"In order to rise
From its own ashes
Octavia E. Butler's 'Parable Of The Sower' is a chilling look at an all too believable dystopian future. Set in the 2020s, it portrays a USA brought to its knees by economic and social collapse. Unchecked climate change has led to massive crop failures, causing the price of food to skyrocket. Shortsighted and self-serving social policies passed by the government have led to rampant poverty, debt slavery, starvation and drug abuse, whilst the rich and ever-dwindling middle class hide in gated communities from the increasingly disaffected and disenfranchised poor. 'Sower' is such an unsettling read today because these issues that Butler was writing about in the 1990s are only becoming more relevant with each passing day. As the destruction of our environment for profit continues apace, the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, and events of the past year demonstrate just how thoroughly broken the US justice system is, Butler's novel serves as a timely reminder of the endgame for the path we are currently on. Yet for all that it is a stern warning, Butler retains hope that there is a better way, and that we can build a fairer, wiser, more just, more sustainable existence.
'Parable Of The Sower' tells the story of Lauren Olamina, a preacher's daughter who lives in a gated community, one of the few remaining enclaves of the middle class in southern California. Lauren's community is not rich, but it can just about support itself, which is enough to make it the target of envy and attacks by the increasing numbers of street poor, those living in utter poverty outside the walls of the compound who must resort to thievery and worse to survive. Lauren realises that it is only a matter of time before their community will fall to thieves or arsonists, and tries to prepare as best she can for life outside the walls by reading and learning important skills, whilst those around her live in denial. She also begins to develop a new religion, Earthseed, based only on what she knows herself to be true and useful, around the central idea that God, the only constant, is change, and that while change is inevitable how we react to it is our choice. Her family and her community is destroyed in a fire, and she begins her dangerous journey through the wreckage of California to the relative safety of the mountains in the north, building a new Earthseed community as she goes.
The story is told through Lauren's journal articles, so it is primarily through her eyes that we experience the world of 'Sower'. In some ways, 'Sower' is a cousin to another disturbingly prescient 1993 dystopian novel told through the journal of an adolescent girl, Jack Womack's 'Random Acts Of Senseless Violence'. Both Lauren and Womack's Lola Hart lose their family to violence, and must adjust to their new life on the street. But while Lola Hart descends into brutality and becomes alienated from everybody she knows, Lauren has, thanks to Earthseed, a much stronger moral compass, and so while she has to make harsh and difficult decisions in order to survive in her new environment, she never loses her essential humanity in the process, and as her journey continues and she grows as a person, she realises that she can help more people and is able to reach out and connect with others.
Butler manages to convey information about her world almost entirely without exposition, instead exploring her characters in depth and using their attitudes and approaches to delineate the world they live in. While Lauren is the central viewpoint character, because she is an astute observer of people and a devoted chronicler, we also get to see the views of a variety of different characters. We get our first glimpse of life outside the compound from Lauren's brother, Keith, who runs away from home to make a living for himself outside. Keith falls for the dark glamour of a life lived outside of the rules of society and, more crucially, the rules of his father. He makes his money from stealing and dealing with drug dealers, addicts and gangs, and ultimately is horrifically tortured and killed for reasons that are never revealed. Telling details about the world are evoked through the differences in perspective of the older and younger characters, with Bankole and Lauren's father still having an instinctive trust of authority figures like the police and the government that Lauren and her generation find baffling.
Butler's other works, notably 'Kindred' and the Patternist series demonstrate that she has a keen understanding of the horrific ways in which people have historically used and abused each other, and her knowledge and understanding of this inform the horrors of the future she imagines in 'Sower'. The debt slavery legalised by President Donner is explored in all its horror. Butler shows how the government's scheme to remove minimum wage and environmental and worker protection legislation results in a situation where the workers have absolutely no rights, can be sucked into debt for the company and bought and sold at the company's whim, with children inheriting their parents' debt on their death. Butler also explores the extremes that those living on the streets are frequently reduced to to earn the next meal. Many women are forced into prostitution to feed themselves and their children, and the threat of murder, violence and rape is never far away.
However, while Butler explores with her usual brutal honesty the absolute worst that humanity is capable of doing, what makes 'Sower' stand out among post-apocalyptic dystopias is that it also shows humanity at its best. Which is quite a thing to be able to say about a book that includes pregnant teen cannibals. While the destruction of Lauren's old community is tragic, it does lead to her forming her own community, one built around more important guidelines than material wealth. Lauren's new Earthseed community is pleasingly diverse, as she joins up first with Harry, one of the white boys from her compound, and Zahra, one of the wives of a rich man form the compound who bought her off the streets, and then with a range of people she encounters on the road, from Jill and Allie, two white sisters they rescue form the ruins of their house to Emery, a half Japanese, half African American escaped slave on the run with her son, to Travis and Natividad, an African American and Mexican couple. The only conditions for joining are that they won't steal and that they will help and protect each other. The horror of all that Lauren and her friends encounter on the road is contrasted with how this disparate group of individuals learns to care and understand each other, and becomes willing to start a new community together built around their shared values. Lauren's Earthseed philosophy suggests that, when working together to improve each other's lives and in balance with nature, the stars themselves are the limit. The timely moral of Butler's story is that we can build a better world and achieve great things, but only if we think long and hard about the path we're on and make the appropriate changes.