MIT Communications Forum, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

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