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Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Rave reviews always make me wary. That’s why I was fairly late to the game with the Twilight and The Hunger Games series and way late to the game with the Harry Potter series, not to mention other, more recent books that received rave reviews – An American Marriage and Americanah, for example – from people I respect. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is another one I avoided for a while, precisely because it was on so many “Best Of” lists. Finally, though, given the pandemic, the general state of America and the world, as well as Trump’s disastrous presidency, I caved and ordered it.

In a not-too-distant America, 2024 to be exact, society has collapsed, following a significant breakdown of the American government. Food, water, clothing, shelter and jobs are all scarce. What remains of various neighborhoods now resemble walled prisons, but not to keep the people in; rather to keep out those who would rape, murder, loot, set fire to dwellings, and cause mayhem in general. Law enforcement is lacking, and, in fact, police are a large part of the problem. What, exactly, happened? That part is not clear nor is it explained, but it does seem that it is a result of one wrong thing happening after another, which is, in truth, probably quite realistic. With a whisper, not a bang.

Surely, then, we have a hero(ine) with some purpose to root for? Err, not quite.

Lauren Olamina, our protagonist who narrates through journal entries, is a hyperempath. That is, she can experience the physical pain of others. As you can imagine, in a dystopian America, this ability is not a gift and she has learned to hide it as best she can, which becomes increasingly difficult given the tragedy and tragic creatures that surround her. Despite all this, though, Lauren’s “voice” is particularly devoid of emotion, even when describing horrific scenes of murder and rape. I kept waiting for a real, human reaction or emotion from her but was disappointed throughout. (This could be a function of the journal entry-style of narration; no one writes journal entries like our narrator does.)

After a series of increasing attacks on her neighbors, friends and family, Lauren escapes her neighborhood compound and sets off into the unknown, in search of a better life – north of California. On the way, she encounters various vagabonds who join her on the journey, and she begins to promote a new religion – Earthseed – she started dreaming up when she was still a child. The main message of Earthseed is that “God is change,” and only by accepting change, pursing change, and affecting change, can humans survive and thrive. (Oh, and the destiny of Earthseed followers is to ultimately navigate to another planet, start a new society, and “take root among the stars.” Yup.)

By halfway through the book, I skipped the sections about Earthseed because it was just a bunch of gibberish to me that didn’t move the plot forward. Had Butler spent more time on the “why” and “how” behind the collapse of American society, as well as the rest of the world’s response to it, the book and its readers would have better served. By the end, I did not buy into the premise being sold, that a 15-year-old can survive a dystopian landscape, become a leader of other survivors, lead them through ravaged California to relative safety, and start a religion that these same people agree to follow after hearing some poems/verses – and that’s because I didn’t buy into Lauren’s character. She came off as self-righteous, unlikable and, frankly, unbelievable.

I’m not sure how I feel about Lauren being able to feel someone else’s physical pain. There is so much hurt in the world, very little of which is physical or just physical. Perhaps if Lauren were able to feel other people’s emotions, to better understand a person’s motives or state of mind, she would have been a more multidimensional character with thoughts and opinions I’d care about. At any rate, Lauren’s “ability” didn’t move the plot along and I questioned why Butler gave her protagonist this ability at all.

The Parable of the Sower does address issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, poverty, and even climate change, but not in any pivotal or poignant way. I did pause to think about religion in general and, more specifically, how followers of religion tend to shape their chosen path in their own “image” over time.

Unfortunately, my reading experience was marred by an unceasingly bleak plot, an unbelievable and unlikable protagonist, too much focus on the Earthseed religion, multiple plot point disconnects, minimal dialogue and shallow character development. I had no emotional investment in any of the characters, nor in the outcome of the plot itself, and forgot about both as soon as I finished reading.

If Parable of the Sower could be summed up in a few sentences, they would be from an exchange at the end of the book:

“God is change.” “Olamina, that doesn’t mean anything.” “It means everything.”

I’m glad I didn’t order Parable of the Talents alongside this one, because I have no great desire to find out what happens with Lauren and her new converts.

This one was clearly not for me, but rest assured that thousands of people love this book and you may love it, too.

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