Wednesday 10 March 2021

Wertzone Classics: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Los Angeles, 2024. The United States is dying a slow death. Law and order is confined to isolated, walled-off communities and city centres. The suburbs are warzones of inequality and crime, subject to warlords and corporate exploitation. Police and ambulances won't leave protected areas without hefty fees. Rising sea levels are swamping coastal communities. One community on the outskirts of the city has become a haven of kindness and safety, a refuge founded by a preacher who wants to protect his family and neighbours. His daughter, Lauren Oya Olamina, a "sharer" who can feel other people's pain and suffering, making her empathetic to their needs. When their safe haven is no longer safe, the inhabitants have to consider a dangerous journey to try to escape.

Parable of the Sower was originally published in 1993 and has become a widely-acknowledged classic of science fiction. Inhabiting a similar space to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, it describes the collapse of the United States. Unlike that novel, the cause is not infertility, fascism or religious fundamentalism, but apparently simple overload. The country is no longer able to cope with the assaults on its foundations from multiple directions and it flounders and sinks, almost permitting a decline and an assault from within and without on its values. There are echoes of the fall of the Roman Empire here, with the idea of such a mighty superpower laid low not by a headline-leading single event, but the accumulation of lots of small issues over decades.

The novel's success is not in presenting this collapse - a quiet apocalypse - as a spectacle, but as background to the everyday life of its protagonist. Lauren is concerned about the big picture of how events are falling out and has a dream about how to confront it, but is more consumed by day-to-day life in her community. She and her friends can only go out in groups where some of them are armed, and maintaining supplies of food, water and essentials is difficult against a backdrop of seeming governmental indifference to the spreading chaos. The attention to detail is superb, with Butler painting Lauren's life as one under extreme pressure but under which life continues: she has boyfriends, she has friendships and she maintains her family relationships despite the dangers of the world around them.

Later in the book the story shifts to a road trip where parallels to post-apocalyptic stories like The Road and even The Walking Dead can be made, but all the more powerful here because there isn't a supernatural horror stalking the characters or some vague massive holocaust. Instead it's just people, people who have broken the world and other people wanting to put it back together and others who want to build something better, something new and enduring. Strangers are to be treated with caution, as some are dangerous and only want to rob or harm you; others are good people who just need a reason to show their good side.

Butler's prose is poetic and raw, capturing the mood and thoughts of a teenage girl frustrated by the world, one who uniquely understands its pain because she can feel it in the thoughts of other people. Her grasp of characterisation is strong, with each character painted vividly through Lauren's eyes, sometimes wrongly, with early impressions that a character might be trouble or a hero later shown to be the reverse of what is actually the case.

The book's strength might be its tone and suggestion that things might actually just fall apart due to pressure. There might not be an asteroid strike, or a nuclear war, or a global pandemic to bring things crashing down, it might just be that the collective will to make a society work fails. But there's also a line of hope running through the novel, a note of hope, that people can better than they sometimes are, and humanity is, for all its flaws, worthy of being saved.

Parable of the Sower (*****) is a rich and compelling novel from one of science fiction's master voices. It is available in the UK and USA now. A sequel, Parable of the Talents, was published in 1998.

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