The Parable of The Sower – Octavia E Butler (1993)
‘Lauren Olamina is an empath, crippled by the pain of others. Cloistered inside a neighbourhood enclave in a U.S. where the distance between the haves and the have-nots has widened to a gaping chasm. She lives a protected life. But one night, violence explodes, and the walls of her neighbourhood are smashed, annihilating Lauren’s family and friends – all she loves and knows.
Now the empath must face the world outside. Leading a tiny band of desperate followers through a thousand miles of Hell, she is a prophet bearing nothing but the promise of new life and a new faith… Earthseed.’
Blurb from the 1995 Warner Books paperback edition.
Once more Butler employs a black female lead, in this case Lauren Olamina, an intelligent fifteen year old empath who feels the pain of anyone within her line of sight.
Lauren and her family live in a walled community on the outskirts of LA in 2026. The US has collapsed socially and economically into Chaos, and is also suffering the plague of a designer drug, Pyro, the effects of which includes extreme pleasure at the sight of fire.
Outside the wall society has fallen into violence and anarchy. Lauren’s diary begins when she is fifteen and tells of her fears for the day when the lawless mobs and Pyro addicts will break through the walls to pillage and burn.
Butler never pulls her punches and is skilled in examining racial, sexual and social issues without being patronising or stereotyping. Slavery is a recurrent them in her work and – as in this novel – manifests itself in many ways, including sexual, psychological and monetary. It is discussed here when a Japanese company ‘buys up’ a US coastal town in order to create a vast desalination plant, in the process recruiting a ready-made workforce of residents to work for ‘room and board’, thus locking them into a debt to the Company they can never repay.
Often Butler’s characters walk voluntarily into such systems of slavery, such as Lauren’s stepmother Cory, who wants the family to apply to join the Company town, despite the warnings of her husband and stepdaughter. And the Moss family, we note from Lauren’s diaries, base themselves around a polygamous patriarchal structure. Richard Moss describes his wives as ‘ladies’ who have no business getting themselves involved anything other than women’s work.
This becomes more evident when the community is finally invaded and Lauren escapes with only two other residents, Harry and Zahra, one of Richard’s wives.
Zahra, initially reticent and withdrawn, blossoms as a person and begins to learn from Lauren things her husband had forbidden her to learn.
All her life Lauren has been evolving her own philosophy, based around the premise that God is Change. This she calls Earthseed. The purpose or ‘Destiny’ of Earthseed is to seed the stars with Humanity. (The incumbent President has pledged to scrap the current Mars program)
As the group travel North through a fractured America, teeming with Pyro addicts and violent gangs, they gather more stragglers (some of whom, it transpires are also empaths) most of whom have their own stories of possession and control.
Despite its diarised and linear structure, this is a powerful, sometimes harrowing novel of Humanity’s potential to self-destruct.
It’s also an attack on the US’s political policies since the ills besetting the country seem to stem not from outside attack but from the corruption and decay of US society and its policy of erosion of workers’ rights etc.