Book Review: Parable of the Sower

I’ve recently finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.  Set in the near future (2024-2027 C.E.), the premise of the book hinges on the collapse of society in the face of drought in California caused by global warming.  We learn about the world of Parable of the Sower through the journal of Lauren Olamina, the 15 year old protagonist.  Lauren lives in a walled neighborhood in Robledo, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Octavia Butler addresses many issues that may arise with a collapsing society.  Rampant inflation, along with water shortages has made the bare necessities of life extremely expensive.  High unemployment has caused the ranks of the poor to swell tremendously, and poverty stricken people live in the streets.  Food, particularly dairy and meat, is very expensive, so everyone who has space grows as much as they can.  Dealing drugs can provide huge profits, but is extremely dangerous.   Even though they are middle-class, the Olamina family struggles with funding their basic necessities, but they are lucky because Lauren’s father has a good job at the university.  As an example of how much society has changed, Lauren’s middle-class family is unusual because her step-mother makes sure that all of the children have two pairs of shoes.  Unlike other neighborhood kids, Lauren and her brothers wear shoes when they are outside in their own neighborhood.

As the divide between rich and poor becomes larger, and the middle class smaller with a more precarious existence, company towns spring up.  One California town sells itself to a corporation promising jobs, food, housing, and most importantly, water from a new desalination plant.  Both Lauren and her father see the parallels to 19th century mill towns where employees are paid in company scrip and become indebted to their employers.  Lauren sees this as a path to slavery.  Later in the novel, Lauren meets two former slaves who reveal that her predictions of employees working off their “debts” to the company under the conditions of slavery have come true.

Outside of Lauren’s walled community a drug that inspires people to start fires sweeps the USA.  People who take this drug (pyro) paint their faces and burn buildings during the night.  Some characters mention that the “paints,” as the drug addicts are called, burn the property of the rich as a means of getting revenge for the poor and opening the walled communities to desperate scavengers, but other characters aren’t so willing to accept that the drug-users have motives beyond the joy of watching something burn.  Since paints also engage in many other violent behaviors such as rape and murder, the reader has reason to doubt the supposed political motive behind the burnings, too.  Eventually, as pyro spreads from the East Coast to California, Lauren’s community is attacked and burned, killing most of the people who lived there.  Lauren sets off with two other survivors for Oregon and the promise of a better life.

I won’t ruin the rest of the novel by giving away the ending.  There are a few things I found interesting, though.

When she is trying to explain to a friend how humanity must change if it wants to survive, and that the adults are holding them back, Lauren mentions the societal upheaval and change following the Black Death in Europe.  Though the adults in her community keep faith that things will be okay again, Lauren realizes the old ways are dying.  After the Black Death swept Europe, the structure of feudal society began to change.  With so many in positions of power succumbing to the disease, new opportunities opened for the lower class.

Dogs are not pets in the world of Parable of the Sower.  They are deadly predators.  Only the rich can afford the amount of meat dogs consume every day.  Several times throughout the novel, the protagonist faces feral dogs threaten her life.  For reference, wolves need to eat around 7 pounds of food per day.  In a world where breeding rabbits for food in your backyard is a profitable enterprise, feeding that much meat to an animal would be unthinkable.

Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1993, so I am unsure of the predictions climate scientists were making regarding precipitation changes in California at the time.  In Lauren’s world, rain is so rare that she measures the time between downpours in years not days or months.  The scarcity of water drives much of the social change and conflict of the novel.  Current projections actually indicate dramatically increased rainfall in California, (warning, pdf) particularly the southern half.

Finally, Lauren is African-American (as was the author).  Race is not central to the story, but it does have significant impacts on the plot at times, as does Lauren’s gender.  For instance, mixed race couples face increased risk for attack on the road, making Lauren careful in choosing her companions during her journey.

I may post more on this, but these are my first thoughts after reading the book.


One response to this post.

  1. While I found at times the Earthseed material to be a bit “over the top,” overall this is a provocative and excellent novel. Butler writes extremely well, and she made the hellish world in which her characters find themselves absolutely believable. Parts of this novel are not for the squeamish. Although very dark in tone, the novel ends on a ray of hope when Lauren’s group, after burying the dead from a recent battle, recall Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. As the reader may recall, although most of the seed ends up dying, some falls on good ground, “sprang up, and bore fruit an hundredfold.” Highly recommended.

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