Octavia Butler‘s Parable of the Sower, the richly symbolic and subversive.story of Lauren Olamina, a prophet in the making, one finding her voice and her people in the midst of an America whose social order is collapsing around her, grows on you. The story line is sparse: the US’ accumulated social, political and environmental dysfunctions have grown out of control thanks to a myopic complacent populace; some fortunate families shelter in gated communities while urban war rages outside; rape, murder, and mayhem rule rampant; a young girl, convinced she has devised a new religion, Earthseed–whose central principles are that ‘God is Change’ and can be ‘shaped’–finds her sheltering life within these walls untenable, and leaves after yet another attack on them convinces her it is more dangerous inside than outside. From that point on, she accumulates a small band of fellow travelers and heads north to possible safety. On the way she finds further gruesome evidence of the end of the new world and dreams about a new one. The haven promised them turns out to be a burnt-out shelter, the larger world on a smaller scale–but she chooses to drop anchor and get to work on it. (I’ve not read the sequel Parable of the Talents yet, but I intend to. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, and it sets its action in the years 2025-2027. Though perhaps inevitable, I suspect it is besides the point to wonder if its speculations about a collapsing US are on the mark. The real story lies elsewhere. )
Parable of the Sower is subversive because the prophet is a young black girl, not an old white man. She is wise beyond her years. She is sexually active with young and old men alike; she can be harsh and soft. She is scientifically literate. She is hyperempathic–she can literally feel the pain of others. (This is a dangerous ‘blessing’ in a world with so much pain but Lauren comes to learn its limits and to live with it.) She is tough and resourceful and clever; we come to admire her as her dangerous journey progresses. We do not normally associate these qualities with people meeting Lauren’s description–not in this society anyway, with its dominant stereotypes and ideological frames of understanding. Just for this character, Parable of the Sower would have been an interesting and enlightening read.
But there is more. Earthseed seems a little new-ageish, but teasing out some of Lauren’s pronouncements enable an understanding of it as a kind of existentialist creed, one grounded in a richly interactionist. embedded, dynamic view of man and nature and cosmos. Heaven and hell are found here, around us, made by us, shaped by our actions; the old religions shrouded them in mystery but we live in them everyday. (The shrewd prophet uses that old word ‘God’ to make her religion easier to follow by those accustomed to old anthropomorphic deities.) In a world headed for hell in a handbasket this religion offers no solace, facilitates no finger-pointing; the blame is ours, but so may be the rewards for reconstructing it. No creed can, or should, offer more.