THE PLOT: ‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia Butler is a dystopian novel set in California. In a world where the climate crisis has led to a lack of resources and economic instability, the U.S. is a lawless land where people rob and kill to get by. The protagonist, Lauren, lives in a middle-class gated community where they’re just about hanging on. The families watch out for each other, patrolling the gate with their guns and growing whatever food they can. But with the political situation getting worse and hungry refugees streaming through California on the way to Canada, can the community survive?
RATING: This book has forever changed me. It’s a new favourite and I honestly think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. In fact, I think it might be one of the best books ever written. Published in 1993, the book is set in 2024 – eerily close to our present-day. It’s a realistic dystopia, where the 80’s and early 90’s resemble history, and the economic, social and racial tensions, which are so often lacking from sci-fi, mirror our current society. The format is diary entries written by a Black teenager, Lauren. Sometimes an epistolary format can feel a bit stilted due to limited dialogue and POV, but it was a perfect medium for this insular, atmospheric, tense novel. And don’t get me started on the themes. This is a book about capitalism and racism; psychology and philosophy. It is complex in its thematic scope but simple in its explanation of these weighty topics. It’s a book that doesn’t preach – it makes you think about the world and your place in it. That’s why it’s a true classic.
GOOD BITS: I think this book is perfection because it has every artistic element of an exceptional novel. The plot kept moving forward and I often gasped at the developments. My heart was always in my mouth. The latter half is a bit more repetitive and slow due to the nature of the events (no spoilers) but the atmosphere is so strong, you feel like you’re moving through the landscape with the characters. Speaking of the characters, they’re complex and vibrant and terrifying and kind. Each character has so many layers and, because they’re all in extreme distress, the plot brings out the best and worst of their traits seamlessly.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: There is a lot of trauma in this book and it might feel too heavy for some. Yet its skill is that the escalating trauma and tension feels wholly believable. For me, every time the trauma got too much there was a new plot point that carried me through it, so I was excited to keep reading amongst the gloom. Another potential criticism is that there was a bit of repetition but I felt this made sense for the diary format. Finally, I also think the parallels with the transatlantic slave trade might be a little too on the nose but, again, it is wholly believable given the historical context.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood and ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison. I read that Octavia Butler claimed to have three loyal audiences: Black readers, sci-fi fans and feminists, and I count myself as all three so it’s no wonder that I loved this book. But truly, I think everyone should read this. If you are interested in geo-politics, sociology, race, religion and history, this is a pivotal book that is part of the canon. It’s an example of how a novel can contribute to political discourse just as much as non-fiction. Butler won a McArthur Genius Grant and I daresay this book is a novel is just that, simply genius.
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