In commemoration of Black History Month, Epinions reviewers have joined together to participate in a Black History Month Book Writeoff. Our selections include works of adult and juvenile fiction, poetry, drama, biography, and non-fiction. Participating in this writeoff are: frazzledspice, jgibson2, jnbmoore, brendamb, lunadisarm, nsgraham, hadassahchana, pippadaisy, caines, ed_grover, stephen_murray, Sloucho, and vemartin. Please check out their reviews and discover some excellent authors.
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When I agreed to participate in a Write-Off for Black History Month, I thought it would be easy. Surely, I thought, in the vastness of my house's cluttered stacks of books, there will be an appropriate book.
So I spent the next few days doing something I'd never done. I opened the back cover of every dustjacketed book we owned, hoping for pictures of African American authors. I found only two: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and The Color Purple.
Why so few? I thought it might be coincidence until I looked up websites listing black mystery authors. They are few and far between. What's going on, here? There has to be an explanation. My only hope, and you wouldn't believe how hard I'm hoping this, is that African Americans are simply being published in other areas.
The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
I read mysteries, poetry, fantasy, and classics. Rarely do I read science-fiction, and even more rarely do I read anything that hints at apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic science fiction. I need to state that up front, because it certainly colors my reading of Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.
The novel begins with a young girl, Lauren Olamina, who lives inside a walled California neighborhood with her father, step-mother, and three brothers. The year is 2025.
The neighborhood is walled, and the citizens patrol it with guns, because there has been a massive failure in the culture and economics of the United States. Just what this failure was, however, is never explained. This struck me rather as cheating; the farther I got into the novel, the more I wanted the "whys" of this new society answered. What has happened to the US? How is Canada still thriving? What is happening to the rest of the world? How did everything fall apart in the span of only 25 years?
Lauren is a free-thinking young woman who spends a great deal of her time organizing her thoughts into "poetic" form. I hesitate to call it poetry outright because, frankly, it's rather awful verse. But through her writing, she comes to believe in a combination philosophy and theology that has as its mantra "God is change." That God is change and therefore human beings have to take care of themselves is not even remotely a new concept, but Butler hands it to her readers as if she expects them to be startled by its originality. I'm afraid I wasn't.
Lauren's life is harsh, but no where near the harshness of the society outside of the walls. Out there, gangs of thugs rape, pillage, and, under the influence of a drug called "pyro," burn whole neighborhoods to the ground for the sheer joy of it. Lauren predicts that a similar fate will befall their neighborhood, but she is forbidden by her father to speak of it. The first half of the novel deals with her predictions and the second with their outcome.
Lauren's father is an interesting character, both a Baptist minister and a college professor. He holds the society of the neighborhood together with brute strength, at times, but he is remarkably naive about the results of the outside society's collapse. Despite that collapse, he is still employed as a professor. Butler never discusses who, in this brutal and illiterate society, values education enough to pay for it.
In many ways, Lauren is more realistic, more logical, more mature than the adults of her acquaintance. She also suffers from a strange malady, brought on by her mother's drug abuse while pregnant. Lauren has "hyperempathy syndrome," which means that she shares the pains and pleasures of those around her. While interesting in theory, Butler's handling of this syndrome is wildly inconsistent. At the beginning of the novel, Lauren remembers how her brother used to fake her out, feigning pain and bleeding in order to cause the same things in her. That he could make her feel pain simply by convincing her that he was feeling it shows that her syndrome is purely in her own head.
But later in the novel, Lauren shoots a man. She can't see if she hit him, but says, (paraphrased) "I knew that I had hit him when I felt the pain." How is this possible? Butler already showed the psychosomatic nature of hyperempathy syndrome. Suddenly, she has changed the rules, and for what?
Yet, if I had felt a stronger connection with the characters, perhaps this glitch would not have felt so glaring. Lauren is not an astounding character, but she is believable and usually sympathetic. Her father is intriguing, and her traveling companions in the second half of the book, Harry, Zahra, and Grayson Mora, aren't stamped from a cookie-cutter. Butler's characters are never badly drawn, but they feel often like sketches, rather as if she intended to come back and fill in some details later. (Part of the problem is the inherent difficulty of first person narration. It's difficult to reveal enough about non-narrating characters if the reader is still to trust that the narrator is purely human.)
In fact, the whole novel feels that way. This is a very short book, only 250 pages in the edition I read, with generously sized type. The setup, as Lauren matures within the walled community, is intriguing, but could have been expanded on further. The second half of the book, with Lauren outside of the walls is by turns rushed and overly detailed. I kept feeling as if I were reading the outline for a longer novel.
It was very pleasant to have Butler deal with race issues, if only rarely, as the African American Lauren encounters a few difficulties interacting with characters of other races and backgrounds. But this very personal issue is only touched on. Again, Butler skims the surface, jumping ahead to other, more graphic difficulties.
And this novel is extremely graphic in its violence, describing scenes I would rather not have read. The real shame is that half of the horror in brutal scenes is the feeling that they could happen to you. But since Butler doesn't explore how such rampant brutality became common, I felt a sense of detachment from the situations of her characters. She kills off a large number of her characters, and I never felt a twinge.
In all, Parable of the Sower left me feeling completely adrift. Lauren's philosophy, "Earthseed," is too simplistic, and other characters adopt it with too much reverence. I can't imagine people in the midst of such strife and violence thinking "God is change" is a particularly helpful thing to hear.
As science fiction, the novel fails. Butler doesn't hypothesize, doesn't lead her readers with her imagination. As a coming-of-age novel, Parable is at least moderately successful, but the plot feels thin and its relevance felt still thinner. Parable isn't a failure of writing, it's a failure of imagination.
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