Octavia E. Butler - Parable of the Sower

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"in order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn"

Apr 26, 2004 (Updated Apr 30, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:It's passionate, realistic, ambitious, tensely plotted, powerful, elegant, and wise.

Cons:It's among the scariest novels ever. Plus, you'll need the (arguably more comforting) sequel.

The Bottom Line: A future I can believe, a religion I can half-believe, and oh yeah, a fantastic story.

Impatient readers should ignore my italicized sections.

All that you touch, you Change.
All that you change, Changes you.
The only lasting truth is Change.
God is Change.

- Lauren Olamina,
Earthseed: the Books of the Living

Lauren Olamina, the heroine of Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, was (will be) born in 2009. She is fifteen years old as the novel starts. She’s remembering a conversation with her stepmother Corazon, in which Lauren tried and failed to grasp why city lights used to blot out the stars at night. “Kids today have no idea what a blaze of light cities used to be”, Cory explained.

“I’d rather have the stars”, Lauren replied. Cory shrugged: “The stars are free. I’d rather have the city lights back myself, but we can afford the stars”.

In 1969, under President Nixon, the United States first went from being an export-driven nation with a trading surplus to a nation with a trade deficit: buying more from other countries than we made here. Still, some countries have to run deficits for others to run surpluses; why not us? It wasn’t until Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush that the problem spun out of control: by 2003, the U.S. trade deficit hit 5% of the size of its economy, and even conservative economists like Moneyline host Lou Dobbs predict it will top 10% by 2010. Only 1924 Italy, among advanced nations, ever reached a 5% trade deficit: depression and fascism resulted, then they got totally creamed in World War II.

In financing our import debt, Brits have bought U.S. oil companies, Germans have purchased Chrysler and over half our book-selling industry, the Japanese have bought our optical fiber industry from what used to be Bell Labs, and even many leading Wall Street financiers are now foreign-owned. No American firm has the technology, right now, to make the more advanced components of airplanes, cell phones, or TV broadcasting equipment.

The Olaminas don’t feel rich, but at least they’re inside their wall in Robledo, southern California, not outside. Dad’s a college professor and a dean, earning almost enough to support his five kids, and when he bikes to work, he bikes in heavily armed groups. Corazon stays at home conducting day-care for the other ten households behind the wall. They have books; they have their garden; they have water, albeit not the freshest or cleanest of water. One of the families still has a giant functioning television dominating a living room wall, and keeps afloat by charging a small fee to any neighbors wishing to watch.

Dad is also a Baptist minister, hosting weekly assemblies in his house; he “once had a church just a few blocks outside our wall… but after it had been slept in by the homeless, robbed, and vandalized several times, someone poured gasoline in it and burned it down”. Lauren, at 15, is loving enough to accept a baptism, but she has long since stopped believing in his God.

“A lot of people seem to believe in a big-Daddy God or a big-cop God or a big-king God. A few believe God is another word for nature, and nature turns out to mean anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of… Okay. That works. The Old Testament God doesn’t violate the way things are now. But that god sounds a lot like Zeus: a superpowerful man, playing with toys the way my youngest brothers play with toy soldiers. Bang, bang! Seven toys fall dead. If they’re yours, you make the rules”.

But Lauren sees a big-man God, or a nature God, as a recipe for giving up. God is Change, she decides: for what is more constant, more dependable, than that everything will change, from the decay or uplift of rocks to the cost of water? Change is the only force that cannot be stopped – but Change can be molded, and make us powerful. As her scriptures soon put it,

“A victim of God may,
Through learning and adaptation,
Become a partner of God.
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.”

For more than two weeks, it was the task of my middle-school evening reading class to struggle through a mediocre book of outer-space stories years beyond their reading ability. I apologized for the assigned reading, and promised, with my boss’s permission, to improvise something better. Then I noticed that Butler’s Parable of the Sower was easier, in terms of word choices, than the space stories had been.

The book wasn’t greeted with instant joy, which is my fault, and only partly because I now think it’s at least 9th-grade level. It’s just as bad that, asked to explain the title, I told them the original “parable of the sower” from the Bible, which was new to all of them. Then – since all students skip the little quotes at the start of chapters unless prompted three times, treating them as aimless decoration (like the instructions on assignments) – I pointed the quotes out and explained that Lauren was compiling a Holy Book. The first couple of pages were a struggle, and then Tiffany explained why: “This book is boring! It’s all about religion and stuff!”.

I was horrified. “No it’s not!”, I said. “It’s about violence, and fires, and running away from home!” Suddenly I had their attention. “Does it have guns?”, Geraldo asked, checking out my credibility; “It has lots of guns”, I promised. The reading went much better then, and Geraldo ended up finishing it on his own.

There’s a presidential election going on in 2024. The incumbent has been sending missions to Mars, and on July 30th one of the astronauts gets killed when her protective suit fails. “People here in the neighborhood are saying she had no business going to Mars, anyway. All that money wasted on another crazy space trip when so many people here on earth can’t afford water, food, or shelter”.

A Christopher Donner challenges President Smith with a promise to dismantle the “wasteful, pointless, unnecessary” moon and Mars programs, selling them to corporate bidders. Donner also, says Lauren, “hopes to suspend ‘overly restrictive’ minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws for those employers willing to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board”. This is, of course, a call for the return of 19th-century “company towns”, where employers would pay their workers in “company scrip” that could only be spent in town; by cleverly paying workers slightly less than the minimum cost of living in town, employers would then drive their workers further and further into debt, obligated to keep working for the company that issues their currency.

But a job is a job, and steady “privatization” and “deregulation” since the late 1970’s have seen the slow disappearance of free college educations, nonprofit hospitals, welfare, free national parks, free museums, branch libraries, personal bankruptcy protection, minimum wages high enough to lift a worker out of poverty… and later, after the turn of the century, of social security, free public schools, free police service, free firefighting, and anything else to keep a middle class (and small business) safe and functioning.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, passed in reality a year after Butler’s novel, has a sneaky provision that can force the privatization of all Canada’s water, God’s bounty into corporate hands, if just one Canadian province is lobbied and bribed into agreeing. By 2024, that must be old history: water is expensive, and businesses need water too.

If American wages have slid from 50 times that in China to 10 times, that’s still too high to compete, and people still argue for a leader to cut them lower. Donner is elected, and Lauren’s friends will face the issue of whether a company town is better, for them, than their current freedom of nothing left to lose. The case for “yes” is hard to dismiss.

I rarely accept libertarian arguments on economics, but I've long agreed with the libertarian Stanley Schmidt, of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, that the U.S. government should get out of the space program now. Stanley and I both support space exploration very strongly; but space exploration, in a democracy, is a program where hundreds of millions of people are taxed to pay for a program that will not only never benefit them, but will never benefit most of their children or grandchildren. If it is humanity’s best hope to live on many planets, that will still mean nothing to most earthlings, as individuals. Stanley and I feel that only a religion (or a crazy-dreamer tycoon) can ask, and get, the long-term sacrifice needed to bring people to the stars.

Lauren Olamina agrees, and she gives Earthseed a destiny: it is mankind’s purpose to live among the stars. All religions need a heaven, and if God is impersonal change, God can’t hand heaven out. We can see it; we can measure its atmospheres. Getting there, she says, is our job. We won’t get there in the 2020’s, of course.

On February 9th, 2004, a task force for the Bush Administration’s Department of Defense did a remarkable thing. Asked to name the United States’s leading security threats, it put global warming at the top of the list – despite the fact that its Bush Administration bosses, many of them oilmen, have devoted themselves them to fossil fuels and the dismantling of environmental law. Fortune, a leading business magazine, devoted a cover story to the Pentagon’s warnings.

Why is global warming a “national security threat”, let alone our most urgent one? In
Fortune’s words, “Growing evidence suggests the ocean-atmosphere system that controls the world's climate can lurch from one state to another in less than a decade—like a canoe that's gradually tilted until suddenly it flips over. Scientists don't know how close the system is to a critical threshold. But abrupt climate change may well occur in the not-too-distant future. If it does, the need to rapidly adapt may overwhelm many societies — thereby upsetting the geopolitical balance of power.

“Though triggered by warming, such change would probably cause cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, leading to longer, harsher winters in much of the U.S. and Europe. Worse, it would cause massive droughts, turning farmland to dust bowls and forests to ashes. Picture last fall's California wildfires as a regular thing. Or imagine similar disasters destabilizing nuclear powers such as Pakistan or Russia”.

Parable of the Sower, this is what is happening. Canada and Alaska and Russia are benefitting from the warmer climates, but California’s tax-subsidized water from the Rockies has dried up with the subsidies, and the people of Robledo hope the desalinization plant can produce water cheaply enough for them to, very occasionally, take baths. Lauren’s baptism represented weeks of salary. If it sounds like science fiction, it is; but a lot of work’s been put into that science, and it doesn’t sound nearly as fictional in Africa or Isreal or Iraq.

Do we give up hope? No: I think hope makes sense. The Pentagon’s findings about global warming are old news to science geeks; what’s amazing is that they were the findings of THE FREAKIN’ PENTAGON.
Fortune’s report was solid enough to quote, but not remarkable, except that it’s in a magazine by and for business planners. The insights of Octavia Butler, a black female novelist, are being given a try-out in the halls of the white male power elite, and while it won’t make any difference to Bush & Company, it could be where the next big worldview starts. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Of course, so does a journey from the TV to the fridge.

It is a big issue, for Lauren, when and how to leave her father’s religion and begin work on her own. She would never wish to offend him. She won’t have to, though.

“As wind, as water, as fire, as life,
God is both creative and destructive,
demanding and yielding,
sculptor and clay.
God is Infinite Potential:
God is Change”.

Robledo, walled, is about fear of change. Change is terrifying: change is poor people with homes, envied as wealthy by all the poor people without homes. Change is poor people with families and sex lives, coveted by the poorer males tough enough to survive a violent outdoors and tough enough to want Janes to their Tarzans.

Robledo is about fear of change, but God is change, so Robledo is against God. Lauren will not need to choose her time to leave. She will use her beliefs real-time, without rehearsal, and see where they lead.

Parable of the Sower is the first book in a two-book series, and while book one is a great, tense, violent and inspirational story, it will look small from some angles. Hardly anyone can afford cars, and California’s roads are traveled massively on foot – illegally, but then, the police are expensive. Oregon and Washington are said to be nicer than California, but as early as the 1980’s they’d been passing land-protection laws against invading Californians, and now that the refugee invasion is more literal, they have armed guards; Canada and Alaska, more so. Lauren will spend the novel on foot, and still be only 18 when it ends; there is an obvious limit on how far she will advance in that time. She’s in no position to remake a state, let alone the galaxy. Why does she bother?

My favorite verse of Earthseed reads

initiates and guides action,
or it does nothing”.

This is, in retrospect, much of why I live how I live. I don't eat meat, though I used to miss it, because I consider the modern meat industry cruel and poisonous on many levels. I buy CD’s new instead of ripping their contents from Kazaa, because I believe the economy should produce more CD's. I vote in elections, even for doomed candidates. I don't cheat on taxes, even though it’s disturbingly easy to never be caught. I define myself as a teacher, a profession of mediocre pay, though I probably have the brains to make it as a day-trader, skimming a hundred million pennies off the random fluctuation of stock trades for the work done by others.

Why do I bother? My vegetarianism may save a few animal lives, or it may not; my few dozen dollars certainly won’t decide whether the Rheostatics keep making records; not many lives are decided by one teacher, and no election is decided by one vote. But in markets or elections, some tabulation of votes is making the decisions, and some collection of people’s behaviors is making a species. Lauren Olamina's a hero, and I'm a doofus, but I'm a happier doofus when I live my votes as truly as I can. Belief initiates and guides action, or it does nothing.

As dark as Parable of the Sower is – and it is very dark – Lauren reminds me of Chihiro in the wonderful anime fairytale Spirited Away. Chihiro, though as reckless as any child, is naturally kind, even to people and ghosts and creatures who gave up on kindness years ago. Blundering along kindly, she picks up a stable of allies, grateful supernatural rejects who could never bring themselves to betray her.

Lauren, unlike Chihiro, learns how to steal and how to kill. Lauren knows too much to spend kindness blindly: she witnesses (and escapes) too many murders, and so does everyone else she meets. But it’s lonely on the road, and everyone needs a trusted sentry or five: the more people on your side, the harder you are to attack. If you’re with someone, you can teach them things, like literacy and marksmanship and building and religion. They can teach you things, too. And if you keep your eyes peeled, you can see signs of latent buried kindness in others … or at least a pragmatic good sense that points towards honesty. Lauren is on the lookout, and even the kindnesses she can afford make her a miracle in 2020’s California.

If you read Parable of the Sower, you’re committing to sequel Parable of the Talents as well, a combined investment of 700 pages. There is no way, by Sower alone, that you could guess the whole plot; God is change, and Butler as narrator makes a skilled God. Her God can be shaped and molded, and if Pentagon task force reports weren’t enough, we can mold and mold again. I recommend the Parables extremely highly as stories. I hope I never need them as instructional manuals; but I’m paying attention, just in case.

Recommend this product? Yes

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