Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

July 23, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Parable of the Sower is an unusual post-apolacyptic story. For one thing, there was never an actual apocalypse, just a slide into chaos. Forty years after the novel was written, the theory goes, civilization has for all intents and purposes retreated to fortified enclaves while the disenfranchised poor are left to fend for themselves amid the ashes of America. Meanwhile, the main character, a young girl growing up in poor but at least somewhat secure circumstances in southern California, writes free verse poems that she imagines might one day form a new, rationalist religion.

It should say something about the quality of the writing that, in my opinion, this is a very good novel and well worth reading even though the religious aspects are bunk and the setting is wildly implausible. The religion amounts to “God is Change”…God is a completely impersonal force that can’t be prayed to or worshipped, just coped with. As some characters actually complain, this is totally meaningless. It’s atheism dressed up with a couple words (i.e. God) used completely divergently from how they are supposed to be used. As for the setting, while the enclave aspect is plausible, her depiction of the anarachy outside them is absurd. There’s a never ending stream of people constantly killing and being killed and, apart from a couple vague mentions of gangs, absolutely no authority structure coalescing in the vaccuum. The lack of authority is virtually unprecedented in human history, and maybe there’s a case to be made–something about the decline of our culture that would cause it–but Butler doesn’t seem to think it is a controversial idea. It brings to mind the suburban idea that inner city gangs are “constantly killing people”. Ultimately as many people need to be born as are killed or else the cycle of violence will peter out instead of accelerate.

In spite of all this, the book works. Butler’s characters are very well drawn, the story, though a bit aimless at times, is reasonably interesting, and while violent anarchy is often a setting in books and movies it is rarely depicted in such an uncompromising fashion. Butler isn’t afraid to hurt her characters, though thankfully, unlike a lot of modern “gritty” authors, she doesn’t make us wade through long stretches of angst and grief. Her characters suffer and move on, because that’s the only kind of life they have ever known and can ever imagine. What the book lacks in realism it makes up for in impact. It’s not so much a vision of the future as it is a dream of the future, often fevered and nightmarish, but through it all still hopeful.

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