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.

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.

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”

Dystopia? Religious questioning? POC? Heck yeah!

Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower is fantastically written and fits very well into the currently popular string of novels and movies centered on older teenagers dealing with societal conflicts. It’s a quick and easy read due to the never-ending action and dramatic twists, making it quite difficult to put down as I experienced. Butler’s writing style easily paints visuals for the reader to follow and remain interested. There were multiple times when I was almost appalled by the graphic nature of her depictions particularly during violent interactions, but I was quickly reminded of the context and gravity of the protagonist’s situation.

The time frame of the novel is not too far off from our own, only about thirty years after it was written in 1993, which is kind of frightening but also reassuring because there’s no way the global economic status could change so drastically in such short notice (right?). Although Lauren’s ways of living are severely different than today’s standards, the mentions of well-known cities and highway routes in California brings the reader back to the realization that these events are happening right here in America. I couldn’t see a clear connection between this novel and global warming until I read the interview at the end of the novel, but there was clearly much religious discussion which I enjoyed reading. Lauren provides some different perspectives of living through her creation of Earthseed, and although I’m a practicing Christian, I saw many of her points as easily applicable to life.

Another large point to mention is the numerous characters of color and of mixed races; Lauren herself is African-American, and there are actually only a handful of white characters depicted in the novel. Race is mentioned many times through the book, specifically when discussing society’s opposition to interracial relationships. This is insanely important in our current society where most main characters are presumably white and the only people of color are supporting or background characters. People of color need to see themselves being represented in novels with strong willed and determined characters, and Parable of the Sower does a wonderful job depicting just this.