[3] Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Book Cover: [3] Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

BOOK: The Parable of the Sower
AUTHOR: Octavia E. Butler
YEAR: 1993
PUBLISHER: Seven Stories Press

Lauren Olamina is fifteen years old. She has hyperempathy and experiences other’s emotions as her own. We meet her in 2025 in dystopian California, in a world ravaged by climate change and social inequality. The fortunate live in walled communities while the space beyond is marred by poverty, chaos, and violence. We join Lauren as she is forced to leave her community, setting off on a journey that will take her from Los Angeles and up the coast. Lauren’s odyssey is also a spiritual one as we witness the emergence of her new belief system called Earthseed.

The third book in the LAX LAB book club is Octavia E. Butler’s classic novel Parable of the Sower. Octavia E. Butler is considered a visionary science-fiction writer and a pioneer of Afrofuturism: a genre blending African culture with science, technology, and visions of the future. Her work has been hugely influential, inspiring other Black women science-fiction authors like N.K. Jemisin and artists like Janelle Monáe and Ava DuVernay. I hope this book will prompt conversations on the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and beyond. While the book offers opportunity to reflect on the connections between race, inequality, and climate change, Parable of the Sower also opens up space for discussions on belief systems, emotion, human behaviour, and the destructiveness of capitalism.

And if you need more convincing on why you should be reading Octavia E. Butler's monumental works, this animated video may persuade you yet:

[Trigger warning: Please note that there are descriptions of sexual violence in Parable of the Sower that some readers may find uncomfortable.]

Belief systems
Race and environmental racism
Social and urban inequality

[Spoiler alert! If you have not yet read the book, you may wish to turn back.]

Octavia Butler’s formidable novel Parable of the Sower is a harrowing story of society in collapse. Climate change and environmental degradation has led to job insecurity and poverty, scarcities of food and water, and worsened existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities. Walled communities offer some sense of protection from the chaos beyond. Yet dangerous new drugs incite users outside these communities to set fires and commit acts of great violence, increasingly breaching these walls. Law and order breaks down while capitalism persists in ever perverse forms, drastically changing the life of cities and its citizens.

Published in 1993 and set in California in the not-so-distant future, Parable of the Sower feels disturbingly contemporary. Octavia Butler skillfully builds on the past and extrapolates the trends of the present to envision a rather bleak but plausible future. Amidst all this dystopia, however, are also glimpses of hope and a vision of a Utopian society that the hyperempathetic Lauren Olamina is slowly building. That the hero is a young Black woman leading a racially diverse group of people is also empowering and hopeful.

This book will certainly inspire some interesting conversations. As a departure, I offer the following two provocations. The questions that follow are general but I hope that they might provoke discussions around race and social inequality and allow us opportunity to reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial dimensions of climate change.

Provocation 1: Seeds we sow

A parable is a story with a message; a way to teach a moral or religious lesson. This novel takes its title from the Bible, from a parable that Jesus shares about a farmer who sows seeds that fall in many different places but take root only in some (p.332). The parable is a lesson about teaching the Gospel and reaching a select few. Knowledge, skills, education, teaching, and learning are dominant themes throughout Parable of the Sower. Lauren is keen to learn what she needs to know to survive and prepare for the future. She feels betrayed by her closest friend Joanne and others in their walled community who prefer to accept their present situation rather than take action to prepare for the inevitable hardships to come. Her minister father advises her that it is better to teach than to scare people into action (p.75).
What seeds does Lauren sow and how? What resistance does she meet and how does she overcome it?What skills and knowledge would help you to survive if you found yourself in a similar situation? What seeds would you sow?

If we take this book as a parable, what can we learn from it? How might parables be useful in communicating and/or inspiring action on climate change?

Provocation 2: Power of change

All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change. So Parable of the Sower begins and we are introduced to the guiding principles of the belief system Earthseed. Change and transformation are constant themes throughout this novel, from the changed climate to the changing circumstances of the characters to the religion Earthseed that Lauren Olamina is shaping. Lauren claims the following: ‘Everyone knows change is inevitable. From the second law of thermodynamics to Darwinian evolution, from Buddhism's insistence that nothing is permanent and all suffering results from our delusions of permanence to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season …”), change is part of life, of existence, of the common wisdom.’ (p.35)

How does change present itself throughout this novel? What and who is changed?

What can we learn from Lauren and Earthseed’s approach to change?

Plus ça change, the expression goes. The more things change, the more they stay the same. What has not changed in this dystopian future? What must change to avoid that future?


Articles, essays, and other non-fiction
‘Octavia Butler’s prescient vision of a zealot elected to “Make America Great Again”’
Abby Aguirre, New Yorker, 26 July 2017

‘Why Octavia E. Butler’s novels are so relevant today’
Hephzibah Anderson, BBC, 17 March 2020

'Lost races of science fiction'
Octavia E. Butler, Transmissions, Summer 1980

‘People of colour experience climate grief more deeply than white people’
Nylah Burton, Vice, 14 May 2020

Octavia E. Butler
Gerry Canavan, 2016, published by University of Illinois Press

‘N. K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds’
Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, 20 January 2020

‘Janelle Monáe’s body of work is a masterpiece of modern science fiction’
Aja Romano,  Vox, 16 May 2018

‘Read up on the links between racism and the environment’
Somini Sengupta, New York Times, 5 June 2020

The Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Film and video
Black Panther (2018)

Dirty Computer, an emotion picture by Janelle Monáe

'Screwed', Official music video from album Dirty Computer (2018) by Janelle Monáe

'This is America', Official music video (2018) by Childish Gambino

Music and other audio
Dirty Computer (2018) by Janelle Monáe

MAGDALENE (2019) by FKA Twigs

Emma Arnold