Octavia Butler was a completely unique voice in the world of science fiction. A multiple award winner and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, Butler was an African-American woman writing in a genre too often dominated by men. Her novels blend science fiction with African-American spiritualism, and deep insights about gender, race, and the future of human civilization.
Her Parable of the Sower is among her best books, the first in a series that concluded with Parable of the Talents. Sower is, in many ways, a post-apocalyptic novel, but unlike other books in the genre, it portrays a world torn apart not by one big thing—not by zombies, pandemic, or nuclear war—but by a bunch of small things converging at once. In Butler’s not-too-distant future, the gap between the rich and poor is growing. Climate change has led to widespread drought. The cost of food, water, and fuel is skyrocketing. People are getting desperate. Corporations have gained more power, owning entire towns and keeping their workers in effective slavery.
Does any of this sound familiar? The future Butler posits is terrifying simply because it’s so plausible.
Into this bleak anarchic landscape Butler inserts her protagonist—a fifteen-year-old girl named Lauren Olamina, the African-American daughter of a Baptist minister. Lauren lives in a small gated community, literally a cul-de-sac encircled by a wall near Los Angeles. Beyond the walls are the homeless poor, gangs that rove the streets looking for people to torture or kill, drug addicts driven to start fires by an advanced drug called pryo, and hordes of scavengers searching for anything to keep them alive.
Lauren possesses a power called hyperempathy, the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others. It is implied that Lauren got her hyperempathy from her mother, who was addicted to powerful mind-altering drugs while pregnant, and as a result Lauren seems to regard her ability as a kind of sickness, a weakness rather than a strength. Her father shares this opinion and tells Lauren to keep her hyperempathy a secret. In a world of such widespread suffering, the ability to feel the pain of others is potentially debilitating—if Lauren sees someone who’s sick, or hurt, or dying, she’ll share their pain and become unable to defend herself.
Debilitating as it may sometimes be, however, Lauren’s hyperempathy makes her special—in a world torn apart by many people’s inability to empathize with others, she is consumed by her openness to the world around her. This is perhaps Lauren’s defining trait: surrounded by people who refuse to see the truth, she alone is open enough and perceptive enough to see the dark reality of what the world has become. Even so, her openness also enables her to imagine a hopeful future, a way for the human race to move forward.
The hopeful future Lauren dreams up is called Earthseed—a comprehensive worldview that must surely rank among the best fictional religions ever to emerge from the science fiction genre.
I say that Lauren “dreams up” Earthseed—but she herself insists that Earthseed isn’t an invention, but a discovery: “Stumbling across the truth isn’t the same as making things up.” I’ve also referred to Earthseed as a “religion,” which is a term the book uses to describe the belief system. But it’s like no religion you’ve ever encountered. For one thing, Earthseed makes no reference to the supernatural. Its God is not a divine being. Earthseed’s God is simply Change.
It takes a while for Earthseed’s belief system to come into focus in Parable of the Sower. We get Lauren’s philosophy piecemeal throughout the novel, in poetic extracts from her “Earthseed: The Books of the Living” at the beginning of each chapter. Some samplings:
God is neither good nor evil, neither loving nor hating. God is Power. God is Change.
We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. With forethought and work, we shape God.
God is Power—infinite, irresistible, inexorable, indifferent. And yet, God is Pliable—trickster, teacher, chaos, clay. God exists to be shaped. God is Change.
These aphorisms or koans are difficult to grasp at first. Trying to get a clear picture of Earthseed is a bit like the old proverb about a blind man trying to describe an elephant by touch. Is Earthseed essentially a form of Pantheism—finding God in the unending flux, adaptation, and evolution of the universe? Or is it an extrapolation from Alfred North Whitehead’s process theology, in which God, the Ultimate, is constantly in the process of becoming? What does all that even mean?
Luckily, The Parable of the Sower is not a religious or philosophical text—it’s a story, and it is as the story advances that Lauren’s ideas and the relevance of Earthseed in her world become more clear. The crisis point in the novel comes when a violent gang overruns the gated community where Lauren lives and kills her entire family and most of her neighbors. Barely escaping with her life, Lauren is set adrift in postapocalyptic California with nothing but some paltry supplies and a gun with a few bullets. But gradually, in a process mirroring Jesus’ gathering of disciples in the Bible, Lauren begins to find travel companions, people who will help her survive and who are also potential new adherents to her religion.
It’s as this ragged band of survivors struggle to stay alive that the true meaning of Earthseed makes itself known. Change truly is their God—it’s the most powerful force in their lives. Change can be a cruel and indifferent God, threatening them with thirst, hunger, exhaustion, injury, and bodily harm from the bands of lunatics that rove through the California countryside. But Change can also be a partner—if they’re adaptable enough to shape God, to shape the forces of Change that would otherwise destroy them. As in pre-modern times, their religion is more than a belief system. It is a survival system—a way of being in the world that will help keep them together, and keep them alive.
Earthseed is more than just a survival system, however. One of Earthseed’s central commands is:
Embrace diversity. Unite—or be divided, robbed, ruled, killed by those who see you as prey. Embrace diversity, or be destroyed.
Lauren and her community of survivors embody this command: Lauren is black, and her companions are white, Asian, Latino, and biracial. Butler herself was an African-American woman writing in a genre hitherto dominated by white men, and though the book isn’t explicitly about race or gender, these issues form a powerful subtext to this story of religion and societal collapse. Earthseed is a powerful fictional philosophy, and one of the things that makes it so vital in the context of the novel is its tacit indictment of the gods of the dominant culture—the white men’s gods of power, money, violence, and rapacious exploitation of the environment.
These gods have made a mess of things—so it’s time for others to have a hand at making a new future. For all its bleakness, Parable of the Sower ends on a note of hope. The problems facing humanity are serious, but Butler seems to suggest that we can overcome them if we’re adaptable, if we embrace diversity, and if we are careful students of the Change happening all around us.