Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve had this book for about four years, ever since I got it in a Humble Bundle. I knew that I wanted to read Octavia Butler some day, but I hasn’t gotten around to it yet. Then NPR’s Throughline decided to do an episode about Octavia Butler and I wanted to read something before listening to the episode. So I asked the hosts via Twitter what book I should read. They recommended the two Earthseed books. I tore through this one, finishing it in just four days.
Boy was this book depressing as hell. I’ve been reading dystopias for over 20 years now and I usually enjoy the genre. Just how did we get from America to Hunger Games’ Panem or Red Rising’s color-coded society? What was it like for the narrator in 1984 to work for the government and know things were slightly wrong? But this book….it hit WAY too close to home. The scary part is that it was written in 1993 and yet it seems oh so likely that our 2024 could mirror the 2024 of Parable of the Sower.
When the book starts, society has broken down. Climate change and drug addiction have wreaked havoc, creating a super 1920s dust-bowl like situation where large groups of folks wander homeless throughout America looking for work or doing what they can to survive. Or, in a more pessimistic turn, using violence to get what they want and damn everyone else.
The middle class is just barely hanging on with walled neighborhoods to try and keep the violence and worst of the crime out. Yet, leaving your neighborhood to go to work, if you even have a job, is gambling that you might not make it back.
What makes it seem so much like we could get there? Well, for one thing, there’s a huge drug epidemic that’s causing a large part of the destruction. Ms. Butler may have had the crack epidemic in mind when she wrote the book, but our current meth and oxycotin situations seem even worse right now. Government deregulation has left corporations with so much power that some have brought back the company towns of the last 1800s/early 1900s and others have turned to outright slavery. The President gets elected on promises that getting rid of even more regulations will be the solution. Meanwhile, it’s more dangerous to go to the cops than it is to just let things alone. They’re just as likely to rob you or throw you in jail. Again, in the 1990s when Ms. Butler wrote this, she may have been thinking of the situation that led to things like the Rodney King beating and riots, but our eyes have been opened over the past few years as cell phone coverage has covered the abuses that some perpetrate when they are given power without consequence. Yet the right continue to do OK because they can afford the security systems that keep the rabble out. It’s America become Brazil or some African country.
It’s a society where might makes right. And it’s one we seem to be slipping into. As I write this, legislatures across the USA have decided that they can only win going forward through cheating and have moved to write bills to disenfranchise large swaths of the population. It all seems to be slowly falling apart. Recently delivery drivers have had their cars stolen when they stop to make a delivery. Folks are attacking UPS trucks. And, frankly, since seeing the parallels of this book and where we seem to be headed, I’ve been having trouble sleeping at night.
The book is riveting. The main characters have a believable cynicism about the world that’s refreshing – perhaps because this is the first non-YA dystopia I’ve read in a while. But (insert a string of profanity) this was really, really hard to read right now. And Ms. Butler didn’t even foresee the dissolution of a shared reality that came with social media. It’s dark times – and I’m writing this in the world where we even made a turn away from another four years of deep corruption that was depressing in its own right.
All that is to say that this is a good book – a great book, but depending on how you feel about the world, it might not be a good time to read it.
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