(1993 /2019) Octavia Butler, Headline, £9.99, pbk, 311pp, ISBN 978-1-472-26366-7
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler is the first book of two in the 'Earthseed' series
In many ways this novel is difficult to read, but not because itís not well-written, but because itís so believable. The start of the novel is set in 2024 in America and it is definitely too close for comfort. Given it was first published in 1993, so presumably written some time before that, it is quite amazing how real it feels in 2020, only six years away from the setting.
Lauren Olamina lives in a gated community it far from Los Angeles, gated not because they value their privacy, but because they value their safety. Outside of the gates, gangs, drug addicts and homeless people make those who have apparent wealth, even just clothes, a target. The children of the community no longer travel to school, although many adults are forced to venture out to continue to work. The police are corrupt and only take an interest if someone pays them. The walls allow the community to grow a small amount of food in their gardens and to sleep safer at night, but even with a militia of armed guards and everyone being trained to use a gun, it might not be enough.
There is still a centralised government and they have some access to electronic news and communication, but the pronouncement of politicians seems so far from their day to day reality that it hardly means anything.
Stories from the north offering hope of a better land and a better life are tempting, but the road to get there is fraught with danger.
The book's themes cast both backwards in history and forwards to our possible future. The theme of a safer north, to escape the slavery of the south, echoes of runaway slaves in Americaís history while being very firmly set in the future, the idea that humanity has been here before and will be there again.
Themes of race and racialism underpin Laurenís experience, the practical considerations of how strangers will react to her, the concerns of having a mixed-race group and being judged for mixed race relationships is very real, but always shown in a nuanced way in the narrative rather than more blatantly. I think this style of addressing race-based issues has echoes in the more recent works of N. K. Jemisin.
The idea that individuals can only survive if they band together in supportive communities is perhaps the most obvious theme, Laurenís compassion to help others even when she has so little herself is what allows her to gather people and resources that help her to protect her community. That compassion and trust rarely turns out badly and reinforces the idea that irrespective of the larger world around us, we ourselves can change lives through our own actions. That it is not just by building walls to separate ourselves from others who have less, but by letting those less fortunate to share our wealth. A lesson that is very relevant today.
The other strong theme is that of religion, Lauren rejects the religion of her father and seeks her own truth is a changing world. How can you believe in a loving God when the circumstances in your life are so hard? However, if you believe that there are ways you can influence and shape your future, even to dream of going to the stars, then you can take comfort in this and the rituals and community that religion provides. These lull even those who question to start with until they themselves preach to those who question.
Overall this novel should be required reading for us to reflect on where we really could be in the next few years, it is well written, pulls you into the story and chillingly real.
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