Published in 1993, Octavia Butler’s novel The Parable of the Sower tells the story of Lauren Oya Olamina, a 15-year-old black girl living in the once-distant future of 2024. Through Lauren’s journal and poetry entries over the course of three years, Butler tells a tale of societal chaos evoked by climate change and economic crises.
Lauren and her family live in a sheltered cul-de-sac neighbourhood, away from the anarchy that takes place in the fictional town of Robledo, California. Food and water scarcity affect the entire world, but Lauren’s community manages to find a pocket of security. To survive, they grow their own crops and protect themselves. As the conditions outside of her walled neighbourhood worsen, Lauren begins to contemplate her own future by reflecting on her past. “People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back,” she shares.
Butler identifies the complacency that older generations may have towards the changing world. She places focus on figures like Lauren’s father, a pastor and community leader, as he anchors the community in a belief system resemblant of a cherished but non-existent past. Like the many adults in the novel, he holds a belief that somehow the world will renew itself—despite its chronic and unchangeable conditions. Lauren fights against this idea. She begins to prepare for a life outside of her neighbourhood—learning survival tactics by reading books in her father’s library.
Lauren’s journey is not simple. As the plot progresses, we learn that Lauren suffers from “hyper-empathy”—a condition which causes her to literally feel others’ pain or pleasure. As her body aches based on the suffering that happens around her, she is weary of witnessing or inflicting pain, complicating her ability to survive in a dystopian society. Her father, aware of her condition, still trains her in gun combat and exposes her to destitute atmospheres.
As families begin to look for other privatized towns to escape to, Lauren senses the community coming apart. After the death of her father, her people are left without a leader. Soon, the security of her neighbourhood is tested—robberies, shootings, and fires set by intruders become frequent occurrences. One night, Lauren wakes to her neighbourhood in flames, forcing her to start her journey North—where conditions are rumoured to be better. Along the way, she gains allies and shares her writing. Her “hyper-empathy” makes her welcoming, and she re-thinks violent approaches to outsiders. She forms her poetry into a collection titled Earthseed: Books of the Living.
Agriculture acts as a cornerstone for the entirety of the novel. As the story unfolds, Lauren’s journey becomes intentional. Her goal is to establish a self-sustaining community where Earthseed acts as the guiding principle. Upholding sustainability, Lauren fosters a hopeful vision for the future and demonstrates that humanity can create beauty after disaster. She and her allies achieve this by establishing their settlement, Acorn.
Butler’s vision of 2024 in Parable of the Sower may not look like our visions of the near future, but there is still much to learn from this tale. With climate change, we cannot expect the world to remain the same. As people become desperate for food, water, and shelter, those who possess these necessities gain power. Through Lauren’s character, Butler emphasizes that in moments of trauma, empathy for others may be our biggest strength.
Parable of the Sower explores the intersections of race, poverty, capitalism, and religion, in an imagined but very possible future. The science fiction story centres around a young black girl during a time of limited representation in mainstream media. If you are a lover of science-fiction, this novel is sure to satisfy.