Study Guide

Parable of the Sower Community

By Octavia E. Butler

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Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.

Civilization, like intelligence, may serve well, serve adequately, or fail to serve its adaptive function. When civilization fails to serve, it must disintegrate unless it is acted upon by unifying internal or external forces. (2026.Verse)

This passage from Lauren's verses draws an analogy between civilization for groups and intelligence for individuals. Both are problem-solving or adaptation tools. For civilization, you can pretty much read the word community. Of course, this passage introduces the year 2026, which is when Robledo is on its last legs. That community doesn't do so well at achieving ongoing group adaptation.

Or—consider it from this angle—in Robledo, they didn't have all that much community to begin with. Sure, they had the shooting practices and the neighborhood watches, but they were still overwhelmed with working for paymasters, not having enough easy, affordable access to water, and so on.

We'll adapt. We'll have to. God is Change. (13.97)

These sentences spell out Lauren's basic belief that the community has to adapt when confronted by change. Robbers are breaking into Robledo and stealing stuff (including Cory's sewing machine), things are going down the drain, and people are trying to adapt to this new reality...but perhaps their history of denying change and denying truth is what prevents them from adapting successfully in time to keep Robledo alive.

So in a few days, the new term will start and Cory will do Dad's work—while I do her work. I'll handle the school with help from her and from Russel Dory [...]

Alex Montoya and Kayla Talcott will take over Dad's preaching and other church work. Neither is ordained, but both have substituted for Dad in the past. Both have authority in the community and the church. And, of course, both know their Bible.

This is how we will survive and hold together. It will work. I don't know how long it will last, but for now, it will work. (13.103-105)

See, the community is definitely trying to adapt in the face of all the problematic change, especially Reverend Olamina's disappearance. But Lauren certainly has the sense that these community adaptations might not be sufficient to sustain Robledo for a long period of time. When does it make sense to build one's local community to solve problems, and when does it make sense to simply desert one's local community and head out elsewhere for a new beginning? Ultimately, Lauren decides to leave once she's eighteen, but before that birthday, invaders destroy her town, forcing the choice to leave on her.

"We're a pack, the three of us, and all those other people out there aren't in it. If we're a good pack, and we work together, we have a chance. You can be sure we aren't the only pack out here." (16.29)

Lauren and Zahra turning people away who request help from them leads Harry to question why their three-person group won't be more trusting of strangers. This quotation is part of what Lauren tells him in response. She adopts a real dog-eat-dog kind of mentality shortly after her escape from Robledo, not trusting much of anyone. She's not so much thinking in terms of building an Earthseed community; she's thinking about sheer survival. Later, once she's in a stronger position, she becomes more welcoming of strangers. This suggests that to build community, a person might need to be starting from a decently safe position, rather than a very vulnerable one.

God is neither good
nor evil,
neither loving
nor hating.
God is Power.
God is Change.
We must find the rest of what we need
within ourselves,
in one another,
in our Destiny. (20.Verse.1-10)

This verse of Lauren's tells her audience to find what they need in each other, within their community. Why didn't that strategy work for her very well in Robledo? What's different outside Robledo that makes the strategy start working better?

"But tell me, what do people have to do to be good members of an Earthseed Community?"

[...] "The essentials," I answered, "are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny." (21.21-22)

All right, so here's the charter or mission statement of an Earthseed community, at least as far as Lauren can come up with one as she's walking north as a refugee with Bankole. She says the essentials are to shape God, to help your community and yourself, and to contribute to the Destiny (settling in outer space). Sounds pretty good, right? But are there catches anywhere? For that, you should probably check out Parable of the Talents, this novel's sequel.

They both wanted to run away. They were like deer, frozen in terror, about to bolt. But I'd said the magic word. Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have said it, but I said today to these two starved-looking people: "eat." (23.19)

Sharing food is a time-honored way to build community. Just think of potlucks or other events like that in real life today.

"I say you're going soft," Harry said. "You would have raised hell if we'd tried to take in a beggar woman and her child a few weeks ago."

I nodded. "You're right. I would have. And maybe that's the attitude we should keep. But these two . . . I think they might be worth something—and I don't think they're dangerous. If I'm wrong, we can always dump them." (23.62-63)

This exchange between Harry and Lauren marks one of the moments when our narrator changes. You know, God is change, so of course Lauren is gonna change, right? Earlier, she was saying that they had to be wary of strangers and fend for themselves, but now she's more intent on building an Earthseed community. Still, she maintains a tough attitude: if these newcomers don't work out, Lauren's ready to ditch them.

I left Mora, went over to Allie, and walked with her for a while. [...]

I hugged her then. I put my hands on her shoulders and stopped her half-blind plodding. When she swung around to face me, hostile and hurting, I hugged her. She could have broken free. I was feeling far from strong just then, but after a first angry pulling away, she hung on to me and moaned. I've never heard anyone moan like that. She cried and moaned there at the roadside, and the others stopped and waited for us. No one spoke. Justin began to whimper and Natividad came back to comfort him. The wordless message was the same for both child and woman: In spite of your loss and pain, you aren't alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family. (24.98-100)

Family is often a person's first community, so sometimes the concepts of family and community seem interchangeable. The wordless message Lauren conveys to Allie by hugging her is, Hey, you still have family. Perhaps family is a more primal concept than community, in that most people are born into a family and can't choose it, while a community can be a chosen or created place or group of people.

[W]e came across a tiny, expensive store, being run from the back of an old truck near a cluster of half-burned, collapsed cabins. It sold fruit, vegetables, nuts, and smoked fish. We all had to buy a few things, but Emery squandered too much money on pears and walnuts for everyone. She delighted in passing these around, in being able to give us something for a change. She's all right. We'll have to teach her about shopping and the value of money, but she's worth something, Emery is. And she's decided she's one of us. (24.191)

Lauren sees worth in Emery because the former debt slave delights in spending her unexpected money in such a way as to give gifts to others. It may not be the soundest financial strategy, but it does show that Emery wishes to contribute to and be a part of Lauren's Earthseed community. So, money's not everything, especially when a person belongs to a supportive community.

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