If there is one thing scarier than a dystopian novel about the future, it’s one written in the past that has already begun to come true. This is what makes The Parable of the Sower even more impressive than it was when first published.
Twenty-five years ago, the great Octavia Butler wrote this first volume of what was to be a trilogy. She died at the tragically early age of 58, but we are lucky to have this novel and its sequel, Parable of the Talents. Its title refers to the Biblical verse that describes not the seed, but the differing grounds it falls on; a challenge to readers who will be the ground for seeds of warning.
Its story begins in a future California that has become divided into three overlapping worlds: the powerful who own and control water, electricity and the growth of food; the struggling middle population of those who live in walled communities, protect themselves with guns, and do their best to hang onto an order of the past; and the homeless, illiterate, dying, and prostituted of the city streets and countryside who rob the living and scavenge among unburied corpses that lie where ever they fell.
In all these worlds, water costs more than gasoline, police and firefighters serve only those who can pay, literacy is rare enough to be a marketable skill, designer drugs compel an obsession with fire, and no one is safe from robbery or rape or burning despite arms, walls, locked gates and layers of protection.
It is in this middle population in walled communities, struggling to preserve a past order, that we meet a teenager named Lauren. She is our narrator. She is smart and subject to hope and fear, friends and betrayals. She is also afflicted with hyperempathy syndrome, something she inherited from her drug-addicted mother. It causes her to feel the pain of any living being around her, including animals, yet the pain may be so great that it immobilizes her and she cannot help the one who is suffering. Hyperempathy can become so painful that she helps the sufferer to die; Butler is no romantic about the cost of empathy. In Lauren’s own complicated life, we see her first with her family, then, as she loses them and begins to walk north through lawless territory, with a lover and disparate friends, then, as a leader who not only keeps the group together, but refuses to abandon them in order to be safer herself. She also is a poet who imagines the future. In a book called Earthseed: The Book of the Living, she tells us what was to be the theme of Butler’s book: “The destiny of the human race is to migrate to other planets and star systems.”
This does not mean I’m giving away the story. Events will hook you anyway by their immediacy, intimacy, and odd resonance with what we are already experiencing. In fact, you may find yourself carrying the plot forward in your mind long after you put the book down. For Butler, the future depends not only on a mega-force like global warming—which is depicted here in gradual and frightening reality of long droughts and then floods—but also on human behavior. She makes very clear that human behavior caused global warming, not the other way around; at least, not until it was almost too late. Unlike many in science fiction, but like such feminist science fiction writers as Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, and Marge Piercy, Butler doesn’t just create a future based on new science and new technology, she also shows the results of old human behavior that guides them.
In a science fiction world that was, in her lifetime, mostly by and for white male writers and readers, Octavia Butler has always been considered an oddity. She herself felt uniquely well-suited. As she explained: “I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider.” Her characters are young and old, Latina, African American, and more, all in the most natural and uniquely American of ways.
When young Lauren starts walking cross-country to save her future life, for instance, there is an echo of enslaved Africans walking north to save their lives in the past. In defining God, her characters come up with the idea that God is Change, the Truth of Life.
It’s not surprising that Octavia Butler became the first science fiction writer ever to receive a MacArthur “Genius” Award; or that she inspired millions of readers who had never seen themselves in science fiction or future fantasy before; or that African American science fiction writers, mostly but not only women, cite her as their almost sole inspiration; or that the science fiction books she read as a child were given to her mother by families who employed her as a maid; or that she now has been translated and read in countries around the world; or that her own life sounds like science fiction.
But as she often pointed out, what she wrote was neither science nor fiction, because “All struggles are essentially power struggles. Who will rule? Who will lead? Who will define, refine, confine, design?”
Octavia Butler was playing out our very real possibilities as humans. I think she can help each of us to do the same.
Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, activist, writer, and editor who has shaped debates on gender, politics, and art since the 1960s. Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio, and was raised by a single mother from her tenth year on. Cofounder of Ms. Magazine and a founding contributor of New York magazine, Steinem has also published numerous bestselling nonfiction titles. Through activism, lectures, constant traveling as an organizer, and appearances in the media over time, Steinem has worked to address institutional inequalities of sex, race, sexuality, class, and access to power in the United States and abroad. She lives in New York City.