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I read Parable of the Sower for the first time in 1994, and wrote a review for TWP in June that year. As far as I can remember it is the only one of Butler's books I ever reviewed. In 2014 it was selected by the editors for inclusion in my fanzine, Reflections in the Shards, which can be found on eFanzines. I'm posting the review now because it fits with the thing I'm trying to do here.

I've put it behind a cut because it details the content of the book in a way I've been trying hard to avoid in these posts. You don't have to read it if you don't want to.


As with many a good SF book the publishers of this one have tried to pretend it is not science fiction. Parable of the Sower, the dust jacket says, and then you turn the book upside down to read the words A Novel printed upside down. But it is science fiction: dystopian California in 2025; and the artifice grates.

       The book's narrator and main character, Lauren Olamina, is a partially educated girl who grows from fifteen to eighteen in the course of the book. She is black, which matters, but this is not the book's main issue. More importantly, she is handicapped by empathy: she feels others' pain in her own body. She is very bright; very self-obsessed; and in some ways very mature while in others very young. Butler sustains Lauren's tone of voice perfectly across the three years; an impressive narrative achievement.

       Lauren grows up in a walled enclave in a disintegrating California, among ordinary people with houses and gardens who have managed to hang on to them, for a while. She knows it won't last, and makes preparations in secret, but her community refuses to face the reality she sees. When the end comes Lauren gets out safely, but her family, her lover, the rest of the community are not so well prepared, or so lucky. They die, mostly.

       Lauren joins up with two random survivors, and they go North. Many refugees are heading North, looking for country where water is cheaper than food, where there is work. There are all the extremes of wealth and poverty on that road. (We are accustomed to that these days, we who have watched live television coverage of bedraggled refugees on Yugoslavian and Rwandan roads.)

       But Lauren wants more than the other refugees. She is a prophet, and she has a dream. She calls her dream Earthseed. It is a dream of a community that will survive the disintegrating Earth to reach for the stars. Almost the oldest science fiction dream of all, dreamed on one of the oldest of human roads.

       So Lauren and her companions, soon to become disciples, travel North. They survive violence and earthquake. They gather companions from among the damaged and the lonely, some by chance, some by intent. They all turn out to be really good folks, these new companions: however damaged, they prove themselves trustworthy, self-sacrificing, capable of love. They find it too: man and woman, woman and woman, woman and child, man and child, there is love among the ruins for them all, including Lauren. (Except for the ones that die.) Finally, too, there is hope for a home for the survivors, in a place they decide to call Acorn.

       Heinlein would have been proud of Lauren, and of Butler.

       Here, brought up to date in an almost contemporary world, is the old Heinleinian fable. Civilisation destroys itself. The seeds of the future are sowed by the wise in the wreck of the present. Partly an awful warning of things to come, this fable, partly a parable of hope for a disintegrating world.

       But we are wise, these days. Heinlein's folk built walls to hold off the world; the story happened within the walls. We know now that the walls we build will not hold, and that most of us will be among the poor struggling outside the gates. (The disintegration of Yugoslavia taught us that if we did not know it before.) Butler knows that too, which is why she has written this story in this voice, to this end. This is what it is like to become the dispossessed.

       Lauren dreams of Earthseed, a community of the dispossessed, the blacks and latinos, the weak and the damaged, the women and the children, the ones who started close to the bottom of the heap in a damaged and damaging world. On the road she can dream her dreams, for a little while. On the road she and her friends can love one another. But the story must end before the walls are built anew, for once settled Lauren and her people will be inside the gates, looking out. They will be in possession. And that is a different story, not one that can be told in this voice.

       That story does not believe in love.

And here at the last is the question. Is it Lauren who tells this story with this voice, who believes in love? Or is it Butler herself who cannot bear to write a world without it? It matters, because this is the aspect that does not work, that makes the book more a romance than a novel. This is what others writing today deal with that Butler in this book does not.

       For - unless we are saints - when we have nothing we do not have love either.

                   * * * * * * *

Postscript: Another interesting theme of this book that I don't have time to explore is about how it feels to be American. There are no non-US characters in the book, but Japanese, French and Canadian organisations are all mentioned in passing as instrumental in the disintegration of the US. There seems to be a kind of unexamined national paranoia, and again, Lauren's voice is so successful that I cannot tell whether this attitude is Butler's own or Lauren's. Odd, and slightly worrying to a non-US reader.

       Another thing: The book is nicely produced, from a publisher called Four Walls Eight Windows that I have never heard of. Unfortunately, the quotation marks throughout the book are all awry, opening and closing more or less at random. This can be very disconcerting, and damages the reader's concentration, to the book's detriment.

      

       Further reading: Pied Piper (1942) by Nevil Shute for a tale of dispossessed Europeans still capable of love - but that was written a long time ago! Farnham's Freehold (1964) by Robert Heinlein for a tale of Americans behind walls. Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy for a tale of dispossessed Americans. Days of Atonement (1991) by Walter Jon Williams for a tale of Americans outside the walls.


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Caroline M

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