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Book Notes: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia Butler

Finished 8/6/2019


A shockingly prescient novel about the survivors of the end of the world, and the necessary costs of survival.

Lauren Olamina is 17 and lives in a walled community near Los Angeles, sometime in the 2020s. The world in which she lives has been ravaged by climate catastrophe, wealth and political inequality, and widespread violence. In her journals (which form the text of the novel), she documents her life, and her growing belief in a philosophy/religion that she develops called Earthseed, that sees change as the most powerful force in the Universe. Due to her mother's drug addiction, she is hyperempathic, which means that she feels the intense sensations (pain or pleasure) of other people in her proximity. Eventually, her community is overrun by invaders and she is forced to flee and build a new community with the other refugees she meets, and using some of her Earthseed insights as a guide.

Reading this book today, in our world, was really hard, but perhaps that's because its so easy to look away from the overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable overlapping catastrophes we face. The fact that Butler wrote this book in 1993 reveals both her genius and foresight and our collective lack thereof.

But this is an Octavia Butler book, which means it is masterfully paced, and the characters she creates are both lived in and real, and also serve as thoughtful interlocuters of the complicated philosophical and ethical issues she lays out. One of the most salient of these is how to cope with change, a visceral and frightful question given the world she has laid out. And yet her ultimate answer is that we must survive however we can, and with as much kindness as possible to those around us, even if that kindness requires violence or danger. Such survival requires a recognition of the power of diversity in the communities that it births, and that we should welcome difference as a means of adapting to new challenges. This ethic permeates the entirety of Lauren's journey.

My reading life is limited to a few minutes before collapsing into sleep each night, which meant that I spent a lot of time moving slowly through the frightening and horrific world that Butler prophecied. But ultimately, the book was hopeful, in its insistence that we can survive with kindness, and that this will create and re-create a community around us. This puts it at odds with other seemingly emancipatory dystopian fiction that either assumes a savior/hero, or sees a communities of resistence as a kind of autonomic response to oppression, without saying much about how such communities will cohere and evolve. The Subprimes, which I read earlier this year is funny and smart, but suffers from both of these problems.

I am in awe of Octavia Butler, as an author, a philosopher, and a social analyzer. Onward!


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