Depressing and Hopeful at the Same Time: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower

After the amazing Kindred, I knew I had to read more Octavia Butler books this year. I had steered clear of the Earthseed duology because… well, I had heard that it is depressing and lots of terrible things happen in it. But I also got myself a gorgeous hardback edition of these two books this year and it was picked as a book club read for the Sword and Laser podcast. What I’m saying is I had no more excuses.
And it turned out that, while a lot of bad, bad things do happen, the book didn’t actually leave me feeling depressed but rather filled with hope.

by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1993
Hardback: 332 pages
Series: Earthseed #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: I had my recurring dream last night. 

Parable of the Sower is the odyssey of one woman who is twice as feeling in a world that has become doubly dehumanized. The time is 2025. The place is California, where small walled communities must protect themselves from hordes of desperate scavengers and roaming bands of “Paints,” people addicted to a drug that activates an orgasmic desire to burn, rape, and murder. When one small community is overrun, Lauren Olamina, an 18 year old Black woman, sets off on foot, moving north along the dangerous coastal highways. She is a “sharer,” one who suffers from a hereditary trait called “hyperempathy,” which causes her to feel others’ pain as well as her own.

Parable of the Sower is both a coming of age novel and a road novel, set in the near future, when the dying embers of our old civilization can either cool or be the catalyst for something new.

Lauren Olamina lives in a walled community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Her family and their neighbors work together to protect themselves and each other from outsiders. Because outside the walls, chaos reigns. The poor are constantly looking for opportunities to steal food or water – an expensive commodity – and the new drug “pyro” makes people light fires everywhere because watching them gets them high. Lauren’s life is mostly safe and she loves helping her mother out teaching at their little neighborhood school. But Lauren knows that life can’t go on like this forever. Always worried, constantly vigilant, going outside as little as possible… there’s no future in that. In her diary entries, she writes down these feelings she has, along with her unfocused ideas for a better society and how to find god in such a miserable place.

This book follows Lauren as she grows up in a broken world where she nonetheless inhabits a relatively safe place. As you can imagine, things don’t quite stay that safe but rather get worse and worse. Lauren is forced to leave the only place she’s ever called home and venture out into the dangerous outside in search of a better future. As water is supposed to be cheapter up North, that’s where she goes. Along the way, she picks up a handful of companions from the many, many people walking the roads, trying to survive. But even though the people who come with her appear to be friendly, nobody can be trusted when people are starving and stealing is often the only way to live through another day.

I’m not going to lie, this is a damn bleak book. For a long, long time, nothing good happens at all. One tragedy follows another, misery strikes in every chapter, and I would have understood if Lauren had just given up at some point. But that doesn’t make for a good story and it also doesn’t fit who Lauren is. Despite her hyperempathy – a condition that lets her feel other people’s pain – she stays brave and always tries to do what’s right. Even if that very thing is considered madness. Like sharing your food with a mother and her child simply because they need it. This is not the kind of world where people share, this is the kind of world where you hide what you have so nobody robs and kills you at night to get that one apple you’d been saving. But Lauren quickly learns that there’s strength in numbers. When you have people you can trust you can watch each others’ back, you can set up guards. And boy, are the guards necessary.

This book comes with a ton of trigger warnings. Physical violence, rape, cannibalism, murder… it’s all there. And while Octavia Butler doesn’t describe any of these things gratuitoulsy, they add up to the general level of dread the characters feel. This is not a comfort read, it’s not a book that’s fun or relaxing. Much like Lauren, I was constantly worried that something terrible would happen, that they would come across a group of looters, that the children among them would be kidnapped and sold as prostitues, that their guns would be stolen and turned against them.
Strangely enough, despite these very uncomfortable emotions, I always looked forward to picking the book back up. Because Octavia Butler managed to somehow describe the worst possible world with the worst, most selfish people in it, and keep a shimmer of hope on the horizon.

Lauren’s diary entries are mostly straightforward recounts of her days. She spends little time on making her language sound pretty because that’s just not practical. This is a story about survival, about finding a family when everyone has lost theirs, about growing up constantly afraid, and about learning to love nonetheless.
I didn’t find the Earthseed aspect of the book to be particularly religious in nature, although that’s what it appears like at first. Lauren has these ideas that she’s putting into verse (and which we get to read at the beginning of each chapter) and they usually have to do with the nature of god. But the message of these verses is clear and simple: This is how humanity should be if it wants to continue; this is the future! Earthseed is a slowly growing rule book for how the world could work, how humanity can survive, how a sliver of happiness can be found even in these dark and dangerous times.

There were so many intriguing ideas here, starting with Lauren’s hyperempathy. Just imagine having to shoot at someone to protect your own life and feeling that person’s pain as the bullet hits them! So Lauren is always in more danger than everyone else because even self-defense could knock her out and leave her helpless and unprotected in the street.
I also found the idea of company towns quite interesting, although the story doesn’t go into too much detail about that. I suspect they will come up in the second part of this duology. The same probably goes for the drug “pyro” and the supposedly safe and water-rich areas up north. I had to remind myself that this was published in 1993 because it feels so contemporary at times that it hurt. Octavia Butler clearly had a keen eye for humanity and its flaws and she spun a tale of the future that we should try to avoid at all costs.

While by the end of this book, the bigger story of Earthseed  is far from finished, I did find the conclusion satisfying. This chapter of Lauren’s life is finished and there is hope for another, better one. One with less death and loss, one without so much fear, maybe even one where the ideas of Earthseed take root and help a new society to grow. I’ll be sure to find out.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!


3 thoughts on “Depressing and Hopeful at the Same Time: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower

  1. susiewilliamsonblog says:

    This is on my to read list. I love Octavia Butler and her uncompromising novels. Currently reading Fledging. The writing and main character are so engaging, I’m fully immersed in this world of vampires.

    Liked by 1 person

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