Review: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler

parableofthesower_octaviabutlerFinal Rating: fivecups Five cups of dry leaves, because water is too expensive to waste on brewing tea.

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CONTENT WARNING: This review contains discussion of sexual assault and violence. I don’t go into graphic detail about anything, but if you would find this content triggering, please be safe. ❤

I grew up with a father who idolized the end of the world. Many of my earliest childhood memories are of him sharing tips on how to survive: what to do if I was lost in the forest alone; how I should always boil water before I drank it; how algae and moss were natural cleansers; how apples cleaned your teeth and kept your digestive system healthy; how to make lean-tos and start fires in rainy conditions; how quickly and easily prey animals could catch my scent if the wind changed; how long I could survive without water, food, or sleep. I remember him going on lengthy, impassioned rants about how many people would lose their minds (or their lives) if one of our “enemies” in another country decided to unleash an onslaught of EMP bombs on our nation. I remember hearing the undertone of hope in his voice as he spoke; he would be prepared, and his family would be safe– damn everyone else. They would finally learn true humility and how finely we all teeter on the knife’s edge while he would be out living in the woods in prosperity and safety. As I grew older, his obsession with survival left its imprint, and to this day I remain fascinated with things like post-apocalyptic video games and learning everything I can about how to function if the power goes out.

Reading Parable of the Sower was like getting slapped across the face by someone and told, “What the hell is wrong with you!?”

This book is, quite simply, a vision of our future. For a book that was written years ago, many of its prophecies have already started to come true: Skyrocketing gas prices; inescapable poverty; emergency services that are barely affordable; ever-increasing racial tensions; families hiding away in their homes and trusting only when they have to. With her usual, matter-of-fact style, Butler effortlessly shows us all why fantasizing about the end of the world is a fool’s errand. (And honestly, what was I thinking? I’m a woman. Unless there’s a remote cave somewhere I can hide myself in, the end of civilization has nothing but cruelty in store for me.)

At times, this made the book incredibly difficult for me to read. I remember more than a few chapters which put me into a deep depression, and yet despite this I couldn’t bear not to keep reading. There is violence in it; horrible violence, and yet somehow (much like with Mind of My Mind) it is not gratuitous nor does it feel haphazardly lodged into the story for “grittiness”. It simply is. (Which is partly what makes it so horrifying.) I think this is the difference between a lot of media we see where violence (particularly sexual violence) is added for “effect” rather than being part of the world; Butler does not use things like racism or sexual assault for flavor. They are facts. They are life.

Which brings me to a very important point: There is rape in this book. A lot of it. None of it is described as it happens, but it is a known threat and something the reader sees the consequences of. There is also death, and mutilation. Sometimes all three all at once. I am not kidding when I say this book is difficult to read in a few places. If you decide to pick it up for yourself, please be aware of these themes. They hit hard.

Parable was engrossing to me largely because of its protagonist, Lauren. She is earnest without being naive; kind without being foolish. She is loyal, loving, and often conflicted. She wants to reach out, but knows what might happen if she does. Her wisdom, intelligence and determination drive her forward in ways that not even she fully understands. The book unfolds as the entries in her journal, revealing her day-to-day adventures and struggles as she tries to figure out what to do with this strange and brutal life unfolding around her.

Lauren yearns for a way to make the future better, a way to break the endless cycle of violence and death and fear; something I identified with strongly. I also found her exploration of God and the meaning of her philosophy, “Earthseed”, particularly fascinating. They reminded me of very similar moral quandaries I had when I was a little bit older than her. And, to be honest…a lot of what she discovers rang true to me. Earthseed makes as much sense as any other religion or philosophy we have right now; moreso in many cases. It was refreshing to finally see an author discussing the issue of God in a way that felt honest and true, rather than self-congratulatory and petulant, as happens with far too many sci-fi shows and books I’ve seen.

You hope and cheer for Lauren. You mourn with her. Many times, I wanted to reach out and squeeze her hand just so she knew she wasn’t so alone. She’s smart; god, she’s so smart. I adored her, and was a little bit in awe of her. I’m very interested to explore the rest of the series and see what becomes of her; I know at some point the concept of Earthseed leaves her behind–something she anticipates–and I hope that her legacy remains at least mostly intact, because damn it all, she earned it.

Despite its difficult portions, Parable of the Sower was deeply moving, and easily one of the best books I’ve ever read. I finished the book months ago (sorry for the late review, btw!) and yet I still think of it frequently. It really made me question why I’m so fascinated with “post-apocalyptia”, and why people in my culture have romanticized that concept so often. Reading Parable made me realize that the people I’ve known who do this–primarily white, cis men–do so because to them, everything is a “fun” event to fantasize about. To them, it’s just another arena to play around in; somewhere new to prove how superior, smart, and capable they are. Somewhere they can indulge in their baser urges because, after all, there are no more rules, so why bother restraining yourself?

A lot of other folks aren’t as enthusiastic, because they already know what the end of the world looks like. They’re living it.

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3 thoughts on “Review: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler

  1. I love your very thorough review. Ms Butler is my favorite author. I have read all of her novels as well as her short stories. I hope you like Parable of the Talents. I loved it but in some ways it is harder to read than this book. Either way I look forward to your review.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I will be reading more of Butler’s work very soon, I think…I definitely want to get to Parable of the Talents but I know it’ll be a difficult read so I’m letting myself recharge before diving in. Someday I hope to read everything she’s done. She is an amazing author!

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