PARABLE OF THE SOWER
Laura Lam says we should listen to this dystopian warning
Since the American election, dystopias such as 1984 by George Orwell, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis have stormed up the bestseller charts. The Handmaid’s Tale has taken Hulu by storm (and it’s just started on Channel 4 in the UK!). All of these works are important. Yet the dystopia that strikes me as the most possible, the one we’re on the cusp of, is Parable Of The Sower by Octavia E Butler. Yet this one is not being discussed as much. Why? Because racism is alive and well. We’re, intentionally or not, holding up books written by white people as the scariest futures, when the one written by Butler is one of the most chilling. She saw this coming and we’re not listening to her.
The book starts in 2024, skipping over several years. It’s told in epistolary format by Lauren Olamina. The bulk of the book takes place in 2027: ten years from now. Lauren grows up in a walled community outside of Los Angeles. They still struggle, but they have enough to get by and a fragile sense of peace while the world outside continues to fall apart. Water is more expensive than food, with many communities not having running water (Flint, Michigan, anyone?). You can call the police or the fire service, but they’ll charge you for it, and certain cities are being privatised and run by corporations, paying so little money that people will be in debt to the company. Global warming has raised the temperatures, dogs run wild, everyone has a gun. New drugs have dangerous side effects, from hyperempathy, where the person feels any pain another has, to pyromania. In a world barely holding itself together, a new President is elected and he eradicates workers’ rights.
Olamina knows that change is coming. She sees what the others don’t want to: that their safety is precarious and limited. She’s the daughter of the preacher but has her own ideas about religion, writing down verses of her own faith, Earthseed. She hides this writing from her family, fearing rejection of her views of life and the world. When she tries to warn the neighbourhood, she is waved aside. And, Cassandra-like, her prophecy comes true. Although she has studied and prepared as much as she can, Lauren is ill-prepared for the true harshness of the world outside. Partnered with a few people from her old life, she tries to make it to Canada, where things are said to be better. She sees the darkest, most vicious side of humanity. Through it all, her unshakeable belief of what must be done to save the future continues to grow. Earthseed must take root.
The book is gorgeously and gruesomely written. It is hard-hitting and unflinching. In The Portalist, black writer Adrienne Brown deftly observed that, “Octavia understood that these are the conditions that emerge when we are trapped in the imagination of racists, fundamentalists, and smart people addicted to hierarchy.” We look into the void with Lauren Olamina and we are just as terrified.
In an interview with Joshunda Sanders in 2004, Butler states, “I was trying not to prophesise. Matter of fact, I was trying to give warning. One of the kinds of research I did was to read a lot of stuff about World War II. Not the war itself, but I wanted to know in particular how a country goes fascist.” She also said that some ideas in Parable kept her up at night. It’s a future written 24 years ago that hopefully won’t come to pass.
Laura Lam’s latest novel, Shattered Minds, is out now.