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