Parable of the Sower
by Octavia E. Butler
"Sometimes naming a thing--giving it a name or discovring its name--helps one to begin to understand it. Knowing the name of a thing and knowing what that thing is for gives me even more of a handle on it." (p 77)
I have read many dystopic post-apocalyptic novels, some of which are classics. Some of those, written before Parable of the Sower, include I Am Legend, A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Stand, and The Postman. I did not find anything that made this book stand out from all the rest of those that I have read. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is appealing except for her need for religion. And not the religion of her parents (her father was a Baptist minister), but a new religion that is described this way by a character, Bankhole, who has become her closest friend:
"It sounds like some combination of Buddhism, existentialism, Sufism, and I don't know what else, he said." (p 261)
By this point in the story Lauren has escaped from her besieged home and, joining with a small like-minded group, been on a journey from southern California to some point north of Sacramento. Along the way, and even before, she has been developing a new religion called Earthseed that provides the belief system that she appears to require to support her quest for peace and freedom. She describes the religion this way:
"The essentials are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny." (p 261)
She goes on to make the claim that Earthseed is what "kept her going." I will leave it to other readers to find out if that will be the case.
The bulk of the story is about avoiding the terrors of gangs of marauders that seem to have taken over most of California. It is told in the form of a journal, the journal of Lauren Olamina. Civil society has reverted to relative anarchy due to resource scarcity and poverty. Notably there is no plague, no invasion, no war. Things get a little bit worse each day, people get a little more desperate, the first few breakdowns are fixed, and then it becomes harder and harder to fix everything. Missing is an explanation why this is happening and how widespread it may be. There is also an inexplicable lack of real change as the novel proceeds toward its end. Lauren is her same empathetic self (she has a special gift for extreme empathy) and she is surrounded by a group of peaceful like-minded people. Her religion has not seemed to make a difference and wile the group is relatively safe for the moment, one is not sure how long that moment will last.
This is not a typical dystopia. It is the first-person journals of a teenager and then a woman who saw that things were getting worse, prepared herself as best she could, and went on a journey in order to survive. The book is successful, if it is that, in only a limited way for this one group of survivors. The rest of the world may or may not continue to implode.
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