Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

I read this book for my Science Fiction and World Politics class, which is great not only because it's an excellent class with a very cool professor, but also because it's expanding my sci fi reading repetoire. As some of you may know, my friend Rose invited me to start a small press with her, which she wanted to focus on science fiction and fantasy books, and though I agreed to work on the project, I accepted with an "I don't really read/like much sci fi and fantasy" caveat. It's turned out to be a great experience, particularly because Rose and our partner-in-crime Dr. Bill are very well versed in the genre(s?) and have been very good about recommending things to me. Between my World Politics course and the press, I'm getting a much better background in science fiction and deepening my appreciation therefore.

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower is the story of things going wrong. The book begins in a pocket of relative safety in a post-apocalyptic world. Lauren Olamina lives with her family and neighbors in a walled community, surrounded by chaos of every kind, but mostly human danger. Olamina's life is made more difficult by her powers of hyperempathy, which make her feel other peoples' pain in an environment where violence is commonplace. One night, the community is attacked and most of its inhabitants, including Olamina's family, are killed. Olamina escapes into the night with a couple of survivors, and they head north in hopes of finding some safety, and for Olamina, a place to begin her religion, Earthseed. The section of the book where the group travels, slowly accumulating companions, is reminiscent of a light version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, where the travel and the road itself help convey the desperation of their situation. However, unlike McCarthy's work, Butler leaves more room for good people on her road, and Olamina's group is able to find some unthreatening people to band together. [NB: Saying there is more room for good in any post-apocalyptic travelcentric book than McCarthy's The Road is a little bit like saying someone who jaywalks is a less-hardened criminal than Charles Manson. I wrote about The Road a while back.] As they make progress, Olamina's companions begin to see the value in her Earthseed teachings.

I don't want to spoil the ending, because this is an excellent book that you should pick up on your next swing by Barnes & Noble. Butler's writing is gorgeous, and both characters and philosophical concepts are well rendered. Though the progress of Earthseed breaks off at a certain point (there is another book in the series which presumably expands on the concepts), Earthseed is a wonderful entry point into considerations about religion and philosophy and how they become practice.

I also enjoyed this book as an exercise in testing my worldview. The main character in this book is black, as are several others. Their race comes up several times, and each time I felt slightly jarred because I find that I do presume that most characters are white - not consciously, but the series of "oh yeah" moments I encountered demonstrated that it's something I do. I think this is probably pretty standard. After all, when we discuss literature, the relatability of characters often comes up quickly and remains central to the discussion; we insert our identities into what we're reading. In Parable of the Sower, the protagonist's blackness matters in the way she approaches the world and the way the world relates to her. Olamina's race is not necessarily a dominating theme in the work, but it does lend a different feeling to the overall effect. I found this book to be exceptionally good at bringing up the weight of the differences between races in a way that is neither perjorative nor congratulatory, but a way that IS inescapable, and demands that the reader consider what effects the characters' races have on them.

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