When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others' emotions.
Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith . . . and a startling vision of human destiny.
Content / trigger warnings: rape, death, murder, loss, cannibalism, violence.
The protagonist and the POV character is a black teenage girl Lauren Olamina. The story is told through her diary entries. Trying to make sense of the world that is changing and becoming more and more dangerous while she's growing up, she comes up with her own religion. She is wise and observant beyond her years, even though she seems overconfident at times. She has agency, and she wants to shape her fate instead of passively going with the flow. She knows that everything will only get worse, and she's not going to sit around and wait. Instead, she's about to take matters in her own hands.
There are a lot of secondary characters introduced at different points in the story. I wouldn't say that I got to know them really well, but they all felt like real and diverse people. I didn't really like most of them, but their behavior made sense and I could easily distinguish between them.
The world-building is really interesting. The story starts in 2024, which is a very near future, and a really grim one, too. Some of the things seem prophetic: water shortages, soaring food prices, the resulting social chaos that scientists have been warning us about for a while. Also, Mars exploration.
But the social collapse is ongoing, which means that some institutions and processes still work. While some people have to fight for food and water, get killed or become homeless, planes still fly, space is still being explored, taxes are still being paid and elections are being held. Some view it as and inconsistency, I view it as a realistic depiction of how a collapse like that would happen. Not overnight. Gradually, slowly, insidiously, little by little every day. And it won't affect everyone the same way at the same time. The poorest will be the first to suffer, and the powerful will hang on to their power as long as they can. That's exactly what we see in 'Parable of the sower'.
Our characters are poor, but they still have some property they hold on to. There are people who are worse off than them and those who are doing way better. Little by little, the crisis gets to the middle class and it will get to the rich too. Someday.
Through her dystopian vision, Octavia Butler explores the issues of inequality, poverty, slavery, politics, capitalism, religion and human psychology. She depicts what human beings are capable of in crisis: some choose mindless violence just because they can, others turn to crime to survive, others still choose this path because it's an easier way to earn money. Others have their moral code, but being a good person is difficult when helping someone can mean your death. Even the best ones will have to kill to survive. The powerful seize the opportunity to enslave desperate people who would do anything to survive, creating new corporate towns and establishing indentured service.
It's a grim, desperate, violent world.
There is also an issue of drug addiction, but I wouldn't say it's explored and analyzed like all the other subjects. The whole philosophy can be summarized like that: drugs are bad, drug addicts are bad and crazy people. I don't think a lot of analysis went into that, and the drug problem seems to be there just to say 'don't do drugs, kids' or to be another scare in a world that really is horrible enough without that. I personally think it's an unfair and harmful representation of addiction and drug use in general.
The plot is linear and clear. We observe Lauren's coming of age and accompany her on her journey. Part of the story happens in a walled community in California, and part of it happens on the road, through the chaos and dangers.
I liked the book, though it left a rather heavy impression on me. I couldn't put it down despite how grim it was.
The religion of Earthseed was fascinating. I'm more inclined to view it as a philosophy rather than religion, even though it involves god. It's not god in the traditional meaning of the word though, it's not a guy in the sky who watches you. God is change. It took me a while to understand what it meant, and I'm still not sure I understood everything about Earthseed, but I think there is a lot of depth to the whole concept. It was very refreshing and stimulating. It got me thinking and wondering.
Telling the story through diary entries felt detached at times. I think it suits the desolated world, as seeing too much suffering and being through too much pain probably desensitizes a person to such things. At the same time, I believe it made the book loose some of the potential intimacy that first person narrative can provide. It wasn't always detached though, sometimes it felt as if I was there and some of the scenes were vivid.
I also think there was way too much rape. It's not graphic, but it's always there, even when you don't expect it to be.
You might enjoy the book if you like grim dystopian settings, are interested in climate change, social issues, philosophy, human psychology in crisis and don't mind a lot of violence.
Can't get enough of Earthseed? Check out my review of 'Parable of the Talents', the sequel to 'Parable of the Sower'.
Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, one of the best-known among the few African-American women in the field. She won both Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.
After her father died, Butler was raised by her widowed mother. Extremely shy as a child, Octavia found an outlet at the library reading fantasy, and in writing. She began writing science fiction as a teenager. She attended community college during the Black Power movement, and while participating in a local writer's workshop was encouraged to attend the Clarion Workshop, which focused on science fiction.
She soon sold her first stories and by the late 1970s had become sufficiently successful as an author that she was able to pursue writing full-time. Her books and short stories drew the favorable attention of the public and awards judges. She also taught writer's workshops, and eventually relocated to Washington state. Butler died of a stroke at the age of 58. Her papers are held in the research collection of the Huntington Library.