Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.
This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Parable of the Sower by Octavia e Butler
We’re treating this review as a straight-up, simple review with Ana’s and Thea’s takes (instead of the usual discussion questions). We’ll give our opinions regarding the book, then we’ll ask YOU to join in.
Title: Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia E Butler
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: First published 1993
Paperback: 345 pages
When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.
Stand alone or series: First in the Earthseed series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE
Or be divided
By those who see you as prey.
Or be destroyed.
In a not-so-distant future, humanity is half way through the apocalypse as weather changes and the collapse of centrally powerful governments leads to the speedy fall of civil society. Lauren Olamina lives in one of the last safe, gated communities in LA, the hyper-empathic daughter of a pastor and the nascent thinker and leader of a new religion. When her home is destroyed, Lauren travels with a group of survivors toward a possible new beginning.
When reading (good) apocalyptic fiction I am always challenged to confront my (possible naïve) belief that humanity will not, cannot descend into savagery and chaos as soon as the first signs of the apocalypse show on the horizon. I always find it extremely hard to believe that humanity’s sense of preservation and survival instinct are intrinsically connected to its own self-mutilation. Because seriously, how stupid is that?
In Parable of the Sower, the idea that scarcity, poverty and the lack of government are enough to drive even the most benign person to murdering, thieving and raping in the name of survival is driven home by a powerfully convincing narrative. Because the world in which the protagonist lives in is violent and horrifying, the experience of reading Parable of Sower is both harrowing and powerful. Powerful because the author is very careful at examining the existing roots for this descent into savagery – in the book, the end of the world comes as economic, social, political factors collapse on themselves. One of the biggest aspects of this new world order is the increasing number of slaves – the poor made to work for new rich masters, bought and sold, the vast majority of them people of colour and including latinos. Horrifying as it sounds one cannot avoid to think how it’s been less than 150 years since actual systemised slavery has “ended” (quotation marks because it’s less straightforward than that) in the US and even less if you think about countries like Brazil where slavery was not abolished until 1888.
The point I think, is how the balance between the privileged and the not privileged is so precarious that it takes very little to shake it and that’s the foundation for the way things are in Parable of the Sower.
Another recurrent aspect of this in-the-middle-of-apocalypse is gendered violence and rape. The protagonist of the novel constantly describes attacks on women (children and elderly included) in such a casual way that it’s clear this is “just the way things are”. The novel is excellent at not ever ascribing essentialist gender roles or inherent “nature” according to the gender but the fact remains that it is the women who are raped in the novel.
I am always cautious about reading rape in fiction because of the way it is generally portrayed as background fodder to reinforce a sense of menace and violence as though rape only occurs in extreme situations and only when society fails. I’ve been thinking about the inclusion of rape in Parable of the Sower and I am torn about how I feel about it. On the one hand, the narrative shows this type of violence in an almost sanitised way, barely stopping to think about the effects on the survivors. One of the main secondary characters is raped and this is never explored in a meaningful way – it’s almost hand-wavey in what I feel, is a problematic way. On the other hand, it is easy to read the portrayal of this systematised, gendered violence as an almost inevitable result of our rape culture and sexist society and the way that we treat women’s bodies as commodities. I’d be really interested in hearing your thoughts on this.
In fairness too, the entire book and its overwhelming violence comes across as sanitised and detached because that’s Lauren’s voice. As someone with hyper-empathy, I read the detachment in her narrative as an important self-defence mechanism but one I feel can backfire depending on the reader. It did work for me as I understood this to be a narrative choice. What about you?
Last but not least, it is extremely important to note the empowering nature of Parable of Sower’s very premise and narrative focus. This is a book in which a young woman, a black woman, is developing a complex religious system – the book itself being a parable – a system that is based on her own observations and study about the nature of the world, its ever-changing nature and the importance of embracing change. Lauren is a strong-minded, confident, sexually aware girl who is also a freaking prophet, a leader and a thinker that takes her ideas and attempts to build a new world for herself and her followers. It’s powerful stuff.
I think it’s safe to say that there has been a glut of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopian novels in the past few years – especially starring young adult protagonists.
I also think it’s safe to say that Parable of the Sower, originally published in 1993, puts so many of those books to shame. This is a powerful, harrowing, painful book about the collapse of the old world, and the creeping, slender tendrils of hope that comes with the rise of a new world.
This is a novel about what happens after social structures collapse – Butler hypothesizes that the collapse of a strong central economy and government will lead to a greater divide between the haves and have-nots, that humanity will subsequently do anything in the name of survival. This includes building walls to keep others out, or even stealing, raping, and murdering. Although young Lauren Olamina is lucky enough to grow up with a caring father, stepmother, and brothers behind the safety of a walled community in the ruins of Los Angeles county, she questions the illusion of safety and stability with which her community shrouds itself. As attacks from those outside the walls escalate in severity and violence – from pyromaniac drug addicts, lower-order thieves, desperate scavengers – Lauren knows that it’s only a matter of time before it all falls down. And when it does fall down, will she be brave enough, prepared enough to follow the secret ideas of God and change and faith she’s guarded so close to heart?
I agree wholeheartedly with many of the things Ana says in her part of the review, so I’ll try not to retread too much ground – suffice it to say, Parable of the Sower is a breathtaking book. It’s brutal beyond measure; as Ana says, there is rape, and murder, and violent acts inflicted in so many scenarios. It’s a hard story to read about those who have power inflicting that kind of almost senseless cruelty on others. I don’t think the violence is gratuitous or relentlessly shitty for the sake of being shitty, though, which separates Parable of the Sower from other such literary-esque dystopias. It’s also refreshingly – thankfully – free of the romantic sentimentality that drives much of the current crop of YA dystopias. Truly, Parable of the Sower is a different animal altogether. It’s a story about faith, yes, but more importantly it’s a story about faith in the human capability to change. Whether your a religious person or not (I’m very much not), despite one’s own personal views regarding government’s role in establishing law and order and social programs, Parable of the Sower explores one eerie vision of a civilization’s collapse. And it does it so convincingly well (at least it does in my opinion).
I love that no punches are held in this book, but that it is tempered with hope and change.
Most of all, I love the voice of Lauren as our narrator. Early on, Lauren struggles as a daughter and sister (those scenes with her sociopathic brother Keith, holy crap), with her own observations and truths, her hyper-empathy, and eventually, her standing as a protector and a thought-leader, blazing the trail to a new world order – with aspirations for the stars themselves. She’s determined and methodical, almost clinically detached in her journal entries detailing her thoughts and travels. This resonates all the more, because in a world of horror and overstimulation and hyperempathy, cool observation and reflection are survival mechanisms.
Like its protagonist, Parable of the Sower is grand in its vision and potential; also like Lauren, the book is profoundly, brutally honest. I loved every word of Lauren’s narrative; I cannot wait to read more.
Absolutely, wholeheartedly recommended, and one of my notable reads of 2014.
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with our reviews, come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!