Friday, October 4, 2013

Parable of the Sower: A Review

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower is an apocalyptic novel set in the outer suburbs of Los Angeles within the context of a very slow collapse caused by global warming and a related economic collapse within the United States.  Although reasonable as a stand alone novel, it was planned to have three books written in the series.  At her death, only the second book, the Parable of Talents, was written. I "read" this novel in an audio format.


Ocatvia Butler (1947-2006) is a very famous science fiction writer.  She is winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards.   Previous to this novel, I had not read any of her work because I it seemed to gain much of its accolades from its feminist and racial politically correct (pc) themes.  To the extent that she was also writing at a period where my interest in Science Fiction was waning , and she was competing with the cyber-punk genre, I never got around to reading any of her work.  At least based on this novel, I view that as unfortunate. 

Although the various blurbs of the book seem to work very hard at making it sound like some sort of new age awakening, it is mostly a pretty straightforward book of small group survival in a very hostile, collapsed environment. 

The story starts as a very slow collapse, which around its mid-point becomes a very hard and fast personal end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (eotwawki) disaster.  Although there is none of the ridiculous information dumps of internet-inspired survivalist advice, there is a fair amount of general survival advice.  She goes so far as to describe the contents of a very poor person's go-bag (aka bug out bag), and weapon familiarization and target practice are recommended.  There is the problem of when to leave a stable, but very tenous situation.  And the costs of the timing are extreme.  People are raped.  Major characters die, and a lot of general unpleasantness ensues.

The heroine, and sole narrator, is a young African-American lady who by the novels ending has just reached her 18th birthday.  Although racial issues are not ignored, there is none of the false empowerment often seen in novels where women are the primary leader.

The story starts in a small walled off community.  Note that this not a gated community, but literally, a semi-fortified wall community that has tried to isolate itself from its collapsing surroundings.  The author explores the tenuous alliance that exists within the small community, and the even more tenuous connection with the remnants of the old capitalist economy.  It is a world of extreme libertarianism.  The police only show up if you have the cash to pay them.

When it finally shows up, the fast-collapse involves the destruction of this world, and the setting out of a small group of survivors to a vague destination to the north.

The themes involve all sorts of ideas that would be common in the "prepper-survivalist" milieu, including fire arms training, accumulation of seed packets, and emergency escape plans.  It also includes the more subtle threats of corporate enslavement, and life where what little abundance still remains works very much to the advantage of the wealthy.

The young lady does embrace a philosophy that she call earth seed.  It combines the willingness to embrace and shape change, with the greater goal of sending humans out to the stars.  As a sort of semi-Buddhist rational, it is reasonable enough, although the goal of reaching the stars as human colonists seems more than a little far fetched given the current earth-bound situation.  The goal of the novel is far closer to that of the search for potable water, than the search for the stars.

The name of the novel comes from Matthew:

Mathew 13: 3-9
 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
This quote comes at the end of the novel, and presumably indicates that those who cannot accept the change in circumstances, or for that matter, those who are simply unlucky, are destined to perish.
I did like this novel very much. It was much starker, and much bleaker than I expected.  Although the cause of collapse is not the same, it reads like a precursor to McCarthy's famously dark novel The Road.  Communal efforts at survival are problematic in the face of an overwhelming onslaught, and even the prepared have their casualties.  The reading of the audio format was well done and seamlessly executed.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high.  Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting.  Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation.  Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

The novel has a few of the speculative elements of science:  illicit drugs not yet evented, and the side effects of these drugs.  The effects of global warming, a long drought, are rather plausible given the current drought in the West.  Issues of supplies, the value of cash, the need for a paying job even in a severe collapse, are all very well thought out items. With one point off for the science fiction elements, we will call it a six.

For a novel that does not always hammer its lessons over your head, but often teaches through demonstration, it is generally a pretty fast moving affair.  The action gets started in the second half, but even the first half has enough internal community and family issues to keep it interesting.  A literary 6.

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