Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Mar 17, 2010

really liked it
Recommended to Jennifer (aka EM) by: jo
Read from June 12 to 18, 2010

** spoiler alert ** I've started and stopped this review several times--as I did the book itself--and I wasn't sure why I was having such a hard time putting my thoughts into words until I read reviews of The Road. That's the problem. I'm comparing this novel to The Road, perhaps naturally enough: both are journeys through dystopian landscapes, with evidence of the degradation of environment and humanity all around, central characters who represent 'goodness' and 'morality' and 'hope' in the midst of nothing but bleakness, deprivation and violence. So let's just get this out of the way: McCarthy's bleakness is the bleakest; his violence the most violent; his detail the most stark and horrific. This is not The Road, not even close.

But what McCarthy doesn't do, the thing that Butler does here (and maybe others do too; I'm not as well-read in the dystopian genre as I'd like to be) is show us the tipping point; the genesis of the horror. Butler creates a character who is knowingly sliding into the abyss and fights against it. Through Lauren Olamina, she creates a utopian worldview within a dystopian world, like a living kernel inside a dead husk. For me, though, even while clearly central to the novel, the Earthseed religion (cult?) was one of the least interesting things about this book.

Instead, I prefer how Butler shows the gradual descent into a world irrevocably and horrifically changed, a life that is unlivable by any standard and yet people live in it--and she shows us that we are already there. She gives us no distance, no perch from which to look down or forward, or wherever it is we look when we read dystopias.

Parable of the Sower's strength lies in how it explores the world between the "before" and the "after," and not just the "after" world. Butler focuses on the generation during which the slide down the slippery slope picks up speed, and guess what? It's the one right after ours! It's the future, but not too far ahead that we can complacently think we'll avoid it, or that it doesn't apply to us (because in most dystopias, no matter how much we ask ourselves how we would manage to live in them, don't we simultaneously console ourselves by reassuring ourselves that we don't?).

Butler drives the point home by creating a character - Bankole - who is us, the reader. Born in 1970 and therefore of our generation, Bankole's thoughts and memories of what it was like before the handbasket landed in hell are our own. He's a little morally ambiguous (and a lot creepy, but I'll come back to him in a minute).

Interesting to read this as oil continues to pour into the ocean which some say is unstoppable ; as California is bankrupt; and as the world economy precariously recovers from near total collapse. Reading it in 2010, instead of when it was first published in 1993, one can't help but see Butler as even more prescient.

This, this, is how the world ends. Slowly, localized and then regional disintegration spreading like an oil slick. Environmental catastrophes mount; governments and economies fail. Food and water become scarce. And human beings--their individual behaviour, and the families, communities and social structures that support us--regress to our most barbaric in a heroic futile attempt to survive. Or at least, we regress to isolation, paranoia and self-serving cruelty, even if we retain (or perhaps especially if we retain) a shred of empathy. Empathy is a birth defect here, brought about by drug addiction. Not a mark of civilization, but rather a mark of its downfall and also a weakness that needs to be hidden.

The key in Parable of the Sower is how the devolution occurs bit by bit. It reminded me of The Pianist (I just put the book on my to-read list; I'm referring here to the movie or at least my memory of it). We accommodate and accommodate again, continually revising our expectations downward to the 'new normal' until we're living in a crawl space, awaiting a mouldy crust of bread every three days, and we think ourselves lucky for that.

Gang violence on the rise? Build gated communities and arm yourself. Water scarce or unfit to drink? Buy bottled. Lost your job? Take a menial one in a mega-corporation, despite the three degrees you went into hock to get as the ante for just getting into the game. Everyone's doing it, and at least you have a job, right? You've got it better than a lot of others, don't you?

Butler details the commonplace structures and systems that we know, and shows the interim step before they've completely collapsed. Home schooling is not an option for the fringe; it's the only education anyone gets and most don't get that. I love that she specifically links the collapse of civilization with the collapse of literacy and education (the collapse of humanity with the collapse of the humanities, you might say). Education, health care and the rest of society's basic institutions have not completely failed, but they are only available if you can pay and it is clear almost no one can. No police, ambulance or fire trucks will come; no insurance will be paid when they don't. We've still got our beloved shopping malls as places of sanctuary, but they are protected by power-drunk security guards and ringed by the impoverished peddling their wares and hooligans preying on them.

Wait a minute. Bottled water? Poor or no access to health care? Armed homeowners defending their property? Factory farms and multinational corporations running amok with no regard for environmental or labour laws? Debt slaves, largely Latino and African-American, held captive in 'company towns' in the US's most populous state? That sounds like ... NOW.

These details are equally as disturbing as the more obviously horrific ones, the cannibalism and the roving bands of drug-crazed maniacs who rape and torture. The former are the source of this book's power, and what I responded to most viscerally: their vividness, their logic, the inescapable proximity of the world Butler creates which looks remarkably similar to the one we live in now had me jittery and anxious.

HOWEVER (you knew that was coming, right?): Butler's ideas are better than her execution of them and some of the ideas at the crux of her story are the least well developed, even unnecessary. The central conceit--a teenaged girl, the next messiah leading her followers to salvation via her own unshakable belief in the Earthseed philosophy--is secondary and almost silly. Why did Butler need to have her protagonist invent - oh, pardon me, discover - a religion? Wouldn't it have been enough for Lauren to foresee the eventual destruction of her family, her community and all that she knows and loves (a broader reflection of the destruction of the entire culture around her) and send her on her journey, picking up a ragtag band of fellow travellers as she goes?

If it was Butler's intent to show how new religions and religious leaders (cults and cult leaders) emerge, then she didn't focus on it clearly enough. I do like the metaphor: Earthseed, humanity as a handful of grains scattered across the planet, taking root, growing and dying at the whim of our environment. But really--the Destiny? This is clearly an idea for the sequel. Here, it just seems unfinished and unnecessary; an element of which even Butler is unsure, self-conscious and, through the words of her characters, scornful.

Butler seems not to follow through on some of the most important ideas, the ones that are at the core of her novel. She does well at showing us how racism slides back into slavery. I think she does less well at showing us how gender roles regress to oppression of women. Women are inconsistently oppressed here, and sometimes barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, but often not. I'm missing the feminist POV that this novel is said to possess (surely Lauren doesn't carry that banner all on her shoulders, does she?). Someone, I'm sure, will elucidate (and possibly chastise) me for this.

Also, little things. The littlest is that typos were scattered like Earthseeds throughout the last third of the book. That is such a pet peeve of mine.

Also, dogs. She didn't get the dogs right; didn't do enough research here I think. It doesn't make sense, especially in one generation, that dogs end up banding together to terrorize human beings. Dogs are omnivores, not carnivores--they don't revert to feral as quickly as cats do, and it is far more likely that their domestication and obedience would turn them into tools used for defense or as weapons by aggressors. (She hints at the former later in the novel; so it's not like she didn't know she had an option here. I think she was trying to make everything fit the regression theme). Even in real-world places where feral dog packs are a problem, they are not particularly dangerous except for the threat of disease they may carry. They rarely attack humans; they forage in garbage--that's how they ended up being domesticated in the first place. If Butler wanted to play on the reader's sympathy, she could have used the dogs differently, and she would have been better to make the threat feline--cougars or some of the bigger cats; I don't mean Fluffy, your neighbour's Persian--especially in southern CA.

Also, Bankole and Lauren. Ewwwwww.

She has Bankole voice the concerns she imagines her reader will: the philosophy is adolescent, simplistic and the need for the "Destiny" portion of it superfluous and silly. On the coupling of Bankole and Lauren, he's suitably squeamish, but not enough to keep his pants zipped. Again I say, ewwwww.

Bankole's entire character is there for plot and structural reasons. He's otherwise flat, unconvincing and unnecessary. She tries to bring some mystery to him, some tension--is he good? is he evil?--but it's half-hearted and we know as soon as we meet him what his purpose in the story is.

One last flaw to mention: the voice of our protagonist. Early on, she's understandably breathless, earnest and exclamation-point-filled (this is, after all, a 14-year-old girl speaking to us). But that tone and style spills over into long, expositional sections that bolster the philosophy (even as she ages, and becomes more focused on her mission of conversion and salvation). Lauren's voice, especially when she preaches either directly or indirectly, undermined my ability to take the philosophy at the centre of this novel at all seriously. Was I supposed to? I think I was. But all I could ever hear was this track from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon playing in my head after every Earthseed verse.

This one hovers in a high 3 almost 4 for me, so I'll leave it at 4 for now. It's 4 for what it did well seemingly without trying, which overcomes the weaknesses of what it was trying to do well.
25 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Parable of the Sower.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

06/13/2010 page 76
22.0% "It's tone deaf compared to EL&IC. I'll stick with it for another 50 pp or so." 2 comments
06/20/2010 page 175
50.0% "this is picking up speed. more readable now than it was 2 weeks ago - due entirely to headspace. Interesting." 3 comments
06/20/2010 page 352
100.0% "review to come..."

Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by John (new)

John The best of the Butler I've been through, cold-eyed & hard-nosed, yet transcendent.

message 2: by Aerin (new)

Aerin This is an excellent review. I love this book and it's one of my favorites of the post-apocalyptic genre, but there's so much that is wrong with it too, especially in its philosophical/religious themes.

Zach For me, though, even while clearly central to the novel, the Earthseed religion (cult?) was one of the least interesting things about this book.

Exactly-both to that point and to the sheer ridiculousness of the "Destiny" concept. Fantastic review, especially noting that the relationship between Lauren and Bankole makes the "feminist" tag that this book always gets a little problematic, to say the least.

message 4: by Aerin (new)

Aerin especially noting that the relationship between Lauren and Bankole makes the "feminist" tag that this book always gets a little problematic, to say the least.

I definitely agree, and I've noticed that the Bankole/Lauren relationship dynamic is repeated again and again in Butler's other work; it always skeeves me out.

message 5: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 24, 2010 10:08AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Aerin wrote: "I love this book and it's one of my favorites of the post-apocalyptic genre, but there's so much that is wrong with it too, especially in its philosophical/religious themes. "

Thank you, Aerin! The weird thing is that at the core of it, I don't label the Earthseed philosophy itself as wrong-headed (I can see the appeal of the core ideas really), but just a poor and unnecessary plot device. I hear the sequel to this - Parable of the Talents - focuses almost entirely on the Earthseed religion. Have you read it?

Zach wrote: "Fantastic review, especially noting that the relationship between Lauren and Bankole makes the "feminist" tag that this book always gets a little problematic, to say the least. "

Indeed. I hate that he swept in, a physician to cure her ills and with a convenient parcel of land on which she could settle, all the while patronizing her beliefs and taking advantage of her loneliness and desperation.

Zach If you enjoyed this one I would say definitely read the sequel. It has most of the same problems... but also most of the same strengths.

message 7: by Aerin (new)

Aerin I hear the sequel to this - Parable of the Talents - focuses almost entirely on the Earthseed religion. Have you read it?

Yeah, and it's odd, because while the sequel is much more focused on Earthseed stuff, I actually like it better than Sower. It gets much darker - it actually makes the events in Sower look like a walk in the park, and some parts of it are almost viscerally difficult to read. But thematically, it's just incredible in the way it deals with oppression, slavery, loss, and resistance.

(I don't really see Earthseed as wrongheaded either - I just think it's too bland to be meaningful, and way too much time is spent on developing it in these novels. And its followers are very much a cult - although that turns out to have its benefits in terms of cohesion and survival.)

Zach I saw Earthseed are wrong-headed in that it cheapened the communitarian aspects of the message that, to me at least, would have been much more powerful without being wrapped in such new age mumbo-jumbo.

message 9: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 24, 2010 10:43AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Zach wrote: "I saw Earthseed are wrong-headed in that it cheapened the communitarian aspects of the message that, to me at least, would have been much more powerful without being wrapped in such new age mumbo-j..."

Agree entirely. I can't decipher though whether Butler expects the reader to see Earthseed as mumbo-jumbo, and that's her comment on religion; or whether she wants us to buy into the ideas lock, stock and barrel and agree that Earthseed is the kind of philosophy, and the only kind, that will nurture and save humanity.

Lauren is too sympathetic a character for the former to be true, isn't she? I don't know ... gaaaah, I'm going to have to read the second one, aren't I?

(Butler died before writing the third and final in the trilogy, didn't she? I imagine that's when they would have headed into space...)

message 10: by Aerin (new)

Aerin I'm going to have to read the second one, aren't I?

Yep. Yep, you are. ;)

The second one pits Earthseed against a fascist version of Christianity that rises to power. It's very clear which side Butler is on.

message 11: by Zach (new) - rated it 3 stars

Zach Yeah, I was never able to figure out exactly where Butler stood with that either, but I agree that it seems most likely, given how sympathetic the text is to Lauren, that readers were supposed to fall in love with the idea of Earthseed.

message 12: by jo (last edited Jun 24, 2010 08:38PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

jo i think that butler is a weird writer, a writer who lives very much in her own world and is, in some rather marvelous way, very much in touch with voices that come from inside her and only she can hear. when i read her (and i've read her only twice, because she's not a great stylist and her prose tends to be dry-ish and didactic), i have the sense of someone who's writing down what she hears, or maybe what she sees, without judging it and without trying to understand it. maybe there is a spiritual dimension to this, but what always strikes me is the psychological freedom of her books. she is definitely attracted to young girls who wield a lot of charisma, power, and sexual attraction from (and to) older people. i admire butler for sticking with this erotic fantasy. it is not a pretty fantasy, but then real erotic fantasies -- not the sanitized ones writers concoct because readers want to feel better about the unsavory fantasies they come up with on their own -- aren't pretty. we often feel ashamed of them.

so this is something i admire very much about her, that she puts her unsavory fantasy right there on the page and concedes nothing to commercialism.

another thing i admire about her is that she gives her due to the erotics of girls. she seems to me, in fact, to be a great chronicler of female adolescence. i don't remember the book well, but i do remember being struck by lauren's tremendous power. bankole may be condescending (i just don't remember), but lauren is the undisputed leader of her group. there is no group without lauren. she tells people what to do. they do it.

this seems to me an incredibly empowering fantasy -- that lauren has way more wisdom and strength than her mates, that she can express her sexuality and command that of others. (butler's choice of mates for her girl protagonists seems to me, also, to contain some lesbian repression, but that's another point altogether).

lauren's empathic "flaw" is both a strength (of course) and a weakness. what i love about this book and the other butler book i read (Fledgling) is that her protagonist's vulnerability does not diminish her strength. it is quite extraordinary and truly feminist, it seems to me, to give so much power to a young girl who can and does repeatedly fall apart. it seems real. it recognizes the fact of women's weakness even as it concedes nothing to male's physical superiority.

lastly, concerning earthseed. yeah, it put me off too, but what if we read that, too, as a teenage fantasy? what if butler wanted, in these books, to give voice that the young girl inside her who believes that the world can be set to right through simple ideas that are given to her magically? we have been there. we had the key to things. we knew better than anyone else. we possessed secret knowledge and superior understanding.

then the world hit us in the teeth.

well, butler resurrects the grandiosity of female adolescence and writes book after book describing it, uncensoredly.

Jennifer (aka EM) as usual, jo, you bring an incredible breadth of perspective and offer a way of looking at this novel that I hadn't considered.

I want to think more carefully about your comments, but my initial response is that I saw lauren has having power because she had foresight -- something no other character had (with the exception perhaps of her father). That, plus her tenacious belief in the Earthseed philosophy (she referred repeatedly to "persistence") and her charisma enabled her to lead. I definitely saw her as a leader, and see the novel in some ways as an examination of leadership.

Let me mull over your comments and come back to you with a more thought-through response after I reflect a bit...there is lots to examine when it comes to the presentation of sexuality in this novel. It was integral to group cohesion, to cementing alliances and trust, but I have to confess I was both annoyed by and felt a certain level of distate for the Bankole/Lauren relationship.

More later ...

message 14: by Zach (new) - rated it 3 stars

Zach jo, you made some good points there but I really have to disagree with "so this is something i admire very much about her, that she puts her unsavory fantasy right there on the page and concedes nothing to commercialism."

older-man-gets-young-woman is like commercial erotic fantasy #1

Julia Let me offer small correction to Jennifer's review.

Lauren is not the only one with empathy is n the book. At the beginning there are many: her father, stepmother, many neighbors, etc. What Lauren has is something else alltogether. She has hyperempathy, because of a drug her mother took, she feels other's pain.

As for her father, he's Atticus Finch. And Bankhole is her father-surrogate. In that time, place and situation, where we saw so much more disgusting sexuality, I thought this was fairly benign.

As for comparisons to The Road, Lauren's innocence, knowledge of survival techniques and her religion/ philosophy/ cult make this novel soooo much easier to read and believe.

message 16: by Calico (new)

Calico That's a bad comparison.

McCarthy produces high quality literature. He possesses a mastery of vocabulary, description, and metaphor, and (despite being a prolific author) The Road was his first excursion into the less competitive science fiction genre.

Due to her limited prowess, Butler barely passes as a science fiction author. Her mastery of language and narrative parallels that of the Twighlight series. This "novel" was exceptionally literal, unimaginative, and poorly articulated.

I suspect the high praise stems from inner city student groups, like those depicted in Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, or Precious.

If you like listening to broken Coolio records, and get excited reading the same words and perspectives, this book is for you. If you teach marginally educated, reverse racist students, within an inner city school, this book has been prescribed to you.

But don't compare it to literature.

message 17: by Zach (new) - rated it 3 stars

Zach Highly educated and articulate DEFENDER OF WHITE LITERATURE can't spell "twilight" and makes Coolio references in 2012. Film at 11.

message 18: by Kate (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kate Copeseeley Insightful and well-written review. What I don't understand is why so many people have a problem with the religious element. To me, it was the by-product of a young girl in terrible circumstances who had nothing else to turn to. She said herself that God meant nothing to her, because of all that He seemed to turn his attention away from. In response, she looking for meaning in a meaningless world, by creating something that made sense to her. It may not be relevant or understandable to us, but it is to her character. :)

back to top