by Octavia E. Butler
Book 1: Parable of the Sower / Book 2: Parable of the Talents
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
"All that you Touch, you Change.
All that you Change, Changes you.
The only lasting Truth is Change.
God is Change."
Lauren Oya Olamina lives in the fictional Southern California suburb of Robledo, about twenty miles from Los Angeles; based on descriptions probably somewhere near Simi Valley. Parable of the Sower begins her first-person account with descriptions of two separate dreams she had the night before her fifteenth birthday, July 20, 2024. Both are recurring dreams, one frightening, the other soothing. In the latter, she relives an evening from when she was seven, with her step-mother telling her about the night skies from years before, when hardly any stars were visible due to the bright city lights. Lauren has no memory of those times, so that dates the beginnings of societal collapse to her infant years or perhaps a little before her birth. There is still a United States, a President, a modicum of governmental/civic services. There is still even a space program, with a moon base and a Mars expedition. However, economic conditions are such that most communities have resolved to be as self-reliant as possible. Even if police or fire services are required, a fee has to be paid for them, over and above any taxes the citizens have already paid. The subdivision in which Lauren lives already had walls around it, now it is fortified with street barriers and locked gates, with broken glass or razor wire embedded in the top of the walls. The frightening dream seems to have been a foreshadowing of the event that propels her to flee her home.
Other than those having to leave the neighborhood for work, everyone else stays within the walls, or if they have to leave for shopping several go together, always armed. Her father was both a teacher at a nearby college, as well as a lay Baptist preacher, conducting Sunday services in their living room. During the week, her step-mother used that room as a school for the neighborhood children, with Lauren occasionally assisting her. Books were precious to Lauren, and she took advantage of her father's library, particularly the non-fiction books which she felt would give her adequate information on how to live off the land once she started her trek north. There is another book even more important, but I'll get to that in a minute. Rumor said that Northern California, Oregon and Washington were in better economic condition, but there was a possibility she would have to go all the way into Canada. Her planning included a pack of essential supplies, to be grabbed at a moment's notice, similar to how many in California today plan for earthquake evacuations. She has to use that pack much sooner than she had anticipated.
Most SF writers would not say they are trying to be predictive, merely creating a fictional framework on which to present a few ideas. There are several different types of post-apocalyptic fiction, most essentially a hero's journey, the depiction of an Everyman who defies all the odds to survive in the wasteland. Others are more cautionary, an "if this goes on..." scenario, with more details on what led to the collapse. Some are philosophical, presenting insight into human nature in an attempt to present solutions to the problems. Butler's version is all of those rolled into one. Society's collapse is not sudden, nor a result of war or disease, but rather a slow slide into uncertainty and anxiety. It starts with environmental disasters, followed by economic depression, causing mass unemployment, rapid and crippling inflation. Banks and mortgage companies evict those who cannot pay, which leads to shanty towns, roving gangs, riots, looting, home invasions. Kidnappings and human trafficking are rampant. The rich are relatively immune to the chaos of course, since they own the industries, are influential in government circles, and can afford higher measures of security. Company towns make a comeback, essentially reintroducing indentured servitude (read, slavery). In November of 2024 a new President is elected, one who had campaigned on promises of eliminating wasteful government projects, privatizing many others, suspending "overly restrictive" minimum wage laws, as well as environmental and worker protection laws. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it?
Lauren's journey is both horrific and hopeful, full of violence and despair, but also optimism as she meets others willing to sacrifice for the good of a group. She is hampered with a physical disability, or perhaps it is just psychological. She calls it hyperempathy syndrome, caused by her mother's drug use when she was pregnant. Another descriptor of the condition is being a "sharer." Lauren feels the pain other people suffer, the severity increasing with proximity to the victim, being most crippling when she has to resort to violence herself. Along the way, she learns she is not the only one with that condition. The group she gathers around her grows to nine adults, with four children. They eventually make it to an area north of Mendocino, where one of them, a former doctor, has several acres of land. They decide it as good a place as any to make a home. That other book Lauren loved that I mentioned above, it's one she was writing herself. Along with her daily journal, she had also been writing down her spiritual thoughts, since she had decided at age twelve that she did not believe in the God her father preached about. Her god is more internal, one she can shape herself, one who is subject to change as she learns more about human behavior. She calls her philosophy Earthseed, and her writings are Earthseed: The Books of the Living, in contrast to many other religions' books of the dead. She thinks of all the universe as Godseed, humanity as Earthseed, with man's ultimate destiny to spread to the stars. Is it possible? Can man overcome his limitations, his petty jealousies and resentments, bond together and create a society that can last long enough to make it to the stars? Unfortunately, we have to wait for the second book to see if any of Lauren's plans and dreams can flourish and prosper. She only has a few acolytes, many skeptical, only staying with her because she has helped them survive so far, and they have nowhere else to go.
"God is neither good nor evil, neither loving nor hating. God is Power. God is Change. We must find the rest of what we need within ourselves, in one another, in our Destiny." - Earthseed: The Books of the Living
The previous book was nominated for a Nebula; Parable of the Talents won that award in 1999. In spite of the five years that separated them, as well as this one using a slightly different narrative style, they rightly should be considered one long novel. Lauren Olamina is still the main character, and the majority of the plot is comprised of excerpts from her journals, but there are also three other narrators, from different time periods and perspectives. I'm not going to identify them to avoid plot spoilers. The story picks up approximately five years later. Lauren has married the man who owns the land where they've settled, even though he is nearly forty years older. She was eighteen, and Taylor Bankole fifty-seven, when they arrived in Humboldt County and began the community they named Acorn, planting the seed from which Earthseed would grow. Other travelers were welcomed and informed of the community's purpose, although none were required to join what many of them considered a cult in order to share in their bounty. But Lauren was kind and compassionate, only turning away those who proved they couldn't be trusted not to steal from them. By 2032, Acorn was home to more than sixty. They built their own homes from nearby lumber, scavenged abandoned properties for tools and equipment, foraged for natural foods, as well as planting their own crops. They maintained their own school for both the children and young adults, many of whom were illiterate. The school doubled as a Gathering place as well, devoted to the propagation of the Earthseed philosophy. It was a hard life, rewarding at times, but never idyllic, and the outside world kept creeping in.
President Christopher Donner was re-elected in 2028 even though his administration had been ineffective in altering the downturn of the economy. Andrew Jarret, an evangelical preacher turned politicion, succeeded him in 2032. Jarret's Christian America Church was extremely conservative, with the most radical members forming Jarret's Crusaders militias. They terrorized squatter communities and poor small towns, "cleansing" them of anyone they perceived to not fit within their restrictive ideology. Atheists and agnostics of course, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, even Christians of other denominations if they were considered too liberal, too tolerant of "sin." It isn't clear if they were even aware of Earthseed as a philosophy, but they still invaded Acorn, enslaved the adults and transported all the children to other towns to be adopted into proper Christian American families. Acorn became Camp Christian, one of their many reeducation camps, and the occupation lasted seventeen months. I won't detail the horrors Lauren and her group were subjected to, nor how they managed their escape. The few survivors of Earthseed decide it is best to split up into small groups, their main purpose being to track down the abducted children if possible, perhaps to reunite in another community at a later date.
Stories of theocratic governments are not new to science fiction, although few of them have been depicted as horrifically as in this novel. Multiple trigger warnings for physical and sexual violence are in order. Fortunately, Jarret's rule is short-lived. The extreme methods of the Crusaders are tied to him and his church. There is even evidence of Jarret, in his pre-political days, having personally participated in burning "heathens" alive. He leaves office in shame, and lives out his few remaining days in alcoholism. When Lauren has The Books of the Living published, the Christian American Church sues her for her accusations against them during her promotional tours. She counter-sues, and they finally settle for an undisclosed amount. By this time, she has attracted the attention of wealthy supporters and donors, Earthseed schools are established, college scholarships awarded, with the emphasis on studies needed to fulfill the Destiny, journeying to the stars. A few of the abducted children have been found, others are unaccounted for, with other orphans and wanderers taken into the fold.
Throughout the four different perspectives presented in the book, which look at events at various points in time, it would be easy to guess that the story will end in tragedy. That is the case in a couple of particulars, but overall Lauren is successful, Earthseed blossoms, and the first extra-solar expeditions are about to begin as she approaches the age of eighty-one. A very few of her early companions are still with her then, most have died or been lost to the violent upheaval that nearly consumed the United States. One Earthseed tradition is for the dead to be cremated, their ashes mixed with soil and a tree planted in their name. Lauren Olamina would not be able to make that journey to the stars, but she hoped her ashes would eventually nurture a tree on some other planet. The only negative for me is that the later chapters, the ones concerning Earthseed taking root and thriving, were too brief. Maybe a third book would have been optimum to completely explore the ideas of Earthseed. Even if man never accomplishes a mission to another star system, I would hope there will always be people who can read Octavia Butler's words, take them to heart, and shape their lives, shape God, into a force of benevolence, so that at least our life here on Earth would be one of peace and love.
"To shape God with wisdom and forethought,
To benefit your world, your people, your life,
Consider consequences, minimize harm.
Ask questions, seek answers.
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