REVIEW: The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Note: There are some spoilers in this review.
I must be a glutton for punishment to choose this book during a pandemic. But I generally like dystopian stories, and I’ve heard good things about The Parable of the Sower over the years (Janine is a fan, I believe). So, feeling that it would be apropos to the times, I downloaded a copy.
When the story opens, Lauren Oya Olamina is a teenager living in a walled community in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 2024. Society has been ravaged by climate change and has broken down, to a degree, as a result. Lauren’s family – her father, stepmother, and four younger brothers – live in a community that is relatively stable and even prosperous by the standards of the world outside their walls. They have food, and they are safe (at least in the beginning of the story). But their safety is precarious, and violence and death are always worrying at the edges of their stability. Lauren loses first one family member to horrific violence, and then another simply disappears and is presumed dead.
Lauren has a medical condition called hyperempathy, brought on by drugs her addict mother (now dead) took when she was pregnant with Lauren. Hyperempathy means that if someone nearby is physically hurt, Lauren experiences their pain. This would be a challenging condition to deal with in any time and place, but in Lauren’s world, it’s also incredibly dangerous, especially when she ends up outside of the walls that protected her. Self-defense, for instance, becomes a double-edged sword (no pun intended) – Lauren can’t shoot an attacker without feeling the pain of the bullet wound. The first time she kills someone, she doesn’t even know what will happen to her – will she die, too? She comes to realize that in fact she *needs* to shoot to kill, because her pain dissipates once her attacker dies.
The other thing that makes Lauren unusual is the belief system she develops, called Earthseed. Lauren (silently) rejects the God of her Baptist preacher father, and comes to the idea that “God is Change.” She works on writings in a text she calls Earthseed: The Books of the Living, a name she chooses in contrast to texts such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Early in the story, Lauren plans to leave her family’s home and head north to look for a place where she can found the first Earthseed community.
Before she can put her plan into action, Lauren is forced to flee when drug-addled pyromaniacs overtake the compound. She meets up with two other survivors from her home, Harry and Zahra. Zahra tells her that she saw Lauren’s family killed. The three begin to make their way north, dodging any number of threats and picking up some people along the way.
One of the people they pick up is an older man, 57-year-old Bankole, who used to be a doctor down in San Diego. Lauren is attracted to Bankole right away, and they begin a relationship. If I had read this book a decade or two ago, I probably would not have been bothered by the age difference; now that I’m much closer to Bankole’s age than Lauren’s, I find it off-putting. It helps that Lauren is very mature for her age and very clear on what she wants, but it doesn’t ever make the relationship palatable to me.
This is a grim, grim book. I was queasy early on when a dog was killed (dogs in Lauren’s society are entirely feral, no longer kept as pets, and generally feared by the human population). That was before the torture, rape, murder and cannibalism. Terrible things happen in this book, a lot. They are often described in a fairly detailed way. It’s not sensationalistic but it is pretty unpleasant.
That said, I really got into The Parable of the Sower during the road-trip portion of the story. I’m not sure why it’s so interesting to me to see how people try to survive under such circumstances, but it is; it remains an abiding appeal of dystopian stories for me.
Overall, I would have liked the book better if 1) I had related to Lauren more and 2) I had felt some interest in or attraction to Earthseed as a concept. I didn’t dislike Lauren, but I didn’t find her very compelling. She has a lack of vulnerability that is understandable under the circumstances. In general she has what I’d call a cool personality – logical and sensible, rather than empathetic and emotional. Relating to the main character is not something that has to happen for me to like a book, but in a first person narrative, especially, it does affect my enjoyment.
The Earthseed business was a little different. Obviously Lauren believed strongly in it, and I sensed that I was supposed to see her as something of a visionary. But it never resonated with me at all. “God is Change” – okay? I guess? But the writings expanding on that notion mostly read as gobbledygook to me. There wasn’t anything I could point to that made me understand why Earthseed was so important to Lauren; it just didn’t click.
The Parable of the Sower ended up being a mixed bag for me. The early part of the book was slow for me, because of the flatness of Lauren’s character (also, I felt a lot of time was spent describing various other people in the community and their relationships, most of which didn’t really end up being germane to the later plot). At a certain point, there started to be more action, but most of that action involved characters dying horrible deaths, so it was kind of depressing. Only the last half or third outside the walls of the compound were really compelling to me, though still very grim.
All this said, I think this was mostly the case of this not being the book for *me*; I don’t have trouble understanding why others would love it. My grade is a straight C.