Book Club Review: “Parable of the Sower”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler

Publishing Info: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Award: New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Book Description: When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ pain.

Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith…and a startling vision of human destiny.

This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from award-winning author Octavia E. Butler “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale” (John Green, New York Times)—now with a new foreword by N. K. Jemisin.

Kate’s Thoughts

Back when Trump was elected, I started hearing whispers from my friends and acquaintances about a book called “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler. Many of them were saying that “Parable of the Sower” predicted the society in which a person like Trump could be elected, along with the existential crises that come with it. When we were deep in the shit of the Trump Administration, I couldn’t bring myself to read that book, as even though it sounded supremely fascinating, it also sounded too real. A story written in the early nineties that seemed to predict the shitshow of climate change, social inequity, and an incompetent and narcissistic president? On the nose! And therefore too stressful to read. So when someone in book club chose it for our first Award Winners read, I was happy that I finally had a push to read it…. And then I read it, and was sent into an anxiety spiral.

Basically my face during my entire reading experience.

“Parable of the Sower” is a bleak and terrifying dystopia where climate change, vast social and financial disparities, and corporate corruption has created a society where people are either gated in, hoping that they will not fall victim to rampaging violent nomads, or trying their best to survive in a violent and dangerous wasteland. We follow Lauren, a teenager who lives in a gated community who has dreams of a better future for herself, and who starts to develop and discover a new religion/life she calls Earthseed due to her faith and a condition in which she has hyper empathy to those around her. Butler creates a terrifying world where mass violence is always a threat, and it’s only a matter of time until a person faces the bleak and staggering reality of having to survive. I found it to be incredibly well written as well as horrific. It’s told in mostly epistolary devices, with Lauren recording what is going on each day, and I thought that the slow crumbling of her life and then rebuilding in a chaotic and unpredictable landscape to be compelling and very suspenseful. There were so many moments that not only set me on edge, but felt like they could potentially happen if we don’t get a hold on many existential crises that plague our world at the moment. Engaging to be sure, but it also made it hard for me to sleep at night.

I think that if I were a more religious person (in that I’m not at all) I may have connected a little bit more with the aspects of Lauren’s journey that involved ‘discovering’ Earthseed, and her self assurance that everything was going to work out because she was discovering and bringing forth a new religion that would save society. From the Biblical references to some of the blind faith aspects of this book, I didn’t connect as much to the moments where Lauren was creating a whole new belief system. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t intriguing; I definitely found myself enjoying the mythos that Butler was creating in this story, and liked seeing Lauren connect to it. I’m not sure that I have the emotional wherewithal to continue in the series (especially given that it’s incomplete; Butler passed away before she could complete it), but what I saw in this book really hit home how incredibly gifted Butler was for creating complex and horrifying alternate realities while also giving us a little bit of hope to cling to.

“Parable of the Sower” is a rough read, but I definitely think it’s worthwhile. Butler was a true talent, and this showcases the world building, and premonition, that she had as an author.

Serena’s Thoughts:

For being a long-time fan of the science fiction and fantasy genre, it’s kind of crazy that I hadn’t read any of Octavia Butler’s books before this. And I can’t really tell you why! Perhaps, like Kate mentioned above, when her books began coming up more and more in the public consciousness recently, I wasn’t really in a good mental place to dive into this type of story. Margeret Atwood is a similar author for me: I can recognize the supreme talent she is and appreciate her books, but I can only manage to read one every five years or so and inevitably spend those five years half terrified of the “too real”-ness of her stories. But, also like Kate said, I was glad to have the push to read this.

I agree with everything Kate wrote. I, however, come from a more religious family so in that way, I did connect more to the aspects of the story that were focused on the development of a belief system and the role that would play in Lauren’s management of the challenges of this society. Blind faith is a particularly challenging topic, even for those have a religious life. Most who are honest with themselves, I think, would say that faith itself is a constant challenge. It can provide some assurance in the midst of strife and unknown, but it, too, can cause its own form of strife, in that faith, at its core, is not necessarily a comfortable thing. I liked the way that Butler dug into this topic and her use of Biblical references went beyond the usual uses we’ve all seen a million times over.

I do think I’ll eventually read the next book, but like I said above, it will probably follow a pattern similar to my reading of Atwood’s stories. It’s a credit to just how powerful a writer Butler was that her presentation of a future world feels too read to inhabit for overly long without it causing real-world anxiety! If you haven’t checked this one out yet, I definitely recommend it.

Kate’s Rating 8: Terrifying and bleak, but well written and sprinkled with some hope, “Parable of the Sower” is a glimpse into a could be futurescape.

Serena’s Rating 8: Hope wars with terror in a version of the future that feels all-too real at times.

Book Club Questions

  1. The future that Butler paints in this book has a lot of mirrors to a reality that we seem to be nearly living in. Do you think that what happens to society in this book could happen in a similar fashion in real life? Why or why not?
  2. Even though Lauren is living in an unstable society and there is lots of violence and despair, she still seems to want to have kids some day. Why do you think that is?
  3. Does Lauren’s religion or belief system of Earthseed connect to you? Do you see it as a new religion? A cult? Something else?
  4. At one point Lauren says that she isn’t inventing Earthseed, but discovering it. What do you make of that statement?
  5. At one point Lauren and her group pass by the settlement of Hollister, which seems to be pretty stable and safe. What did you think of them continuing on their journey instead of stopping and settling?
  6. What did you think of the concept of hyper-empathy?
  7. What did you think that Butler was saying about religion in this book?

Reader’s Advisory

“Parable of the Sower” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sci-Fi That Will Change The Way You Look At Life”, and “SFF Books by Black Authors”.

Find “Parable of the Sower” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White.

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