Parable of the Sower by Butler, Octavia, 1993

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The more I read of Octavia Butler's Parable series, the more convinced I become that Lauren Olamina, the main character, was an autobiographical composite of aspects of the author's life. In my last review of the sequel to this book, Parable of the Talents, I noted that Olamina was a large woman of color with secondary characteristics of a male, was a loner, grew up without a mother, was raised by her religious father, and that she got the most enjoyment in her young life from writing. The very first words in Parable of the Sower call to mind an essay called Positive Obsession that Butler published in a book called Bloodchild. They are:

Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all.

This is a quotation from the book-within-the-book of this tale, called Earthseed: The Book of the Living. It is the product of the main character's faith and beliefs, and it is the point of this entire two-book series. Parable of the Sower is a visionary take on the evils that could come from our misguided lifestyle, and even though it is technically inferior to Parable of the Talents, I give it high marks for that. Four out of five stars.

Parable of the Sower picked up several years after an economic and ecological catastrophe had started doing serious damage to our lifestyle. Butler said in interviews that when she was building the world for this story she did two things: First, she though long and hard about where our current policies and social practices would take us in thirty or forty years if left unchecked, and second, she worked to devise a religion that was similar but not identical to the written forms and teachings of the philosophy of Daoism. I think that she got the societal aspects of this dead on. I actually found it quite depressing, reading this book in the midst of the economic chaos that is plaguing our economic markets. Butler posits the near complete destruction of the middle class. The government had become dominated by conservative fundamentalists and had started selling off all of its scientific assets because it wanted nothing to do with innovation or science anymore. Where neighborhoods once were, there were only walled villages, and law enforcement had become a joke. In the cities lawlessness was the rule. Dead bodies and refugees were everywhere; abject poverty could be seen on every street; packs of wild dogs roamed, hunting the weak and young; city services such as fire protection and police were only available on a for-fee basis. Slavery and cannibalism were practiced openly, and company towns have started to spring back up as an alternative to self protection. Lauren Olamina and her family lived in a walled village called Robledo. Their father was a pastor and an instructor at a local university, and their step-mother was a grade school teacher in the walled village. Lauren was a member of a large family and had started to mature into a woman. She was sixteen and suffered from a condition called hyper-empathy, which was a congenital defect related to her mother's use of a brain-boosting drug while pregnant. Hyper-empaths felt pain and pleasure from those around them. The condition was so serious that they sometimes even bleed when others were cut. Olamina's condition was a strict secret within her family because if anyone found out, they would be able to strike at her from a distance.

Olamina was also a survivalist. She longed to escape the confines of Robledo and spread a religion that she has devised called Earthseed. Earthseed was faith that taught that God was not a person, or an image, but rather a phenomenon. God, according to Olamina, is Change, and people could take control of their lives by controlling that change so that it did not overwhelm them. Olamina taught that prayer was not a plaintive call to a deity, but rather a way for an individual to steel themselves in preparation for doing something unsavory or frightening. She taught that the things that should be worshipped were the self and the community, because that was where happiness and comfort were to be found. That was ironic because Olamina wanted nothing more than to escape from her community and make her own way in the world. Unfortunately a group of raiders called "pyros" who were addicted to a drug that made watching a dancing fire something akin to an orgasm broke into Robledo, killed virtually everyone, and burned the place to the ground. Olamina alone escaped from her family home, and the next day began walking north to escape the cess-pool of Los Angeles. Along the way she picked up several ex-slaves and prostitutes, and a few others, and make her way to northern California where she set down roots on a community called Acorn which was to help her spread the word of Earthseed.

Earthseed as a concept sounded kind of interesting. Its main goal was to unify people so that humanity could launch colony ships to other stars, and that is a goal I would join virtually any religion for. But the text that Olamina used to spread the "faith" was pretty meaningless and elliptical. I honestly could not see anyone ever getting involved for the language of the book Earthseed, especially a bunch of skeptical and beaten down ex-slaves and prostitutes. Butler had Olamina approach this task with a bit of trepidation. She never shared Earthseed with anyone until she was put to the road, and even then she was reluctant, fearful that others would laugh at her. Even still, the acceptance was gradual and grudging: Olamina was the group's clear leader, and everyone listened to her whether they liked it or not. Here is an example of what I am talking about:

All successful life is

Adaptable.

Opportunistic,

Tenacious,

Interconnected, and

Fecund.

Understand this.

Use it.

Shape God.

The central message here is that God is malleable in the protestant's hands, and that you can succeed in life by recognizing this and changing your reality before your enemy does the same thing and uses that power against you. But the vehicle is just so...hokey, that I don't think I could get past it, and get my mind around the central tenants of the religion. But, what do I know. Apparently I know nothing about linguistics either.

The plot of the book, especially after Robledo was burned down, was superb. Once put to the road Olamina walked from southern to northern California. The journey was reminiscent of Frodo's trip through Mordor. The group was set upon by rapists, pyro-heads, police and other refugees. I actually breathed a silent sigh of relief when Butler burned down Robledo in Book I, because it was starting to get a bit boring. Butler also put the central messages of various Bible stories to very good use, including Job, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah, parts of Luke and many others. Technically I also think that Butler had a winner on her hands here. But then again, she almost always does. Butler's main concern in her writing seems to hover around those aspects of our psychological make-up that drive us to destroy the things that we have, but she always comes up with a novel way to fix, or at least abate them. In the Xenogenesis trilogy it was the hierarchical nature of our personalities combined with our intelligence that drove us to nuclear war. Butler sent aliens who remade our genome to fix the problem. In the Patternist series it was again our hierarchical natures that were the enemy. In that series it was supermen with super-human abilities that tried to save us. In this series it is our foolishness with public policy towards the environment and the economy that destroyed the United States and Butler sent in an unorganized religion to remake the world. In that grand respect, ignoring the specifics that she delved into in the pages of this book, the novel was a total success, and in fact was inspirational.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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