Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: Parable of the Sower

Thank God for libraries. I don't think I'd have ever found Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler otherwise. It was published too long ago, by an author who is dead. It's an uncomfortable book, too sad and too close to home to be fun. I just don't see Barnes & Noble suddenly deciding to feature it front and center at one of their big stores.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Butler, she was an African-American, science fiction writer (not too many of those around), a winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and the first science fiction writer to ever win the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. She was the best kind of sci-fi writer - the kind who use the futuristic or fantastic element, not to make something go boom for the sake of going boom, but to push the boundary, pick at the scab and say something amazing, and maybe a little scary, about our world.

Parable of the Sower is a hopeful tale set in a dystopian future United States of walled cities, disease, fires, and madness. Lauren Olamina is an 18-year-old woman with hyperempathy syndrome--if she sees another in pain, she feels their pain as acutely as if it were real. When her relatively safe neighborhood enclave is inevitably destroyed, along with her family and dreams for the future, Lauren grabs a backpack full of supplies and begins a journey north. Along the way, she recruits fellow refugees to her embryonic faith, Earthseed, the prime tenet of which is that "God is change." This is a great book--simple and elegant, with enough message to make you think, but not so much that you feel preached to.
This may not be a preachy book, but its certainly not subtle. Class warfare (literally), a ravaged environment, human trafficking - these are the things Lauren and the other characters in this book struggle with. These aren't easy things to deal with, but it helps that the book is beautifully written and ultimately hopeful. Butler's prose and the Earthseed poetry she's included are lyrical and compelling.

On a personal note, for me, one of the most interesting and disconcerting things about reading Parable of the Sower was that it takes place in California, in places that I have lived or visited. Butler paints a very believable picture of those places in this dystopian future, and it is not a pretty sight. Sometimes, living in Oakland, where violence is a reality and water is a precious thing, we seem a little too close to Butler's future. (Hm, maybe I shouldn't write this where my mom can read it. Don't worry, mom, I'm okay!) But that's what the best kind of books (sci-fi or not) can do - they can make you see your world like you couldn't see before. Brilliant.

Buy Parable of the Sower on Amazon.

Parable of the Sower has a sequel, Parable of the Talents, which I will be sure to read soon. This is really turning into sci-fi week here at archthinking. I will have to try to branch out again soon.


  1. Someone suggested this to me recently because of my love for al things dystopian and I do want to read it...maybe this year?

  2. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are two of my favorite books. Yes, it's an uncomfortable read, but I think the fact that it is so believable, is why it's a necessary read. We are all so comfortable in our own world, if you will, that we don't always see outside our own walls... In my opinion, Parable of the Talents was a more difficult read.

  3. I always find random, good (and bad) books at the library. I recently discovered David Lodge, a British comic author, who published in the 70s. Where, besides the library, would I have come across his delightful books?

  4. A little scary?? Parable of the Sower scared me to death. It actually put me off reading for a little while, it freaked me out so much. And remember how much dystopian fiction I used to read (at one point Mom told me to stop reading it)? I haven't read it since I read this book. Its basically fact in some ways.


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