A Review of Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Published in 1993 this novel tells the story of a future in decline where hope is hard to come by and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened to a nearly impassable chasm. Extrapolating from trends that she saw in the late ’80s and early ’90s Octavia Butler writes of a future where America, and the world at large, begins to slide backwards with too many people, too much corruption and not enough resources. Amidst souring food, water, and service prices, exotic and dangerous drugs, and many other dangers young Lauren Olamina must struggle for survival against overwhelming odds.
The novel is told entirely from Lauren’s perspective as she writes entries in her journal. The narrative begins in a gated community, which has become an island of relative stability in a sea of chaos and poverty. From there Lauren’s story takes us on the road north to the rumored safety of Oregon. The story covers 3 years following Lauren from age 14 all the way to 17, but in those 3 short years she is forced to grow up very quickly as she encounters the worst of human nature and searches for the ultimate limited resource, trust in a world of the vicious.
Overall, the story is very powerful and told in a strong and clear voice. The characters are well drawn and deep, and the pace of the narrative makes for an engaging read. I also really enjoyed the level of detail that Butler went into concerning the society and one very possible future that we may face in some form. She also didn’t focus too strongly on the technology, but rather focused on the people and the circumstances that they encountered deepening their characters along with the impact of the story.
My only major qualm concerning the novel was the religion that the main character develops based on her own experience with the world. The religion, called Earthseed in the book, is not so much a religion as it is a way of life. It borrows from many religious traditions and philosophies, primarily Buddhism, Confucianism, and a little Greek philosophy. It also shares some of the same language and discussion points as Tielhard de Chardin, a catholic monk who wrote about the end result of evolution, what he called the Omega Point, among many other topics.
The central belief/paradox of Earthseed is that God shapes us and we shape God. In fact, in the Earthseed religion God literally is Change and vice-versa. Unfortunately, in the novel these ideas are not supported by much other than the character’s disdain for traditional religions and her own experiences with the world. Certainly an unstable foundation to build a new religion on.
While I see some appealing aspects to it, especially its focus on humanity and the spiritual nature of our journey to the stars, I believe that Earthseed ultimately fails as a complete religion because it lacks numerous aspects that I have found to be essential to my faith such as revelation, prayer, and a transcendent God just to name a few qualities.
Despite its lack of development in the novels the idea of Earthseed has taken root in the world and many societies and groups such as SolSeed have taken its main principles as their own. It also works well within the context of the novel as it is a new religion for a people who are struggling to recreate themselves in an old and failing world.
Unfortunately in this case, getting rid of Christianity while shedding the trappings of a consumerist society is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. What we will need in the future is not a new religion divorced from the past, but rather an ancient religion rooted in the past, looking to the future, and living in the present.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. It is thought provoking, powerful, and above all enjoyable to read. In my opinion, this is one of Butler’s best works second only to her Patterner series of novels. Enjoy!