Water the Key to Life

Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is an exquisitely written first-person narrative that follows a young woman’s journey as she navigates life through a “very grim near-future who has assembled a new belief system, a new religion” (Butler 3), and adopted a new family/clan. The preceding delineates how Lauren Olamina, the story’s main protagonist, demonstrates a need and will to survive by means of structuring normality in a clasped world of destruction. The author does not offer an explanation as to what caused the demise of American civilization, a useful technique for those who are not fans of fantastical futuristic prose (the author notes: “my rule for writing the novel was that I couldn’t write about anything that couldn’t actually happen” (Butler 3)). Readers will be captivated by the realistic struggle of the characters to rebuild some semblance of normalcy. The most normal of all basic human instincts is belief, and by creating her own belief system fostered around the concept that “change is ongoing. Everything changes in some way…Every living thing, every bit of matter, all the energy in the universe changes in some way” (Butler 218). The aforementioned denotes how the character Lauren transcends her theory of inevitable change as the starting point of her “Earthseed” theology. To Lauren, and by extension the author, “God is Change, and in the end, God prevails. But God exists to be shaped” (Butler 76). With the preceding statement in mind, in this story Lauren shapes her intellect of the Bible and its teachings to justifiably interpret what she describes as her own “idea” of God, “Earthseed.” It would be false to call “Earthseed” a religion (it is a concept) though it is referenced as one in the story; presumably, there were no other accurate adjectives/nouns that could be used that would require little explanation, but for the sake of argument this religion is not actually a religion. Butler explains “some other religions and philosophies do contain ideas that would fit into Earthseed, but none of them are Earthseed. They go off in their own directions” (Butler 261). The end of the quote is most important, the fact that other religions and philosophies direct (whether subtly or blatantly) their followers/believers into specific basic tenets as mandates to be good Buddhists, Muslims, or Christians, etc. is exactly why “Earthseed” is not a religion because it allows its followers to shape/change their interpretative belief system around God themselves. Intertwined throughout this world-building narrative of inevitable change is a most interesting subcategory of climate change.

Beginning in the year 2024 (only 9-years from the present day future) there is a prevailing negative effect induced by climate change and global-warming that is referenced throughout the entire book, a depleted hydrological system. This inevitably causes a life-threatening critical shortage of fresh water “often referred to as an intensification and acceleration of the hydrologic cycle” (Alavian et al. 20). Hydrologic cycles are abstract models that describe the storage and movement of water among the biosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, and the hydrosphere. Hydrologic climate change results in increased variability causing short bursts of sporadic intense rainfall and extended warmer and dryer timespans. The adverse effects on the world’s hydrologic system is the underlined threaded theme of climate change that allows “Parable of the Sower” to interpretively be classified as cli-fi. There are two types of hydrologic systems: glacier/snowmelt and precipitation that will be effected by global-warming and climate change.

According to Alavian et al. in snow-driven hydrology, changes in the pattern of precipitation and the associated acceleration of snow and glacier melt from rising temperatures are projected to significantly affect runoff and available water for human consumption, agriculture, and energy generation. Changes in the timing of runoff can cause increased flooding, failure of storage infrastructure, landslides, and loss of surface soil. In systems fed by snowmelt it is generally the amount and timing of the runoff that matters. Hydrologic variability, while always present, is more predictable and so less significant.

In contrast, Alavian et al. notes in rainfall-driven hydrology, flood and drought cycles are much less predictable and their severity has a significant impact on available water quantity, quality, sanitation, agricultural production, energy, and environmental sustainability. Climate change will exacerbate the uncertainty and severity of hydrologic variability. Climate causes structures to “crumble into the ocean, undercut or deeply saturated by salt water. Sea level keeps rising with the warming climate and there is the occasional earthquake” (Butler 118). Regardless of the hydrologic regime, the impact of hydrologic variability and climate change on coastal regions, such as California the setting of this story, is expected to be significant through sea level increases on the sea-side and increased flooding from the land-side.

The tracing theme of negative hydrologic climate change is what makes this novel cli-fi, but literal references to weather and climate change only occur intermittently throughout the novel; Butler portrays “a world in which global-warming is doing things like creating a lot of erratic weather and severe storms and drought” (4) all over the United States. These erratic weather conditions are the results of global-warming: “tornadoes smashing hell out of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and two or three other states. Three hundred people dead so far. And there’s a blizzard freezing the northern midwest, killing even more people” (Butler 54). The abovementioned murderous storm systems leave death and disease in their wake as they overflow and contaminate fresh water reserves, inflating the cost and need for water to be greater than that of oil or any other resource. The following quotes reference the importance of water as people in the novel “went home to put out all the barrels, buckets, tubs, and pots they could find to catch the free water” (Butler 48); “there are too many poor people—illiterate, jobless, homeless, without decent sanitation or clean water. They have plenty of water down there, but a lot of it is polluted” (Butler 53). This is to say, there is water for human consumption, but the quality of the water is deadly. Moreover, drought is a variable impediment: “wind and maybe a few drops of rain, or maybe just a little cool weather. That’s all there has been for six years” (Butler 47). This demonstrates that global-warming has increased the amount of precipitation evaporation in the air creating years of gapped intervals of rain, and making the atmospheric layers too warm to generate an adequate amount of rainfall and eliminating snow in its entirety. But what caused this climate change?

Octavia Butler does not give a punitive answer to this question; instead, she intelligently presents both sides of the argument: one side arguing God and nature as inevitable climate change factors through natural planetary evolution, and the other side arguing humans’ interferences for the change in climate and global-warming. In a conversation between Joanne and Lauren, Lauren asserts “people have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back” (Butler 57). In this regard Lauren could be interpretively deemed as the eco-friendly activist. One the other hand, Joanne and many others argue that people cannot change “the climate in spite of what scientists say. [They] says only God could change the world in such an important way” (Butler 57). These two oppositions allows “Parable of the Sower” to be enjoyed by both eco-activists and individuals who choose to disregard, or misinterpret, scientific facts.

Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is a highly recommended book due to its eloquent writing and powerful storyline that is inundated with subtextual themes of slavery, economic disparity, gruesome violence, and sexual overtures. In terms of being placed in the category of cli-fi genera, Butler superbly focuses a tracing theme of hydro disparity throughout, a theme not elaborated by many other authors. However, intellectually, it seems the prevailing thesis of this novel’s motivation is “in spite of [someone’s] loss and pain, you aren’t alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family” (Butler 303). As demonstrated in the novel Lauren and the members of her traveling clan adopted one another as a means to survive and rebuild, despite the struggles that adverse hydrologic climate change has on the food and water supply.

Works Cited

Alavian, Vahid, Halla M. Qaddumi, Eric Dickson, Sylvia M. Diez, Alexander V. Danielnko, Rafik F. Hirji, Gabrielle Puz, Carolina Pizarro, Michael Jacobsen, and Brian Blankespoor. “Water and Climate Change: Understanding the Risks and Making Climate-Smart Investment Decisions.” The World Bank: Public Disclouser Authorized. N.p.: The World Bank, 2009. N. pag. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. “Parable of the Sower.” New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993.

Butler, Octavia E. “”Devil Girl from Mars”: Why I Write Science Fiction.” mit communications forum. 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/butler.html

A Little Bit of Everything

In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, there were a lot of heavy subjects tackled. But some of the main themes I kept picking up on were the struggle for power, the need for community in spite of the chaos, mass complacency, gender (bending and roles), and of course climate change. The diversity in the novel is another aspect that I absolutely loved. Finally, something realistic and not white-washed to infinity and beyond.

The biggest form of climate change present in the story is the increase in temperature in California, certainly a catalyst for the multiple fires that occurred throughout it, man-made or otherwise. In a speech titled, “Devil Girl From Mars”: Why I Write Science Fiction”, Butler stresses that global warming should get more attention than it does, so she purposefully added in the increasing weather and the drought in California to show how much of a problem global warming is. You can also see climate change present in the prices for food. In “A Conversation with Octavia Butler” located at the end of the book, she notes that, “as the climate changes, some of the foods we’re used to won’t grow as well in the places we’re used to growing them” (337). Agriculture and farming is mentioned several times throughout the book as Lauren attempts to learn more about “living off of the land”. They also shop in different stores throughout California, looking for the best prices in food and other necessities.

The loss of innocence throughout the novel was also really heartbreaking to read. Thinking about thirteen year olds learning how to handle a gun terrifies me. It seems like these kids really don’t get a chance to enjoy their childhood, especially Lauren, who seems to want to rush past her adolescence. Tied in with the loss of innocence is the coming of age of several characters throughout the book. Lauren, of course, Keith, and also Harry all go through major transformations. My favorite parts throughout the book are when Lauren begins to ruminate over Earthseed and try to figure it out, because it tied directly into her becoming more confident in herself as a leader. Keith’s transformation, to me, was the scariest, because it felt like a boulder rolling down hill that would only end up crashing, which he did. Harry’s attitude shifted from distrusting Lauren and despising change to respecting her and co-signing her new religion.

Another major theme was power: the struggle for it, the exertion of it, and the lack of it. The exertion of power was most obviously seen through the multiple mentions of rape, the setting of fires by the “pyromaniacs”, stealing, and acquiring weapons. It all fits into an exchange of power within their world, where everyone is clamoring for some form of it, whether they’re exerting themselves over someone else through attempting to abuse or rape them, or setting fires on rich neighborhoods, or scavenging through someone’s burned remains. It reminds me of survival of the fittest, or the phrase ‘kill or be killed’ or even ‘fight or flight’. Lauren feeling that she has to dress as a man is also involved in the power exchange. The constant fear of her or the women around her being raped shows the harmful power dynamics between men and women, and the perceived vulnerability of women. Butler successfully shows the daily power struggles that occur throughout the novel as her characters try to survive and try to come out on top in their world.

The need for community is another important element shown throughout the novel. Butler sets it up in the beginning with Lauren’s development of ‘Earthseed’, a new way of living and a new religion that Lauren felt her community could operate more efficiently under. It becomes even more pressing for Lauren to go out and try her new method of living when her current walled-in neighborhood dissolves. The dissipation happens in a couple of different ways. The first way was her father beating Keith. After he beats him, she notes the unforgiving looks on Keith and Cory’s faces towards her father: “It was the end of something precious in the family” (115). Definitely one of the most heartbreaking lines I’ve ever read. Then, Keith runs away with a key to community, her father disappears, and the community is set on fire by the “pyromaniacs”. All of which, little by little, knock everyone out of their complacency of just living day to day and thinking that they’re safe within their walls. Or, as Lauren narrates, “We came home and wrapped our community wall around us and huddled in our illusions of security” (133). Lauren recognizes early on that things can’t stay the way they are,  something big is going to happen, and that the community needs to prepare for it. And she was right. Later in the novel, after her childhood (but did she even have one?) neighborhood burns down, Lauren begins to form her own community. It becomes a rather large one that feels unsettling to me, and they do lose a member of it, but they become a sort of haphazard family, with many of the single members pairing up as couples.

Speaking of couples… I’m really, really, REALLY creeped out by Lauren’s relationship with Bankole — a guy almost forty years her senior. I know she’s way more mature than a typical eighteen year old and hey, Bankole’s definitely not getting any younger, and it’s really slim pickens as far as mates go. And I know that their circumstances are totally different, and that people in their time get married and have kids at a much earlier age. But it’s still creepy. Not going to lie.

There are so many other themes to talk about within this story like grief, race, sex and sexuality, literacy, “new world” slavery, the value of life, and Lauren’s hyper-empathy, which, in Butler’s speech, she insists is an affliction, not a superpower (I really wanted it to be a superpower!). All of these are central to the story, but I think the themes I mentioned above are ones that stood out to me the most. Still, the novel as a whole tackled a lot of issues that would inevitably come up in a world such as this and leaves the reader wondering what we would do if we were in Lauren’s shoes. Kill or be killed? Fight or flight?

 

  1. Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. A Four Walls Eight Windows 1st ed. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993. Print.
  2. Butler, Octavia. “”Devil Girl From Mars”: Why I Write Science Fiction.” MIT Communications Forum. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.

No Faith in Humanity

This book was wonderfully written. I had a lot of angst reading this book and felt that it was never going to get better and it didn’t. This story made me think about society today and can this actually happen? We do currently have gated communities in America that require you to have a key to access. These communities typically have upper class people living in them and  most choose to live in them for safety and to set themselves apart from society and to not allow “others” to come in. Remember the killing of Trayvon Martin the unarmed teenager who was gunned down in a gated community in Florida and the controversial stand your ground law. The author spent a lot of time focusing on Lauren Olamina and her overall feelings and ideas. She was a somewhat complex character with her being able to feel pain to wanting to create Earthseed which she did not want to connect to God but yet her writing had God is change throughout her journal.

This story was very poignant, it hit you hard into thinking could really happen? But to this extreme, I had to really think about where we are today in terms of climate change and if we were to run out of water and resources how would society react. If we had to pay police to come out and  investigate and they really did nothing about it. The use of hallucinating drugs and the level of stealing and killing and all out anarchy that occurred made me think if there are signs of this today, maybe not as overt as this but it does make wonder where society is heading. We have over a billion people in America, how long can we keep producing at the level that we are and maintain the standard of living that we currently have. We have  abundance of material things but nature is suffering and can only produce before it starts to bottom out.

The hyperempathy syndrome that Lauren had, while difficult made her sensitive to the world around her. I think it allowed her to be a great leader. I felt so sad for all of the lost that occurred and the barbaric way that her family died. I did not understand why they did not prepare better and did not take the opportunity to leave when it was offered. They kept saying it was a dead end and they were better off where they were but the majority of them died and Lauren was the only one who had prepared herself for the inevitable to come.
This was a great read and I am considering reading more of her books.

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.

Parable of the Sower

I did not know what to expect when I began this book. As I moved through the first several chapters I thought I would essentially be reading a story that was exactly like Earth Abides in that it would simply be a slow, crawling storyline of people trying to survive an apocalyptic scenario. This proved to be dead wrong as the storyline really explodes with amazing detail and vivid storytelling. The book follows Lauren Olamina as she is forced to abandon her life in a semi-safe walled town in California as savages eventually come and rape, murder, and defile her friends and family. She must find her own path in a Road Warrior type world where all social structures and norms have disappeared. Octavia Butler weaves larger topics such as race relations, global warming, pollution, and most importantly, at least in my interpretation, religion in with a sometimes painfully realistic and explicit storyline. I found it quite interesting that the author, in many ways, portrays the protagonist as a religious figure. Beyond becoming a leader of a band of survivors and coming up with her own philosophy and way of seeing God/religion, she also personally feels the pain and pleasure as others around her do. I found this to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the story, as she is essentially one with the people around her. This is not a very good condition to have when the people around you experience nothing but pain and suffering, but because of this condition she cannot help but to impact change around her. This poetically goes right along with one of the main ideas of Earthseed, which is that God is change. This book is a disturbing yet accurate insight into the more animal and sadistic side of human nature. It shows just how fast humans can lose all sense of civility and compassion and return to a barbaric, medieval mind state. Butler’s insight into humanity’s evils holds nothing back. This book is slightly over the top and extreme, but the author raises many important questions that we could, at some point, have to face as a species.

Parable of the Future is Awful

Much like all of the works we’ve read so far, I really didn’t know what I was in for before reading Parable of the Sower. After last week’s dry reading assignment, I was hoping for something with a little bit more flair, and I got exactly what i wished for. This is an intense, moving, and often gut wrenching novel by Octavia Butler.

The science fiction in this novel is present, but certainly not overwhelming. Never does anything seem unrealistic nor does the futuristic atmosphere upstage the story. In fact, it’s a nice blend of styles. There’s large corporations and types of futuristic technology, but there’s also the frightening dystopian hell hole of world that all of it exists in.

What’s more important is the how memorable scenes are. The first time Lauren and her small group first steps on the highway and it’s described was almost like watching a movie. I could perfectly envision what it would look like and how different it is from what a highway should be. There’s also scenes of relentless brutality, and Butler is not afraid to describe something awful because some of what happens is really, really awful.

Parable of the Sower is shocking without being over the top or gratuitous. It paints a future dystopian society that freaked me out like no other one that I’ve ever read. While hope is talked about and dreamed about in this book, I felt a complete lack of hope most of the time I was reading it. To use a cliche that just so happens to describe this novel very well, it was a real page turner.

The Unfinished Future of Earthseed

Attentive readers that you are, you’ll have noticed that Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is followed by a sequel, Parable of the Talents, which was published five years later in 1998. Butler worked for years to write a third book in the series, Parable of the Trickster, but never completed it (or, it’s worth adding, the three more sequels she hoped to write after it — for a total of six).

In this essay, Gerry Canavan — who’s writing a book on Butler’s work — describes what he found while looking through her piles of notes on the unfinished third book. Among the manuscripts he found this epigraph, which haunts me when I think of it (which I do often):

There’s nothing new

under the sun,

but there are new suns.

SPOILER ALERT if you intend to read Parable of the Talents (Canavan refers to its final chapter in this review). I’ve included below Canavan’s description of the events of Talents. Click “Read more” to see it.

Continue reading “The Unfinished Future of Earthseed”