By Octavia Butler
I’m writing the reviews for both these books together because, honestly, I struggle to remember exactly where the first ends and the second begins – because in the first we see the story from Lauren’s point of view, then the second involves her daughter, Larkin, looking through her journals, and so again from Lauren. I’m sure you’ve read these two books because they’re on your Kindle and you recommended them to me, but if not: Parable of the Sower takes place in the U.S. in the early 21st century, after we have essentially killed the land and brought the world to a dystopian era of poverty and a generally terrible environment. The main character, Lauren Olamina, begins creating her own Bible of sorts, called Earthseed, and wants to create a community of people based off these beliefs. The new President in the book has an eerie resemblance to the current one. The second book takes place years later, from the point of view of Lauren’s daughter Larkin, who is reading her mother’s journals and trekking her own journey of finding her mother.
I have so many thoughts and emotions connected to these books, and I’m going to be quite spoiler-y while expressing them since you’ve read it.
First: when we are first introduced to Lauren as a child, and she comes up with this odd idea of Earthseed – well, as a child, I came up with entire worlds and religions and families, and that was it, you know? I’ve got journals on journals somewhere in my home with my 10-year-old self’s thoughts scribbled in them, but they started and ended with me. Lauren speaks to her friend about Earthseed, but even though she was so convinced, I didn’t think so much of Earthseed because she was so young. And isn’t that what young people do, get fixated on a thing then eventually grow out of it? I didn’t actually think that Earthseed would grow the way it did. But it still seemed like a kind, innocent belief system (again, because she’s young, and children come up with good things), and even at the end of the book when she has these friends creating Acorn, that was it. Sweet, but that’s all. So my point is, at some point when her daughter’s explaining the expansion of Earthseed and how it’s grown, I was so surprised! I mean, you have a woman who went from wanting people to believe her religion to becoming a God – a bit like preachers or whatever I hear of in the U.S. who have TV programmes and stadiums for their sermons. It was really disconcerting. So the second half of the book left me so disillusioned, because she started off noble and wanting this paradigm shift, and by the end, it felt like she’d become something less pure.
Mind you, this made for incredible character development and, on hindsight, we see the sort of leader she would be even when she was making emergency bags in her home and was right to – but it was still odd.
Second: this would have gone first, because it was my most prominent thought reading the book but I didn’t want to start off so serious – if I knew an apocalypse was coming, I would get sterilised. Because the only thing that seems to be a certainty in war is that men hurt, and women get raped. I mean, there are so many instances in the books of different sorts of pain, but even there it’s implied that the worst is always rape (whether it is better to get raped than some other sort of torture, I don’t know and have no desire to find out). The way you have these ‘sharers’ who feel other people’s emotions, and those girls who had to feel their rapists’ joy while they themselves were in pain? Or that scene where she’s faced with her dead husband and feels her own grief but also her captors’ pleasure? I think those were some of the most powerful moments of the book. But yeah, book left me a bit unsettled because, of course it happens and happens often, but the absolute frequency? To these children? Or just to any one girl in the middle of war? Just reading it made my heart ache a bit (a lot).
I thought the books dived into how cruel ordinary people could be in the course of their ordinary lives. Specifically, I remember when she visits the shelter of the church her brother works at, and she thinks maybe the church and the people who invaded her camp were different, but she sees one of the men at this church shelter who raped her friend most painfully every time he visited. Now, I haven’t read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (the one on the banality of evil), but reading these descriptions of men and women in a religion/state/system which gave them specific roles and which had a powerful majority paradigm in play – well, I’ll get around to reading that book, and I think it’ll be interesting to see whether we could understand these people’s motivations using the book. That book is about the Holocaust, but I think it’s possible to draw a few parallels given the systematic imprisoning, murder, separation of parents from children, etc. in the Parables.
Third: okay, I don’t remember exactly, but how large was the age difference between Bankole and Lauren? I found that a bit… odd. Nice for her to find love and all, but still odd.
Fourth: I liked the way they explored religion. You obviously have Earthseed and “God is Change” at the centre of it all. But Earthseed exists in opposition to Christianity, since her Dad’s a Baptist, and also Islam, I think – since Zahra has a name like that and seemed difference (can’t recall, though, if you do, holla at me). I enjoyed Earthseed, for one. If I had met Lauren on a journey where she saved my life and offered me a home and a religion that just preached that everything changes and that change rules all like some odd variation of Darwin’s evolution, I would have jumped straight on that bandwagon. But I took many screenshots of pages – of verses of Earthseed. Because they were beautiful, and lyrical, and gave me hope. So, as far as religions go, this one wasn’t so bad!
Until later, anyway; anything that grows that large always fills me with suspicion. I think that our changing perspective of Lauren and Earthseed is also telling; we realise even a religion borne out of the innocence and kindness of a child can become more than it is and twisted by human bias, agendas, and interests. And the President Jared is a fine example of how Christianity can be (and was, in the book) perverted the same way. So I thought that the books ultimately did a great job of showing us how – well, like Earthseed purports, “All we touch, we Change.”
Fifth: I remember the first time you talked to me about these books, it was because you’d just read an excerpt of the President’s campaign, and you went, “She wrote this in 1993!” and how nothing has changed. So these books could win an award for omniscience, or real-world foreshadowing: after all, we do have a President of the Free World (lol) who is the king of capitalists, who does not believe in climate change, and isn’t particularly, uh, at the forefront of feminism (lolol) – so a lot of the realities of the book seem like, maybe not by 2024, but if things continued down the path they’re currently on, they don’t seem outside the realm of possibility. Which is terrifying. But also interesting, how these were concerns of Butler in 1993, and they probably receded over the last 20 years, and now they’re back at the front of the world’s agenda.
Anyway, I truly enjoyed reading both books. If a novel’s power is in the suspension of disbelief, then both books did an astounding job doing so. At no point in this science fiction did I think – this is science fiction. The reason these aren’t on the Must Read, though, is because I didn’t feel hugely connected to the characters. Lauren herself has an almost detached voice (maybe because of her hyperempathy in the book, the way she dictates and thinks tries to be as distanced as possible) and people kept dying and getting hurt; I found it difficult to stay very connected to any one character, even her. Obviously it was well written, so when a young child or a man get shot or something, you do feel that quite keenly, but it never felt like I was personally invested in what they were going through. But I feel like that might have been on purpose, I’m not sure. It was still fantastic.