Review: Parable Of The Sower by Octavia E. Butler

I was reading Parable Of The Sower, Octavia E. Butler’s vision of apocalyptic climate change, the week western North America experienced an astonishing heatwave. Temperature records fell by as much as six degrees (even one is considered unusual). The town of Lytton made a new all-time temperature record for Canada three days in a row, reaching 49.6C on the third day, and then burnt to the ground. Hundreds of people, mostly older, died in the heat. Meteorologists, those masters of understated doom, called the event “statistically ‘freaky'”. It is similarly freaky to read this eerily prescient novel published almost 30 years ago.

The novel begins in climate-ruined LA in 2024. Lauren Olamina is 15 years old and lives in the neighbourhood of Robledo, “too big, too poor, too black, too hispanic”. The community has walled itself off from the disaster unfolding outside. The economy has collapsed, taking society with it, or vice versa. Inflation is rampant; there’s no more petrol, or electricity. Violent, drug-addled gangs patrol the streets, and homelessness is proliferating. The government is ineffective; the police corrupt. While the Robledo community can, at great risk, still go outside to work, there is great effort going into self-sufficiency.

A precocious young woman, Lauren knows that there is yet worse in store, and lobbies her father, the community’s religious leader and college teacher, to encourage the community to prepare. But he tells her that her apocalyptic warnings will fall on deaf ears. “If you scare them and nothing happens,” he tells her, expressing the fears of many climate scientists, “They lose their fear, and you lose some of your authority with them … best to begin by teaching”. So teach she does, while continuing her own preparations. But the end comes all too soon, and Lauren has to grab her bug-out bag, heading out on the road with thousands of other refugees fleeing north.

Told through Lauren’s diary entries, the characters are diverse and precisely drawn, and Lauren’s voice is convincing as she matures over her later teen years. Lauren suffers (or is perhaps blessed) with hyperempathy syndrome, a condition which makes her feel the same pain as others, meaning if she ever hurts someone she also hurts herself. She gathers a chosen family around her, the start of a new community. She is motivated by an idea, a new religion which she calls Earthseed. “God is change,” she preaches; we are victims to it but we can also shape it to our will, standing against the general direction of things towards chaos.

Parable Of The Sower is most interested in what happens when, as preppers say, The Shit Hits The Fan. Lana Del Rey recently sang about LA in flames, but Butler got there decades ago. The plot draws on many an apocalyptic road journey, not least The Grapes Of Wrath, and it is easy to see how such stories influenced writers like Cormac McCarthy in The Road. Irish writer Mark O’Connell has considered how this doomsday phenomena is an expression of late capitalism in the West, and the West Coast – the land of gold, oil and tech – is perhaps its epitome. Butler walks a middle path between Steinbeck and McCarthy. Like The Road’s almost absolutely hopeless vision, society succumbs to insane violence (here primarily caused by a drug called pyro which makes its users become obsessed with burning things, including themselves). Fault lines everpresent – gender, race – bust open under pressure. Old forms of exploitation reemerge. But like The Grapes Of Wrath, Butler seems sure that people are the solution as much as the problem.

One of the hurdles Lauren must overcome is denial. Not the outright kind, like the climate science denial which, stoked by fossil fuel companies, has been so effective at stalling climate action. This is more insidious. Lauren is breaking a community taboo by even talking about the possibility of things getting worse. When her dad tells her to stop scaring people, she responds, “That’s like … like ignoring a fire in the living room because we’re all in the kitchen, and, besides, house fires are too scary to talk about”. It’s a succinct summary of the psychology of climate change, which swings between “it can’t be that bad, can it?”, to “it’s too scary to talk about”, to “there’s nothing we can do about it now anyway”, all thoughts that I’ve been guilty of. Critical decades have come and gone, and still only minor progress is being made, and we’ll soon reach a point where we simply cannot act fast enough.

Although Lauren’s diary entries are mostly concerned with the logistics of survival and the horrors she witnesses, there is room for ruminations on the nature of change, the scariest phenomenon of all:

Our adults haven’t been wiped out by a plague so they’re still anchored in the past, waiting for the good old days to come back. But things have changed a lot, and they’ll change more. Things are always changing. This is just one of the big jumps instead of the little step-by-step changes that are easier to take. People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.

There’s something comforting in Lauren’s religion, even if, like Elon Musk, she sees the endpoint as escaping Earth entirely. And despite the ruined land and cities they encounter, there is also still joy to be found in the landscape, as when Lauren’s band of survivors reach the Pacific Ocean:

None of us have ever seen it before, and we had to go closer, look at it, camp within sight and sound and smell of it. Once we had decided to do that, we walked shoeless in the waves, pants legs rolled up. Sometimes we just stood and stared at it: the Pacific Ocean – the largest, deepest body of water on earth, almost half-a-world of water.

Pre-pandemic, I drove down the west coast of the US, from Seattle to LA, the reverse of Lauren’s flight north. Of all the things we saw – magnificent redwood forests and wild coasts, wildlife galore, the glitter and grime of the cities – the thing I most remember is the constant presence of the Pacific, reassuring in its seeming permanence.

Gay rating: not gay

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