Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Short Rating: Parable of the Sower proves why Octavia Butler is hailed as an amazing fiction author. Conscious and spiritual, but never judgmental, it’s a great read for those looking for something different.
What’s so striking about Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is that it isn’t set too far into the future; it wasn’t when it was written, and it certainly isn’t now.
Fifteen-year-old Lauren is smarter than her age suggests, likely because childhood is cut short in Butler’s world. She’s different from other kids due to a condition called hyperempathy, which forces her to feel the extreme pain and pleasure of others.
Lauren’s small neighborhood is one of many fenced off communities trying to hide from the depravity beyond. The community doesn’t have much, but banding together allows them to keep what little they have. Prices for food and water have skyrocketed, in part because rain only comes once ever couple years. Their small town is has been safe for a while, but Lauren knows that its only a matter of time before they have to reckon with the people who live outside.
She’s right. Her community is infiltrated, and its residents die with no honor, leaving her and the few survivors to fend for themselves outside the gates. Lauren, motivated by a strong personal philosophy, is ready for the challenge, and readers follower her journey as she and others struggle to survive. For the sake of spoilers, I’ll stop there, but at its essence, Parable of the Sower is cautionary, like all dystopian tales, while maintaining an element of spirituality.
For our book club, Octavia Butler was something new for the majority of us. We read a healthy mix of fiction and nonfiction, but little of it is dystopian, or afro-futurism, science fiction, mysticism, or anything else one could possibly use to describe her work. The only real way to describe it is to say it’s an adult version of Hunger Games or Maze Runner with a heaping helping of Song of Solomon (I’m not sure if that’s helpful).
However, Butler is a necessary read for champions of diverse literature because she was an innovator of her genre. While race is far from the main issue in a book that also tackles environmental degradation, corporate greed, and class issues, her writing is clearly that of a black woman. Her writing shows how identity and personal experience fundamentally changes how a book is written. In Parable of the Sower, the wealthy have bought out entire towns, using citizens for labor– something that purposefully reminds readers of sharecropping and other iterations of slavery. There are also multiple references to rape, which is common in their state of near anarchy. In our discussions, our club saw these as obvious indications that this book was written by a black woman, and distinctly different from the way it would have been written by a white man.
Overall, I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars. It starts off with energy, and continues to get better, but may be a little low-key for those who are used to the dramatics of Hunger Games and Divergent. I definitely recommend this book for other book clubs, because while it is the first in a series, it can stand alone if it must. By the end, everyone was interested in what would happen to Lauren and the others that she’d met throughout her journey, but the book’s ending wasn’t quite an unbearable cliffhanger.
Book club discussion questions:
- To what extent does this book fit your idea of sci-fi? How does Octavia Butler’s sci-fi differ from others?
- Discuss Lauren’s father: Why did he beat Keith as harshly as he did? Why does he dissuade Lauren from alarming others in the community? (our group focused on this question for a very long time)
- Do you think Lauren is a “good person?” Does that matter?
- Butler makes a distinct effort to describe the diverse group of people that Lauren surrounds herself with. What is the importance of diversity in Lauren’s eyes?
- Is the future in Parable of the Sower something that could realistically happen in the United States?
- What is the relationship between the biblical parable of the sower, and Butler’s story?
Have y’all read Parable of the Sower, or any of Octavia Butler’s other books (including the sequel Parable of the Talents)? Let me know in the comments, as well as any other book club recommendations you’ve got for us!