I finally read Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower but I was underwhelmed. The book is a decent coming of age story framed through a heroine’s j...moreI finally read Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower but I was underwhelmed. The book is a decent coming of age story framed through a heroine’s journey told in unremarkable prose. I liked the premise of a near-future California dystopia as the consequence of current policies of cutting social services and regulations to the point that people need to fend for themselves in a nightmarish society of privately armed garrisons, water shortages, violent gangs and nimble adaptation to life’s unpredictability. But glaring inconsistencies detracted from this picture: where did the electricity come from in the isolated community? How was the university still operating in the midst of anarchy? I got it that apocalypse can come gradually rather than by cataclysm but Butler’s scenario did not hold together for me. Earthseed, the religion developed by the protagonist Lauren Olamina, was underdeveloped and often platitudinous. I eventually found myself skipping over the fragments of preachy, hackneyed scripture. The notion of a righteous community finding a way to survive, to await becoming “earthseed” to extraterrestrial worlds seemed to gesture not only to Christianity (or cargo cults) in a metaphorical sense but specifically to the Afro-futurist visions of Sun-Ra and George Clinton yet with little elaboration that could have made it rich and compelling. Another missed opportunity was that the protagonist’s interlocutors expressed so little interest in her adolescent philosophy when they could have argued from their own ethical or spiritual positions. All of their responses seem to boil down to: “I don’t know about all your beliefs but I agree we need to work together to survive.” Earthseed as a utopian manifesto solves few problems and the fact that the book ends before even a modest implementation can take place greatly weakens the book’s utopian side which remains almost completely hypothetical. That violent competition could result from a withering of the state is a plausible (if Hobbesian and fatalistic) conclusion but Butler provided no clues as to why racial politics had returned to those of the 1950s. If the assumption was that, without state intervention, people revert to a supposed natural state of racial antagonism, the book betrays a bleak assessment of human nature and a naive social analysis that ignores the historical ways that powerful interests have orchestrated racial antipathies to divide and rule. The condition of hyperempathy that afflicts Lauren and others adds a level of tension to the action but for me it broke the spell of an otherwise plausible real future. It could have been a great device in a space opera but detracted from this near-future scenario. Finally, the drug culture of “pyro,” possibly modeled on the crack epidemic, was intriguing but descriptively impoverished. The users appear as mindless menaces but we never learn about their lives, either the circumstances that drive them to drug abuse, or the experience of the drug itself that could have been provided through a first person account (the protagonist herself could have been dosed by another character for example.). I fail to see this as a great novel when measured against other writers who have tackled utopia and dystopia, race and gender, religion and drugs to far greater effect.
I remember this book very well from my childhood. My brother and I thought it was hilarious as well as another book called Amelia Bedelia about a youn...moreI remember this book very well from my childhood. My brother and I thought it was hilarious as well as another book called Amelia Bedelia about a young (white) maid who similarly took instructions literally with disastrous results. Both of these were favorite characters we often talked about. These stories draw on a long folk tradition of numbskull tales that can be found in many parts of the world (such as the Scandinavian Ole and Lena stories on a Prairie Home Companion). The comments about whether this book is "racist" or "not racist" or "politically incorrect" seem to be barking up the wrong tree. Racial inequality is a undeniable fact both now and in 1907 when Epaminondas was first published. Statistics on racial inequality in arrests, sentencing, incarceration, poverty, wealth, health, education, home ownership, etc demonstrate this beyond dispute. The question is then, how is racial inequality created and reproduced? Is it only passed on to children intentionally and explicitly by white supremacist parents or also unintentionally and implicitly by books depicting black children as intellectually deficient or by even more subtle portrayals of white people as "nice," "hardworking" or "trustworthy" and blacks as lacking these qualities? In 1907, Indiana was the first state to pass a eugenics law to sterilize the "feeble minded." Such laws became prevalent across the US and were later adopted by the Nazis. The majority of the people targeted for coercive sterilization in the US were black and native american. Some physicians at the time even endorsed the "black extinction thesis" arguing that black people were genetically weak and would naturally die out. So the 1907 story of a black boy with a weak intellect perfectly reflects the scientific racism of the time and could be seen as a justification for a real historical program of racial genocide. And it can also be seen as an innocent and funny traditional story. Or it could be seen as an opportunity to talk about race. If we label the book as "racist" or as "not racist," we shut down the discussion we need to have about racial inequality in the US today. The lesson of Epanimondas is not to jump to a literal conclusion then follow it through despite conflicting evidence. To declare this book "racist" or "not racist" is to be even more foolish than Epaminondas.(less)
re-read this after reading Dreyfus and Kelly's All Things Shining. D amd K point out the radical difference between the concept of self/agency during...morere-read this after reading Dreyfus and Kelly's All Things Shining. D amd K point out the radical difference between the concept of self/agency during Homer's time and that of our own; how living in a polytheistic world enables one to be caught up in the mood of a god or goddess(less)
I'm currently re-reading this with my students in Religion and Anthropology. After the theory I made them read they're sinking their teeth into EP's e...moreI'm currently re-reading this with my students in Religion and Anthropology. After the theory I made them read they're sinking their teeth into EP's ethnographic treatment of Zande reasoning about witchcraft and defense against it. When first published, this text confronted colonial era assumptions about the intellectual capacities of colonized people. (less)
A fascinating early engagement with the (post-classical) idea of a republic (as state without monarch), not towards perfection or universal rules but...moreA fascinating early engagement with the (post-classical) idea of a republic (as state without monarch), not towards perfection or universal rules but on the benefits of popular tumult as a guard against tyranny and virtue not as a set of rules but how one responds to the accidents of history and social life. While this might sound like the opposite of The Prince, both books rather elucidate different tendencies in Machiavelli's thought (and were probably written for different audiences/patrons).(less)