Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The cover to Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower."

Parable of the Sower” offers a frightening firsthand look at a slow-moving apocalypse. It seems scarily prescient in our uneasy times.

Our protagonist is Lauren, a teenage girl who lives with her family and neighbors in a walled-off block in far-suburban Los Angeles. Society outside is crumbling; it doesn’t rain anymore, and groups of gangs and desperate homeless people live violent lives out on the streets.

It’s not a full-on Mad Max dystopia. A fortunate few still have jobs, even if commuting back and forth to them is no longer a sure proposition now that even the relatively fortunate can’t afford gas–or travel without making themselves a target.

Still, Lauren and her neighbors manage to eke out a thin existence in their complex, growing crops and slaughtering rabbits. Things gradually grow worse as intruders come in to rob and murder, and Lauren’s clear-eyed preacher father begins to intensify the community watch and firearms training.

Lauren independently realizes that their way of life is coming to an end. She begins preparing to flee, and she also turns away from her religious background, building her own faith. Earthseed, as she calls it, reflects the dual beliefs that life is unceasing change and that humanity needs to find its ultimate destiny out among the stars.

Lauren eventually finds herself on the road with a small band, disparate people, unlikely apostles. They take a dangerous journey, one that leads to death and loss but also discovery. It’s moving and gripping, with a constant sense of peril driving the reader to plow through the pages.

Author Octavia Butler does a great job building her world, giving us a plausible apocalypse. She does a good job establishing her characters too, even if the community at the end seems to come together a bit too easily.

The largest issue I have with the book is the character of Lauren herself. She’s supposed to be a teenager, but she comes across as a full adult, with a patience and perspective that belies her years. She has been shaped by trauma–including a power/disability, the empathetic sharing of pain–but she becomes a leader too easily, gaining authority on the road that extends beyond anything she could have read in the survival manuals she stockpiled.

Lauren’s journey is compelling, but it would have felt more authentic to see her struggle more along the way. (The book also has a May-December romance that stretches plausibility as well as good taste). That said, “Parable of the Sower” is an excellent piece of apocalyptic fiction, harrowing and real.