Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

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Title: Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: 1993
Genre: speculative fiction, science fiction, apocalyptic fiction

Octavia Butler’s vision of the future scares the pants off of me.

It’s 2024, and America is slowly but steadily falling apart. Terrible droughts and food scarcity. Widespread unemployment and shocking income inequality. Political, social, and economic structures falling apart and corporations swooping in to turn a profit and create a new slave class. Society inexorably devolving into a terrifying dog-eat-dog tribalism.

We meet Lauren Olamina mid-apocalypse. She and her family live in a relatively safe and prosperous (by the book’s standards) walled neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. Lauren suffers from hyperempathy, a condition in which she experiences the pain and pleasure of those around her, quite literally. When she was younger and less able to control the condition, if she saw someone with a cut, she would bleed. During sex, she feels both her own pleasure, and that of her partner. For the most part, it’s a dangerous, debilitating secret she has to hide from those around her.

It also seems to make Lauren more attuned to the world around her. Most of her community seems relatively content. Sure, things are bad, but that’s why they have a wall and take safety precautions. They don’t look too closely at what’s happening outside the wall and don’t think much about the future. It’s a chilling reminder of the ways that day-to-day life and a little bit of security can lead to a dangerous sense of complacency.

Lauren is most definitely not complacent. She knows terrible times are coming, and they need to start preparing immediately. It’s not explicitly stated in the book, but it feels like Lauren’s hyperempathy is at the root of this. Lauren, for whom everyone’s pain is her pain, is forced to see the world differently. She’s forced to pay more attention, to be more careful, to be constantly on the look out for an encounter with a person (or even an animal) in pain that might  leave her debilitated. She’s all too aware that the experience of pain is universal.

Her hyperempathy is also deeply tied to her faith. The daughter of a preacher, Lauren has secretly rejected her father’s religion and has been, as she puts if, “discovering,” Earthseed, a new faith whose central tenet is “God is Change.” I was initially wary when I heard this book was about a main character who founds a new religion, but seriously, there’s something sort of wonderful about the way Butler lays out Lauren’s beliefs. It feels like the inevitable personal philosophy of a teenaged hyperempath living in a world defined by pain, but as the story progresses, it evolves into a system of believe essential for any sense of humanity to survive while maintain a sense of humanity in a world falling apart.

There’s so much more to say, but I write short reviews. Seriously, I loved this book. 5/5 stars.

This book satisfies the “Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel” task of the Book Riot Read Harder challenge.

 

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