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Parable of the Sower
by Octavia Butler
295pp paperback
First Published: 1993

I’m finally catching up with books I collected for so long from authors I’d been recommended.  And this is one review that I delight in doing.  It’s the second of Butler’s that I’ve read.  I met her once, sometime in the early 2000s.  I’ve met a lot of authors but aside from bragging rights, few of them were particularly memorable – as a person.  But I remember Butler.  It’s more a sense of how I felt about her than actually remembering what she looked like.  I retain a sense of a large, bluff, loving woman; and it’s not that any of that was specifically directed to this non-descript little white woman, I think that’s just what she was.  It’s probably a little entitled to think that I wish I’d read this book then and been able to converse with her about it; maybe even impress her.  But better late than never.

Lauren is a black teenager living in a walled enclave outside of Los Angeles in 2024.  The United States is a decrepit tottering wreck with most of its extremities atrophying.  It’s not a post-apocalyptic story, nothing that simple. It’s a cumulative effect, our society just couldn’t support itself anymore; if the author provided clues as to what contributed to the failures, they were more a postscript and I didn’t catch them.  But this is the world in which Lauren was born.  Her neighborhood, consisting of several homes in what was once a cul-de-sac, is now secluded by high walls from the rest of the city.  The neighbors take care of each other the best they can; cooperatively protect the little community.  Those than can, leave for jobs that bring in meager amounts of money; those that can’t, help provide from small gardens.  They buy, sell and trade amongst themselves.  It’s too dangerous to go outside to do so; they don’t want to attract attention that they have anything worth stealing.  Lauren’s father tries to prepare the community the best he can.  He’s one with a lucrative job at a local university but his wife, also a teacher, stays at home and schools the neighborhood children.  He teaches the teenagers how to shoot, he encourages survival skills but it isn't enough for Lauren.  She’s intelligent and thoughtful.  Growing up, she sees society continuing to degrade; the good times are not returning as her stepmother dreams; they aren’t even on the horizon.  She wants her father to do more; teach them how to survive if they ever have to leave the neighborhood.  He worries that such action will further degrade their morale; he’s a bit in denial, confident the neighborhood can survive.  But the poor are more every day and there’s a new deadly drug that sends the users into ecstasy by them setting fires; they call it “pyro.”  One day her father doesn’t return from his job and they never know what became of him.  And, eventually, even their neighborhood succumbs to an invasion.  Lauren is the only one prepared to flee but her meager knowledge of life on the outside is as likely to kill her as save her.  She witnesses most of her neighbors slaughtered; one of the two other survivors witnessed Lauren’s little brothers and stepmother killed.  She was intensely grateful that wasn’t something she had to witness. 

Lauren has a secret; one that has always been a burden and is certainly a weakness on the outside…Lauren has a condition called hyperempathy syndrome.  As the name suggests, Lauren actually feels, and suffers from, the pain of others. Seeing someone hurt is painful, seeing someone die is like dying herself, killing someone herself is unthinkable.  But life outside is brutal and unthinkable things happen daily. 

Lauren and the other two survivors of the neighborhood massacre, Harry and Zahra, decide their only recourse is to go north. Oregon and Washington have, for all intents and purposes, separated from the United States.  Canada is thought to be a land of plenty, at least of rain, but they repel most travelers.  And there is a flood of travelers, a veritable river of humanity flowing north; escaping the drought-stricken south, escaping the grinding poverty, escaping the insane drug-addled gangs.

Lauren has another secret.  Raised as the daughter of a Baptist preacher, she was also raised with books and encouraged to think.  And she thinks all the religions that have gone before had it wrong.  She starts writing down her thoughts as to what God really is or should be.  And she has this radical idea that we make our own God; so we really ought to do it right.  She calls her new ideology Earthseed.  She also has this really whacked idea that her new ideology isn’t particularly to save the ones on Earth but to help the ones who will eventually populate the galaxy or universe.

Life on the road is incredibly dangerous.  The author observes that truly desperate people are animals; and predatory animals who see or scent weakness will overwhelm the weak.  There is strength in numbers and strength in confidence.  But guns are real important, too.  They plan to take US101 along the coast through San Francisco but a small earthquake changes everything.  In a horrifying passage, just after the earthquake, they pass a small unprotected community where a house is burning from the quake – and the streams of refugees on the highway, who had up till then been ignoring them, just poured down onto the community to kill and loot.  Like blood on the water.  News on the radio indicates that the same thing, on a greater scale, is happening in San Francisco.  No one helps anyone else; to survive means being able to turn a blind eye to the hurt, weak or needy.  To survive, you horde what you have and you don’t share.

But Lauren isn’t most people and she and her friends eventually find other people to join their group.  Lauren sees them as a potential flock; the seeds of something greater.  Harry and Zahra are less charitable and see them as potential threats.  But, as people with their own stories join them, they find themselves stronger for it.  And the backgrounds make for an interesting cast.  Their journey is simple: find somewhere safe, and live.  There’s no great goal (although, in their context, it is a great goal), and there’s no great conflict (other than society), and there’s no great climax. But as the story went on, I found myself more involved with the characters and their travails than I have been in a great many books.  I literally couldn’t put it down during the last third.

The world-building was extraordinary; better than some I’ve read about wild alien worlds.  The characters were sincere and authentic.  After a while, I just wanted as many of them as possible to survive.  I didn’t need to see her “save the world” with a new religion; I didn’t need to see some miraculous cure for the dying society.  I just wanted to see how she survived; as an ethical and caring human being, surrounded by degradation.

Initially, I discounted her “religious” quotes and exposition as uninteresting and unimportant to the story.  But, amazingly, she caught me; a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.  I found myself wishing such a person with such ideas actually existed.  I found myself thinking that just maybe, this was an ideology worth something.  This book is certainly worthy. ~ Catherine Book

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