The only Octavia Butler book I’d read was the marvelous Kindred, a science fiction crossover about a woman who travels in time back to an ancestor’s world in slavery times. Parable of the Sower takes us in the opposite direction. We find ourselves in the post-apocalyptic world of the late 2020’s. Corporate greed and global warming have combined to disintegrate the American social and economic and political body politic to the point where people tend to live in small enclaves, responsible for their own protection because the police are corrupt and/or powerless to deal with the predatory gangs that roam the streets and countryside. Living in a walled community in Southern California, Lauren Olamina, daughter of a minister/professor sees better than most that even the fragmented stability they have will probably disappear before long. She reads and writes and plans, trying to prepare herself and whoever will listen to deal with the approaching holocaust.
She’s eighteen when it finally comes. A gang of marauders swarm over the protective walls of her little village. Bodies painted, high on a drug called “pyro” that gives the druggie high thrills from watching fires, they pillage and burn and rape and kill. Her entire family is dead or missing, and she’s left with a couple of friends to negotiate her way through a dangerous world.
Three things special about Lauren: 1) She’s smart and prepared and a natural leader. 2) In addition to her learning, she’s developing a religion she calls “Earthseed” meant to renourish the race once these times are over. 3) She’s a “sharer” possessed of a condition called “hyperempathy” that enables (requires) her to share the pain of those around her. If she strikes a blow against an enemy, she literally feels his pain. If she shoots someone, she feels his death (though she doesn’t die.). On the other hand, if she has sex, she gets to feel the other’s pleasure as well as her own. Tradeoffs.
In her dilemma, she pursues a plan she’s formed over many years–head north where it’s rumored there are jobs that pay money rather than just food and water and sometimes shelter. She has maps. Destination Oregon? Washington? Canada? She doesn’t know, but things couldn’t be any worse than they are here. And so begins the kind of classic trek common to literature since at least The Odyssey.
Butler creates a tale and a world worthy of an artist who has won such honors as multiple Hugo and Nebula awards as well as a M
acArthur genius stipend. If Parable doesn’t, in my mind, come up to the wonder of Kindred, it suffers only by comparison. It’s a marvelous work in itself. Even if you don’t care much for science fiction, you can’t deny Lauren and her new religion, and you can’t deny the validity of Butler’s fears that the world she describes may shortly come to be.
I was sad to learn that Octavia died recently. Didn’t know it. But she left some stuff behind that may be telling our future. We best keep watch, for the marauders could be at the gates.