Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Source of book: I own this.


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Although we often tend to read books I would not have otherwise discovered, this one was an exception. I really enjoyed reading Kindred back in 2015, and had intended to read this one at some point. In what is an interesting coincidence, our current political and environmental climate - massive wildfires across the western United States yet again, civil unrest, police brutality, vigilantes with guns, and so on - led to this book shooting to the top of the bestseller lists. Which is something that Octavia Butler never achieved during her lifetime. 


Parable of the Sower is a dystopian book. It might even be considered “post-apocalyptic,” but it lacks the usual catastrophic single event that you would expect. Instead, it is a gradual disintegration of society as the result of specific forces that were obvious back in 1993 when Butler wrote the book, and even more so now. 


Climate change has rendered large areas of the United States nearly uninhabitable. Southern California, where the book is set, hasn’t experienced rain in over a year, and water must be purchased at exorbitant cost. Wildfires have scorched most of the forests. Cuts to social programs combined with runaway corporate power have led to mass homelessness and joblessness, which means Los Angeles and other cities are filled with the desperately poor and starving, armed gangs and looters, and police that are privatized and thus make their money from fees for investigations - and whatever they can extort. Inequality has divided society into the ultra-wealthy who have private armies, and everyone else, who are reduced to fighting each other for survival. While the federal government is nominally intact, the states themselves are creating borders to keep out refugees from other states. 


There are only a few safe(ish) havens. Lauren, an African American teen, lives in a neighborhood in what is either the western San Fernando Valley, Simi Valley, or the Thousand Oaks area. (That’s my old stomping ground, so I know it from the description, despite the fictional name.) The neighborhood is racially integrated, and cooperates to defend itself, building walls, keeping armed watch, and so on. The residents generally have some means of support, unlike the poor outside the walls. Lauren’s dad works as a college professor and moonlights as the preacher for the neighborhood church. 


The only other safe alternatives are the enclaves of the ultra-rich, defended by automatic weapons and private soldiers, and newly created company towns, owned by foreign - Asian - corporations and paying starvation wages in exchange for security. Unsurprisingly, jobs at the company towns are limited - in practice - to whites and Asians.


Lauren knows that her relative security can’t last. As the ranks of the desperate grow, and use of the drug “pyro,” which gives its users an orgasmic reaction to fire increases, their neighborhood will be under increasing attack. 


This does in fact happen, after which, her family dead, Lauren sets off with two surviving neighbors, heading north to where she can carry out her “earthseed” plan. Once she reaches an out-of-the-way place where it still rains, she can use her stock of seeds (and knowledge) to establish a sustainable community. As part of this, she essentially creates her own religious tradition, based on the foundational precept that “God is Change.” 


The book is divided into two sections by that catastrophic event. The first half is rather domestic, centering around the drama in Lauren’s family. Her younger half-brother Keith, who she thinks has sociopathic tendencies, steals one of the family guns and goes outside the neighborhood. While we never know the details, he probably gets involved with one of the gangs, eventually dying violently. 


The second half is the story of the journey Lauren makes, picking up followers as she goes. In some ways, the book forms a pyramid (or inverted pyramid) shape. From relative security and cohesion through an utter breakdown and catastrophe, then a gradual building back of society on a very small scale, as the group learns (re-learns, really) how to trust each other. 


One final piece to the puzzle is that Lauren is a “sharer.” That is, she has hyperempathy. She feels the pain and pleasure of others whether she wants to or not. When she was younger, she would literally bleed when others did, but has learned to protect herself a bit better. This causes issues later, because she and others have to kill to defend themselves, which incapacitates her for a period afterward. 


Added to all of the outside stuff happening, we get to experience Lauren’s interior life, as she narrates the story. The tale opens with Lauren explaining how she lost her belief in the Christian god, and has begun to formulate her own philosophy or religion. 


A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of.

Some say God is a spirit, a force, an ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you’ll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected? 


Lauren goes on to muse about a hurricane that has killed hundreds of people, most of them poor. 


That’s nature. Is it God? Most of the dead are the street poor who have nowhere to go and who don’t hear the warnings until it’s too late for their feet to take them to safety. Where’s safety for them anyway? Is it a sin against God to be poor? We’re almost poor ourselves. There are fewer and fewer jobs among us, more of us being born, more kids growing up with nothing to look forward to. One way or another, we’ll all be poor some day. The adults say things will get better, but they never have. How will God - my father’s God - behave toward us when we’re poor?


Ultimately, this has been my most intractable problem with Evangelical doctrine. Because of political necessity - wholesale commitment to the policies of the Republican Party, including social darwinism - there is the inevitable conclusion that being poor IS somehow a sin. And related to that, it appears that their god really likes middle class white people better than anyone else. Is that even possible? It certainly is the opposite of the teachings and life of Christ. 


Ultimately, Lauren distills her thoughts into a poetic statement on the nature of God - the one she believes is right, true, and has held up over time. 


God is Power -





And yet, God is Pliable -





God exists to be shaped.

God is Change. 


This statement, in various forms, recurs throughout the book, particularly in the chapter headings, where various parts of Lauren’s “earthseed” notebook are quoted. Here are some other quotes:



Initiates and guides action -

Or it does nothing.


I am reminded of James 2:18: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Over the last few years, a lot of family and former friends have gotten really furious when I have pointed out that their deeds do not indicate Christian beliefs. As in, you cannot claim to follow Christ and advocate for building walls to keep refugees out. Put up or shut up. You want to be a white nationalist? Fine. Just don’t claim to be a Christian. If your belief does not guide you to act in accordance with Christ’s teachings, then it is worthless. 


This next one really hits home in our own times. It is as good of a description of how conservative white people - and especially Evangelicals - have handled a changing world. 


When apparent stability disintegrates,

As it must -

God is Change - 

People tend to give in

To fear and depression,

To need and greed.

When no influence is strong enough

To unify people

They divide.

They struggle,

One against one,

Group against group,

For survival, position, power.

They remember old hates and generate new ones,

They create chaos and nurture it.

They kill and kill and kill,

Until they are exhausted and destroyed,

Until they are conquered by outside forces,

Or until one of them becomes

A leader

Most will follow,

Or a tyrant

Most fear. 


That’s all you need to know about why Evangelicals love and worship Trump. They want a tyrant. Someone who can restore them to glory, and destroy their perceived enemies - those other groups against which they remember the old hates and generate new ones. 


And this one:


All struggles

Are essentially

power struggles.

Who will rule,

Who will lead,

Who will define,




Who will dominate.

All struggles

Are essentially

power struggles,

And most 

are no more intellectual

than two rams

knocking their heads together.


In some ways, the descent of the Republican party into a raw exercise of power by any means and at whatever cost has really laid this reality bare. And our current divided nation is mostly about a certain power struggle. For all of our existence, power has been exercised by white males. They have been able to rule, and even define the terms of perceived reality. More recently, however, women have gained significant power, as have minorities of all kinds. The hegemony is crumbling, and that terrifies and infuriates those used to unquestioned power. This goes double for Evangelicalism, which is rapidly shrinking and growing old, and will probably cease to be a significant political force within a generation or two. As noted above, rather than finding a way to lead, to inspire others, to gain converts, they have chosen to lash out against their perceived enemies, and commit suicide to spite them. Lauren gives an alternative as well, one that we would all do well to embrace. 


Embrace diversity.

Unite - 

Or be divided,




By those who see you as prey.

Embrace diversity

Or be destroyed.


That is the irony. It is only by embracing diversity that we can unite. Both the GOP and Evangelicalism have spent the last few decades screaming against diversity, and expelling and alienating anyone who doesn’t fit the preferred cultural (and often ethnic) mold. And both are paying the price. 


I find I have quoted quite a lot of the “earthseed” poems. There are also a few prose musings, such as the following:


Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.

Civilization, like intelligence, may serve well, serve adequately, or fail to serve its adaptive function. When civilization fails to serve, it must disintegrate unless it is acted upon by unifying internal or external forces.


Again, we are seeing this today. The primary reason that civilization is failing to serve us well right now is that a certain segment of our civilization believes that the others are not necessary or desirable to our civilization, and thus should be...well, not openly exterminated, but encouraged not to reproduce. And also, incarcerated at the highest rate of any country, brutalized by police, starved of adequate income, healthcare, and education, and so on. (See, particularly, the unfortunately influential theories of Charles Murray.) Rebuilding our civilization requires that we see that we are all responsible for each other. We are our brother’s keeper - arguably the central theme of Christ’s teaching. 


Lauren writes the “earthseed” notebook for a particular purpose, which she explains alongside her plans to create a survival pack she can grab in an emergency. (It ends up saving her life later.) 


I’m going to go through my old journals and gather the verses I’ve written into one volume...Then, someday when people are able to pay more attention to what I say than to how old I am, I’ll use these verses to pry them loose from the rotting past, and maybe push them into saving themselves and building a future that makes sense. 


There is a lot of good stuff in that paragraph. First, I very much resonate with the problem of people paying more attention to my age than what I say. Saint Paul advised Timothy to let no one look down on him because of his youth, but I doubt Timothy had much say in the matter. Even now, in my mid-40s, most (thankfully not all) Baby Boomers I know believe that they know better, and that when I “grow up” I’ll agree with them. The number of times my opinion has been completely disregarded on matters that directly affect me and my family is astounding. They always know better. That is one Lauren experiences too, of course. Her warnings that the neighborhood cannot last forever, and that the old ways will not return are discounted. The old folks believe with just a few more years, some better politicians, and the right beliefs, everything will be as it was. Except it won’t. Just like now, we cannot return to a mostly white America, or a mostly Evangelical America. It isn’t happening. We cannot simply continue to destroy our atmosphere and believe that it will “be cooling down again soon,” as Hair Furor says. It is time to listen to younger people, not brush them off. 


The second thing there is related. So many need to be pried loose from the rotting past, and start working toward a future that makes sense - a sustainable future, a more egalitarian future, one that is based in our current reality rather than nostalgia for a golden age that never was. 


I also made a note of a fascinating conversation that ties in with that idea. Travis is the man in a family that joins the group near Ventura after Lauren, Harry, and Zahra save them. 


“I still can’t see change or entropy as God,” Travis said, bringing the conversation back to Earthseed. 

“Then show me a more pervasive power than change,” I said. “It isn’t just entropy. God is more complex than that. Human behavior alone should teach you that much. And there’s still more complexity when you’re dealing with several things at once - as you always are. There are all kinds of changes in the universe.” 

He shook his head. “Maybe, but nobody’s going to worship them.”

“I hope not,” I said. “Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your effort, eases your mind.”

He gave me an unhappy smile. “Praying makes people feel better even when there’s no action they can take,” he said. “I used to think that was all God was good for - to help people like my mother stand what they had to stand.”

“That isn’t what God is for, but there are times when that’s what prayer is for. And there are times when that’s what these verses are for. God is Change, and in the end, God prevails.

“But there’s no power in having strength and brains, and yet waiting for God to fix things for you or take revenge for you.” 

Why personify change by calling it God? Since change is just an idea, why not call it that? Just say change is important.

“Because after a while, it won’t be important!” I told him. “People forget ideas. They’re more likely to remember God - especially when they’re scared or desperate.”

“Then they’re supposed to do what?” he demanded. “Read a poem?”

“Or remember a truth or a comfort or a reminder to action,” I said. “People do that all the time. They reach back to the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, or some other religious book that helps them deal with the frightening changes that happen in life.”

“Change does scare most people.”

“I know. God is frightening. Best learn to cope.”


I may not agree with all the theology there (and whether Butler spoke for herself is not clear), but there are some definite truths. For any religion to be functional and positive, rather than toxic and hateful, it has to deal with ongoing reality. It can’t just be about imposing a supernatural authority figure on those who do not believe, or it will die of its own inertia. Also true is the fact that we remember things from religion. Although my own beliefs are no longer remotely Evangelical these days, I remain a believer in Christ and one who wishes and tries to follow his teachings. In these unstable times, through several crises of faith, loss of family and community, I draw on those truths, comforts, and reminders to action. 


I have mostly looked at the philosophy, which is kind of the opposite of what our club did. There are a lot of interesting plot points to discuss, and the world Butler creates is a fertile ground for contemplation. The book is scary mostly because it isn’t some crazy apocalyptic horror. Rather, it seems entirely plausible. We hope it isn’t inevitable, but we can’t just sit back and hope - we have to take action to avoid it. 


One thing that we discussed that was of particular interest to me is how Lauren assembled her community. In order to gain “followers,” so to speak, she had to be cautious. After all, most of the people they meet would be happy to kill them and take their money, guns, and property. (Sadly, lawyers do not appear to be a valuable post-apocalyptic asset.) Lauren has to figure out who to trust, and who not to trust. Her empathy isn’t a help here, by the way. She can feel pain, but everyone has pain. Some with pain hurt others. Lauren uses a combination of instinct and careful observation. Some things are obvious, of course. Parents with small children or infants are likely not a threat, because children create huge dangers for travel. On the other hand, they may endanger the group. Groups of young men are, on the other hand, a serious threat. Lauren also has to manage racial distrust. Harry, a somewhat clueless white guy from her neighborhood, escapes with her and Zahra, a young woman sold to a neighbor as a plural wife. (Her street smarts serve the group well, although her suspicious nature causes conflicts occasionally.) Harry is a bit like the husband in Kindred, though. He is a good enough guy, but naive and unused to having to fight for survival, rather than coasting on privilege. One of the eventual traits of the group as a whole is its diversity. They have interracial couples, former slaves, former professionals, and both normals and “sharers.” The diversity becomes the strength. 


I want to mention too the prescient view of how policing - and privatized policing - work for minorities. Throughout the journey, the travelers have to shop at stores for necessities, using the saved money they have plus any money they find on the dead. The stores are, for obvious reasons, heavily guarded. 


The security guards were as well-armed as the cops - shotguns and automatic rifles, a couple of machine guns on tripods in cubicles above us. Bankole said he could remember a time when security guards had revolvers or nothing but clubs. My father used to talk like that.

Some of the guards either weren’t very well trained - or they were almost as power-drunk as the scavengers. They pointed their guns at us. It was crazy. Two or three of us walked into a store and two or three guns were trained on us. We didn’t know what was going on at first. We froze, waiting to see what was going to happen. 

The guys behind the guns laughed. One of them said, “Buy something or get the fuck out!” 

We got out. These were little stores. There were plenty of them to choose from. Some of them turned out to have sane guards. I couldn’t help wondering how many accidents the crazy guards have with those guns. I suppose after the fact, every accident was an armed robber with obvious homicidal inclinations. 


This isn’t that big of an exaggeration. Literally every African American friend or colleague I have talked to over the years has at least one - usually dozens - of stories of being followed around stores, and told to “buy something or get the fuck out.” And, as the last few years have captured on video, every time someone kills an unarmed black person, it seems to be covered up with “he was really a threat.” Even Brionna Taylor was nearly framed by a crooked prosecutor. And how about this one, describing the chaos in the Bay Area, with gangs and the police alike robbing, killing, or raping the refugees from the violence:


The National Guard has been activated to restore order, and I suppose it might. But I suspect that in the short term, it will only add to the chaos. What else could another group of well armed people do in such an insane situation? The thoughtful ones might take their guns and other equipment and vanish to help their families. Others might find themselves at war with their own people. They’ll be confused and scared and dangerous. Of course, some will discover that they enjoy their new power - the power to make others submit, the power to take what they want - property, sex, life…


That sounds probable. After all, the police already have a lot of those sorts, who get off on power. I have encountered a lot of them in my life, sadly. 


Near the end, when they have nearly reached their destination in Mendocino County, where Bankole has family property they can use to form their community, Lauren discusses again, this time with Bankole, the older former doctor who has joined them, the ideas behind earthseed. One of the elements is the goal of eventually leaving Earth to colonize other worlds - hence “earthseed.” Bankole notes that this fills the role of “heaven” in the theology. A chance to create something, “A heaven that will be theirs to shape,” as Lauren puts it. Bankole comes back with a perceptive reply. 


“Or a hell,” he said. His mouth twitched. “Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.”


Isn’t that the truth. 


Parable of the Sower was originally intended to be the first of a trilogy. The second book, set two generations later, Parable of the Talents, apparently has a president elected on his promises of a theocracy and his slogan “Make America Great Again!” Wait, what? Yes, that was over twenty years ago. To be fair, Trump didn’t invent MAGA, he stole it from Ronald Reagan, who used it in a much more benign context, saying that immigrants have always made America great, so making America great again meant embracing immigrants. (Yeah, the GOP sure has changed….) The third book, alas, never got written. Butler made notes and some fits and starts, but got distracted with what would be her final novel before her death. 


This was a sobering book. But it was also hopeful. We humans have the choice to embrace and shape change. We can choose a different world, based on ongoing reality and looking toward the future, not the past. But we have to choose it. 



Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 


Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore


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