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Parable of the Sower

| 20.3.03
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

When I first learned that Parable of the Sower was yet another near-future dystopia, I groaned inwardly. While such books certainly have their place as cautionary tales, I usually find them so depressing that they don't make for entertaining reading. Science fiction is usually a more optimistic vision of how science and technology can shape us and take us places we've never been before. The whole dystopia sub-genre seems dark and depressing in contrast. 1984 and its warning against totalitarianism; Alas, Babylon and The Postman with their twin depictions of the aftermath of nuclear holocaust --these are all well-written books with an important political message, but they also seem a little surreal and far away in the future. Parable of the Sower manages to transcend the genre by offering a theme of hope through personal transformation. Author Octavia E. Butler is also relatively conservative in her extrapolated future, which makes her message seem all the more immediate, believable and relevant.

Butler takes current disturbing trends of global warming, gated communities, homelessness, and privatization and extrapolates a disturbingly familiar near future. The year is 2025, and it hasn't rained in years. Water (and everything else) is in very short supply. The middle-class live in gated communities topped with barbed wire and laser wire to keep out the street poor and gangs --desperate starving people willing to kill for food or shoes. And things are getting worse. Every year more gated communities are breached, looted, and pillaged by the desperate. The inhabitants are killed, rapped or tortured --rendered desperate themselves. Police, Fire departments, and other basic services are only available to those willing to pay their fees, resulting in only small enclaves of law and order surrounded by a sea of anarchy. Public education is non-existent, and unemployment is astronomically high. The United States government still exists --still collects taxes-- but seems exceedingly distant, in the hands of corporate interests, and unable to exert much force on the local level.

Against this backdrop we're introduced to the main character, Lauren Olamina, who lives in one of these walled communities outside San Diego and senses its coming destruction. Daughter of a Baptist pastor who is holding the small, ragged community of eleven households together through sheer force of will, Olamina is secretly forging (or discovering) her own religion called Earthseed, which gives her comfort and a sense of purpose as everything slowly crumbles around her. Here are some verses from the bible she assembles through the course of the novel, called Earthseed: The Books of the Living:

All that you touch,
You Change..

All that you Change
Changes you..

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

Why is God?
To shape the universe
(p. 72)

The bulk of the novel outlines Lauren Olimina as she discovers and refines the Earthseed religion, using it to understand the cataclysmic changes taking place in her life. Her walled community is ultimately invaded and she is forced to flee with a few possessions and a few companions, seeking out a new home where she plans to establish a community based on the new principle that "God is Change." The only way to survive is to embrace Change and try to consciously shape it --and allow it to ultimately shape you.

I found the concept of a new religion that embraces change to be enticing. While most institutional religions seem quite conservative and slow to change, Octavia E. Butler paints a convincing picture of Lauren Olimina as a dynamic religious tradition founder. The community she assembles is small enough and cohesive enough that its lack of inter-nicene squabbling does not detract too much from its realism. Perhaps only after the religious founder dies (not the subject of this book --maybe treated in Butler's later novel, Parable of the Talents?) do differing interpretations, and the calcification of the tradition start to arise. How that would be treated by a religion that defines God as change would be quite interesting.

As a person of faith and an avid reader of science fiction I enjoyed this novel because it not only extrapolated the future of science and social trends, but also religious belief. Defining God as change is an optimistic imagining of a people's reaction to cataclysmic change. I can't help but wonder if its overly optimistic, however. Surely a more typical human response is to either fear change, reject change, or to try to hold on to something as constant within the midst of change? Relgious founders are hardly typical, however, and maybe Butler's machinations are how most new faiths are formed --out of response to a specific historical situation or calamity.

As an unrelated sidenote, I didn't actually read this book --I checked the unabridged Audiobook CD out from the library, ripped it to MP3, and listened to it on my portable MP3 player. It was the first time I'd tried this, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to listen while taking my daily exercise. Nowadays I seem to have so little uninterrupted time for reading that it is nice to be able to leverage some other time each day. Since the novel takes the form of entries in Lauren's journal, it is easy to ingest in small doses.

PUBLISHER: Four Walls Eight Windows, New York. 1993. ISBN: 0941423999

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