As a lifelong science fiction fan and author, I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me this long to start reading the works of award-winning science fiction author Octavia E. Butler. No one really recommended her to me until a few years ago, and it took a while for me to take the recommendation to heart and track down a copy of one of her books.
I’m glad that I did.
Parable of the Sower is a groundbreaking tale of survival and transformation in the midst of the collapse of society. I would consider it groundbreaking today, so it must have been even more so back in 1993.
The novel is set in the near future at a time when global warming, economic decline, and the many other inequalities and injustices of life in the United States are increasingly leading to the collapse of civil society. The female protagonist is a strong young Black woman named Lauren Olamina who lives in a gated neighborhood surrounded by incredible crime, poverty, addiction, and violence.
The emphasis on global warming as one of the contributing factors of this societal collapse is one of the most remarkable aspects of this classic tale for me. My current emphasis, both as a reader and as an author, is on climate fiction (known to some as “cli-fi”). Although the novel is not a heavy-handed indictment of global warming as the sole cause of the collapse, the author does include it as a significant contributing factor. There are also aspects of the story that may be related to both the climate destabilization and societal unrest — for example, the role and symbolism of fire, especially wildfire.
This story also offers a realistic and insightful exploration of race and class that is still highly relevant today. Most science fiction tends to go one of two ways — either creating a utopian society where race and class are “no longer an issue” (or are simply ignored entirely by the author), or creating a dystopian society where alien races are in some combination of conflict and peace with one another. Parable of the Sower is set in the near future right here on Earth, offering an excellent opportunity to provide a complex reflection on the role of race and class in our present and near-future society.
I really appreciate the blend of utopian and dystopian elements in this story. It’s mostly a dystopian story, at least on the surface. Society is collapsing; small groups of neighbors have to live behind walls just to survive; there is graphic violence and mayhem swirling all around the main character and her friends and family. And yet, in the midst of this increasingly dark situation, the main character emerges with a deepening vision and strengthening sense of purpose. While the world is busy collapsing all around her and losing its way, Lauren Olamina is busy finding her way and drawing together the beginnings of a new community to rise from the ashes of the old world. Her formulation and exploration of her own newly developing religious tradition is one of the most striking parts of this book — and it’s also the main utopian element. She has found a new ever-evolving path in life, and people around her are naturally drawn to it.
This is one of those relatively rare science fiction books that I would easily recommend to anyone, even if they’re not usually a science fiction reader. There are a few relatively minor “science fiction” aspects to the story, but it’s mostly just a tale set in the near future without many stark differences from the technology of today. There’s no interstellar travel (not in the first book of the series, anyway), no space aliens running around, etc. The one or two “speculative” elements can be easily accepted by the average reader. Even if it’s not their usual cup of tea, it will be worth it to experience Octavia Butler’s explorations of the intersections between race, class, community, economic collapse, ecological collapse, and an individual and collective spiritual journey striving to make sense of it all.
My one caveat to the faint of heart would be that this novel does contain a few quite graphic depictions of violence. Some people who are triggered by violence would be shocked and sickened by what goes on in a mid-apocalyptic society. However, unlike many other apocalyptic tales I’ve read, the violence didn’t seem at all glamorized or gratuitous to me. It was ugly, jarring, realistic, and seemed to be a natural consequence of living in a society in the midst of collapse rather than some effort at sensationalism. Honestly, I see the explicit inclusion of this violence as a form of commentary on the sometimes (but not always) lesser forms of violence that are already occurring in our society and our world today.
I would definitely recommend Parable of the Sower to anyone who likes a good book with compelling characters, an interesting plot, and a fascinating and evolving setting. I would especially recommend it to science fiction fans, climate fiction fans, dystopian fiction fans, utopian fiction fans (if you can stomach the dystopian elements), fans of women authors, and fans of Black authors. I was deeply impressed by this book. If I had read Parable of the Sower when it first came out, maybe I would have become a climate fiction author when I was in high school in 1993 rather than waiting until well after college!
Even though I took my time in getting to it, I’m definitely glad that I read Parable of the Sower. It’s an instant classic of both the sci-fi and cli-fi genres, and a testament to Octavia Butler’s insights into our society and her skills as an award-winning science fiction author.