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Here's Parable of the Sower in a nutshell:
LAUREN: Listen up, everybody. I've got some crucial information on how the world is ending and we have to save ourselves.
LAUREN: No, really, we're all probably going to die unless we do something about this.
EVERYONE: Shouldn't you be at home washing the dishes?
LAUREN: Here's what we've got do. I've got this idea called Earthseed, and—
EVERYONE: Hey! Look at that squirrel running across the fence. Haha. Squirrels!
Okay, that's not all that happens in this novel, but that's how it starts. You can probably relate, right? Does it ever feel like you've got some important insight into what's happening around you, but you can't get anyone to listen? That's exactly the plight faced of Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Sower, one of the best-loved novels of the late Octavia Butler, published in 1993.
In this novel, Lauren sees that her hometown is increasingly under attack and is likely to be destroyed. She tries to get those around her to face up to this reality, but you know how people are. Nobody listens to this young teenager, just like nobody listens to any young teenager anywhere, ever.
It's too bad, because Lauren has a lot to say. She's the founder of her own religion, Earthseed, the central tenet of which is that God is Change. Once her hometown is burned down by drug addicts, she becomes a refugee heading north from southern California in hopes of a better life. She finds one, too, and draws in people who adopt her philosophical and religious viewpoints and help her establish her own community.
This novel stands out because it was written by an African-American woman at a time when the sci-fi genre was dominated by white men. Without making a huge deal about it, Butler wrote sci-fi from her own perspective, that of a marginalized Black female, and the result was history. Butler even won a MacArthur Fellowship—popularly called the "genius grant"—in 1995, and Parable of the Sower was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1994. Turns out people love Butler's stuff.
Parable of the Sower is also unique in that it's near-future science fiction, which means that it's set not in the year 4500 but in, well, the near future, specifically the years 2024-2027, which is kind of right around the corner. Does the world depicted in the book—corporations taking over, racial tensions brewing, water prices skyrocketing—match what we face going forward, or not? You be the judge—but for sure, it isn't too often that sci-fi hits so close to home.
Folks, we're already living in a sci-fi world. Everything's Google and Apple now, computers are super important, cars are driving themselves, cloning is a thing, and just about everyone is playing sci-fi-themed board games or watching sci-fi-themed movies and TV shows. Science fiction is cool, and it's a big business.
But sci-fi isn't all just about cool gadgets. Ever notice that often sci-fi takes place in dystopian worlds? That's because lots of sci-fi writers are into talking about the big issues facing us right now—and one of those writers is Octavia Butler.
Butler and her novel's narrator, Lauren Olamina, both come from minority backgrounds. They're Black, poor, and female, so they're not often regarded as VIPs. But then again, you're probably not a VIP, either, and neither are we. So what might science fiction look like from the point of view not of some super-popular TV series, but of a minority member? Of a person facing real troubles in the real world?
Lauren is a writer, a thinker, and something of a religious prophet. That makes her something of an outsider, even over and above the outsider she already is as a minority female. She's not in a particularly powerful or prestigious position. But as an outsider, she can really see things for what they are. We want to read what Lauren has to say because she knows what's going on, and she understands how non-VIP individuals can make a lot of difference by telling the truth as they see it.
And that's what you're in for, if you read Parable of the Sower: Sci-fi truth from the perspective of the disempowered—or perhaps the secretly powerful.
Officially Official Octavia Butler Website
How can a deceased writer have an official website? Never mind, here it is: a central resource for Octavia Butler stuff online.
This program, organized by nonprofit arts org Clockshop, focuses on ten commissions exploring Octavia Butler's papers at the Huntington Library.
Octavia Butler's Papers
Here's where you'd go if you really wanted to dig into Octavia Butler's work. The Huntingdon Library in San Marino, California is where her archive of papers is located.
Wait, There Was More?
You know Parable of the Sower has a sequel, Parable of the Talents. But did you know Octavia Butler had more novels planned for the series? She sure did. Find out about them here.
Julie Dash Interviews Octavia Butler
Check out this 1995 interview with Octavia Butler, not long after the publication of Parable of the Sower.
Octavia Butler Speaks
Here are some clips of Octavia Butler speaking in 2002 during a panel discussion at UCLA.
Here we've got some excerpts featuring Octavia Butler from the 1992 documentary Black Sci-Fi.
Octavia Butler Interviewed by Charlie Rose (Part 1)
This interview aired June 1, 2000 on the nightly PBS program Charlie Rose.
Octavia Butler Interviewed by Charlie Rose (Part 2)
Octavia with Charlie, Part Deux.
Original Jacket Art
Curious what the artwork looked like for the novel when it came out in 1993? Take a gander.
Octavia Butler Herself
Neat photo of Octavia Butler signing a book in 2005.