Butler’s novel still relevant today

Elise Fjelstad, Copy Editor

Many recognize Octavia E. Butler’s name as the author of “Kindred,” a science fiction novel about a young black woman from 1976 who finds herself transported to 1800s Maryland. However, in light of current events, Butler’s dystopian “Parable of the Sower” (and its sequel “Parable of the Talents”) are noteworthy reads that I recommend for those looking to engage in literature that opens discussion about the most pressing issues facing the United States today.

The main character is a young black woman named Lauren Oya Olamina born in the year 2010 with a neurological condition that gives her hyperempathy, or the ability to feel the pain others are feeling when she looks at them. The book begins in 2024 when Lauren is living in her small Los Angeles suburb while chaos reigns outside; a result of the devastating effects of climate change that have caused massive food and water shortages and extreme wealth inequality. The current president, Christopher Donner says he will enact policies to help return to normal but many are skeptical, and there is a small but growing talk of an ultra-religious politician named Andrew Steele Jarret who promises to “make America great again” (again, this was published in 1993).

Although her father is a Baptist minister, Lauren begins to develop her own religion, Earthseed, which she views as merely a realization of a universal truth- that humanity is meant to leave earth and colonize other planets, taking their rightful place among the stars. When Lauren’s gated community is attacked and family is killed, she sets off to move north with other refugees, and continues to write the foundation of Earthseed. Along the way, she gains allies and new followers of Earthseed as she fights to survive.

“Parable of the Sower” has all the qualities of a good dystopian work, but Butler also sprinkles in elements of sci-fi and Afrofuturism. In the book, the crisis of the 2010s and 20s is a period referred to as The Pox, which many interpret as Butler’s criticism of what will happen if the climate crisis is ignored and the government continues to be corrupted by corporate interests, as well as critiquing big pharma. In the novel, police and most schools are privatized, and those in gated communities live under constant threat of looters, drug addicts, human trafficking and gun violence.

This duology does differ from many other dystopias in that there is not necessarily a rigid authoritative society that the protagonist actively seeks to overthrow. Instead, a culmination of material conditions within the status quo make an oppressive society, and Lauren creates a roadmap for a better, alternative one. The unique approach to the genre is also highlighted in Lauren’s intersecting identities as a black woman, as they play a crucial role in how she experiences and critiques the current world. Many critics say that her hyperempathy also makes her a disabled character, which adds another perspective.

Although I don’t think Butler’s vision is fully accurate to current times, there are important parallels to point out. Lauren’s father discusses how many people are apathetic toward elections, because many are skeptical of whether Donner will actually help return to normalcy. Later in the duology, we witness that Jarret’s growing support is through a platform of “Christianity” and renewed white supremacy.

Not only is “Parable of the Sower” and its sequel an exquisite example of dystopia, but is an overall well-written story. Sprinkled throughout the book are written verses from Earthseed, which helps the reader more easily understand Lauren’s belief system. In addition, Lauren herself clings to her and her ideology as correct, but through Butler’s writing the audience is able to see her flaws as well; though it definitely didn’t stop me from falling in love with her character. The events of this imagined world are cohesive and scarily realistic.

I picked up a copy at a bookstore on a whim, and it ended up being my favorite book I read in the past year. On the surface, “Parable of the Sower” may appear just an engrossing story of a young woman who creates a new religion, but it is also an almost necessary analysis of late-stage capitalism and American nationalism.