During my college years in the mid-1990s, I worked in a largely black neighborhood and frequently stopped in to a small, cluttered corner drugstore to pick up snacks and drinks. As I do everywhere, I’d also scour the book and magazine racks for anything that looked interesting. We’re not talking about a bookstore here—the selection was small, and mostly limited to relatively recent and popular work—but what it did have going for it was a much larger assortment of books by African-American authors than I was used to seeing at my usual book haunts.
Though it didn’t provide my first exposure to Octavia Butler—Dawn was already one of my favorite books, regardless of genre—this tiny drugstore was one of the first places I saw works of science fiction by a black author (a black woman) prominently displayed: copies of Dawn, Clay’s Ark, and Parable of the Sower, with stunning covers (by artist John Jude Palencar) centering depictions of people of color. I later learned that Palencar created the covers in collaboration with Warner Books art director Don Puckey and editor Betsy Mitchell in a direct attempt to correct a problem with earlier editions of the novels, which had been, at best, ambiguous in terms of representing the books’ characters and themes. At worst, they were outright deceptive: the original cover of Dawn, a book explicitly about a black woman’s experiences, depicted two unambiguously white women.
These covers emphasized, rather than obscured, the fact that these books were about people of color—and in most cases, black women. Seeing them in this context struck me; it was the first time I gave much thought to the fact that what is emphasized on a book’s cover is an important as what’s not, and the fact that the extent to which my ideas of science fiction as a genre for white men (I am both, it should be said) had more to do with shelf placement and cover art than with the quality and volume of work being produced. In the years since, I’ve come to understand just how much harder many brilliant black science fiction authors (Butler among them) had to fight simply to have their work acknowledged and placed on the shelves alongside their white contemporaries—and not only in black-owned corner groceries.
That brings me back to Parable of the Sower, one of Butler’s most visceral, accomplished works, and one that’s being rereleased this month in a beautiful new edition with a foreword by award-winning author N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, How Long ’til Black Future Month?).
Parable of the Sower is set in an uncomfortably near future (the novel was originally published in 1993 and the story is set somewhere in the 2020s). The science fiction trappings are minimal—the tone has a bit more in common with her breakthrough novel Kindred, which is a time travel novel without a time machine, than with the hard sci-fi of the Xenogenesis trilogy. Any futuristic technology is does include is regardless out of reach of the novel’s protagonist. Lauren Oya Olamina is a teenager growing up near Los Angeles with a unique disability: she’s a “sharer,” a hyper-empathetic person who feels the physical pain (and pleasure) of others. There’s nothing mystical about it—Lauren only imagines the sensations, though that doesn’t make them any less real to her.
Lauren and her family are what passes for middle class in this new world, at least along the California coast. We don’t know much about the state of the rest of the world, save for the overheard rumors that prospects are slightly better up north. They don’t have much money, but their walled and gated community provides a measure of security. Leaving the neighborhood to commute to work is a life-threatening proposition: only done at certain times, when well-armed, and preferably in groups. Walking over the corpses of victims of crime, hunger, and exposure to the elements isn’t at all uncommon. For children and teenagers, the time when dogs were friendly companions rather than dangerous scavengers has receded into legend. So, even given the somewhat privileged position of Lauren and her neighbors: things aren’t great. The country’s political leadership is ineffectual at best, and the real power is on the ground, with white-supremacist zealots on one side and roving gangs on the other.
The families are lucky to have a gate, and walls—until they’re not. The barriers slow down the encroaching outside world, but also advertise the neighborhood as a place with items of value. At a time when walls were less in the news, Butler understood the lesson of history: the idea of absolute safety and security that we crave is a myth, only existing in our imaginations and the speeches of politicians. Ultimately, the walls come down, and Lauren is left to fend for herself before gradually drawing together a multi-racial group of companions.
In one sense, this is the stuff of the best dystopian science fiction: a real-life warning made fictional. Even in 1993, Butler understood climate change could well be the spark that ignites the dry kindling of race, class, and religious strife into a conflagration that will consume our nation. If anything, those issues are even more pressing a quarter-century later. While the decade of the 2020s may yet pass uneventfully, it’s eerie reading the book at this moment in history—Butler’s future is almost upon us, and it only feels more plausible by the day.
But the author is up to something a bit more complex even than that. Some of the very best dystopian stories have already made their points before they’ve even begun: they suggest that we’re in the process of wrecking our world, and then show us what a wrecked world will look like. What Parable of the Sower does is harder: it asks how empathy and hope can survive in a kill-or-be-killed world. What kind of person is able to live long enough to plan their own future while not entirely abandoning the rest of humanity? Lauren is a good person, essentially, but all the good will in the world can’t compensate for the fact that strength and cold calculation are the only currencies worth a damn in her future.
Lauren and her companions travel a literal road, but also undertake a figurative journey toward hope for a better tomorrow. Along either path they’ll encounter humanity at its worst: people who will commit murder for a few dollars or scraps of feed or on a whim, because they’ve forgotten (or never knew) how to live any other way. Lauren kills when endangered—sometimes with a coldness that shocks her companions—but never cavalierly. She’s an empath in the least pleasant world imaginable—every act of violence that she commits rebounds upon herself. Most of the people she encounters aren’t so restricted. Still, she understands there’s no hope without survival.
Along this path, Lauren develops her own religion and invests her hopes and dreams within it. The book’s title references the Christian biblical parable about a farmer spreading seeds—some land on inhospitable ground, some are taken by birds, but some—only some—land on fertile soil. So it is with Lauren’s philosophy, which she calls Earthseed. In her reckoning, God is change personified. As in various forms of Buddhism, change, for better and worse, is inevitable and unstoppable. Lauren’s Earthseed also advises us that, just as change shapes us, so too can we shape change. Adaptability, Lauren comes to believe, is the one truly indispensable attribute.
“All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change Changes you.”
I haven’t talked much about the book’s racial politics: about Lauren as a young, disabled, poor black woman, a leader in a world of marginalization and rampant sexual violence.;or about the parallels between Lauren’s development of a revolutionary philosophy and the growth of our own world’s social justice and civil rights movements. It’s all there. Between this book and its sequel, Parable of the Talents (also being reissued in a matching edition), Butler offers complex takes on both the costs of marginalization and the ways in which gender complicates racial politics. The reason I haven’t talked much about any of that is because N.K. Jemisin touches upon most of it in her foreword to the new edition; certainly she’s far better qualified than I am to interpret Butler’s vision of racial justice.
Even among Butler’s varied and accomplished body of work, Parable of the Sower stands alone (well, almost—there is that follow-up). It’s a dystopian, near-apocalyptic work set in a world broken by violence and incredible cruelty, in which even the most kind-hearted characters are forced to compromise. It’s also, conversely, one of her most hopeful books. Its hope is hard won, but Lauren Oya Olamina promises her followers that her philosophy has the potential to lead humanity out of the mire and to a grander destiny among the stars—though she knows she may not make it there herself.
Lauren knows the future is worth fighting for, even if the fight isn’t going to be easy or pretty. Butler’s vision of hard-won hope in challenging times is more essential now then ever before, and well worth seeking out in this new edition.