Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993, 299 pages
When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister's young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny... and the birth of a new faith.
It's purely a coincidence that I chose to read this book right after reading the disappointing Life As We Knew It, and perhaps unfair that I'm now going to compare Susan Pfeffer to Octavia Butler, which is kind of like comparing... oh, hell, there is no comparison.
But on the surface, the two stories are quite similar. In both books, the main character is a teenage girl facing the end of the world as she knows it. Both stories are first person narratives told in the form of journal entries. Parable of the Sower is probably too dark and too mature to be considered "Young Adult," but that label is more a matter of marketing nowadays than an actual category. Butler's novel features a young heroine who becomes a leader in a dystopian sci-fi story and has plenty of action, sex, and violence. There's absolutely no reason why the same audience that's all over crap like The Hunger Games (and I say "crap" with affection -- I loved The Hunger Games, really!), which also features death and gore and dead teenagers in a brutal dystopia, shouldn't be reading Octavia Butler.
There’s this thing about Octavia Butler. She’s always, always mentioned in race-and-gender-in-SF discussions as this great shining beacon of greatness, because she’s the one well-known African-American woman writer most SF fans can name (even if they haven’t read her), whose works were also known for explicitly and unflinchingly dealing with issues of race and gender. So on the one hand, yes, she was great (you don’t win multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and a McArthur Foundation Genius Grant just for being the late 20th-century antidote to Race!Fail), but I have always gotten the feeling that in the minds of many fans, she occupies pride of place on this special shelf where you put books you can take down to show off your Genre Fiction Diversity Awareness. I’ve hardly ever seen her praised purely and solely because she’s a damn good author who wrote damn good science fiction, dammit; it’s almost always in the context of how great she was at writing about race and how brilliantly she examined oppression and wasn't it great that someone was writing science fiction about black people?
I think that is very unfortunate, because she was brilliant at all the things she's acclaimed for, but she also wrote damn good science fiction.
A dystopian America doesn't need imaginary technologies or aliens or meteors or warps in space-time
Parable of the Sower is set in California in 2027. Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a Baptist preacher, living with her father, her stepmother, and her four younger brothers in a gated community near Los Angeles. We learn all about Lauren and her world in the first few chapters, and there isn't a single infodump; it just emerges as Lauren tells her story. (Whenever a SF author uses fixed dates in a futuristic novel, it requires a certain amount of adjustment on the part of the reader. Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1993, so she was looking about 34 years ahead. Lauren says she was born in 2009; the novel starts when she's 15, and continues until she is 18.)
This is America on the brink of collapse. On the surface, it's still the same country Lauren's parents grew up in, but the class warfare that was already underway in the 1990s has nearly reached its logical conclusion: the rich "won." It's an anarcho-libertarian dream state. The police and fire departments will not come to your assistance unless you pay hefty fees, unaffordable to the general population. Company towns that put their employees in debt slavery are returning. The new President is about to dismantle the space program and institute laws that will basically reintroduce debtors' prisons and slavery.
Lauren's community is far from wealthy -- in fact, they are struggling to survive -- but the fact that they have a community, with a protective wall around it, means they have stuff to steal, which means they have more than those around them. The world is becoming increasingly violent. Nobody ventures outside except in armed groups.
We learn several important things about Lauren right away. First, she suffers from "hyperempathy." Because of a drug her mother was taking when she was pregnant, Lauren feels the pleasure and pain of those around her. While she discovers early on that this makes sex way fun, it's much more of a disability than anything else; she bleeds when she sees someone else injured. This actually makes her ruthless: if she gets in a fight, she has to demolish her opponent immediately, before she collapses.
The second thing we learn is that she is creating her own religion. (She says she is "discovering" it.) She writes down her thoughts in what she calls "The Book of the Living," quotations of which begin each chapter of the novel. Later, her new religion is informally dubbed "Earthseed."
The third thing we learn about her, though it's never explicitly stated, is that Lauren is a genius. She is very, very smart and perceptive, and if creating her own religion didn't indicate something ingenious about her, the way she foresees the coming collapse and begins planning for it, even before her father does, is proof that she's one remarkable child.
Eventually, the collapse happens, and it's bloody and terrible. Lauren strikes out on her own (not by choice), making her way north. Along the way, she picks up traveling companions, some of whom form the core of her new religion.
Parable of the Sower was the first book in what Butler planned as a trilogy. There is a second book, Parable of the Talents, which I am definitely going to read. Butler supposedly planned a third book that would take the new "Earthseed" faith to the stars -- sadly, she never wrote it before she passed away.
I was very wary about Lauren and her "religion" -- I've seen plenty of attempts to do "spirituality" in science fiction, which usually comes off as either some kind of weird techno-paganism, New Agey quantum mysticism, or New & Improved Christianity minus the priests and the dead guy on a stick.
In a nutshell, "Earthseed" represents "God" as a metaphor for change. Lauren's God is not personal, not self-aware, and not an anthropomorphic being; she says that God shapes and is shaped by people. Which is not a particularly novel idea, but I'm giving a very superficial summary. Slowly her theology grew on me. Not in the sense that I thought "Yeah, I'd totally sign up for that religion," but in the sense that it made me believe that Lauren was, for lack of a better word, a "prophet" bringing a new religion into being. When she finally starts talking about it to other people, she gets exactly the kinds of questions and skepticism you'd expect. One person, an educated older man, tells her rather dismissively that it sounds like a blend of Sufism and Buddhism. Most of her companions tell her flat-out that they aren't interested in joining her "cult." Others ask her, "What's the point?" And she has answers, but they're not glib answers, and Lauren is far from infallible.
I was not entirely sure whether Butler was expressing some of her own theological views through Lauren, or if it was just an exercise in creating a plausible SF religion. I suspect a little of both, but it was very well done, among the best such efforts I've ever seen, and I'm prepared to see how this faith develops in the next book.
Lauren Olamina shines a light through the papery-thinness of most YA heroines
Lauren's hyperempathy makes it impossible for her to be an action heroine. She gets in fights -- she even kills -- and then she curls up into a ball of pain.
But she's real. She's thoughtful. She's believable. She's smart. She has a plan, but she hasn't worked everything out in her head, and things happen that she didn't plan on, and she makes mistakes.
She's hard and ruthless and does what she has to to survive; she's no saint. But she's also trying to create a community that will have hope and morals and build a better world. She does this knowing that she's probably going to fail and they're all going to die.
Usually, the main character has a visible glow of authorial fiat upon her: the Fickle Finger of Destiny has singled her out and you know she's going to do Great Things. Especially when the story is, at least in part, about the main character starting her own religion.
Throughout Parable of the Sower, I never got the sense that Lauren was predestined to succeed at anything. Sure, I knew that since she's the main character (and there's at least one more book in the series) she probably wouldn't die, but nowhere in the story did it feel like her uniqueness and her grand plans meant she was singled out for anything special. It seemed entirely possible (and several times, likely) that she was going to die on the highway, capped by some random passerby before her new religion ever gets off the ground.
Mostly, she is a keen observer of people. And she's never quite sure.
“You’ll come with me then?”
“No. I’d like to. But no.”
He smiled. “Yes. You’ll come.”
I watched him. I tried to read the smile, but it’s hard to read a bearded face. It’s easier to say what I didn’t see, or I didn’t recognize. I didn’t see condescension, or that particular kind of disregard that some men reserve for women. He wasn’t deciding that my ‘no’ was a secret ‘yes.’ Something else was going on.
I loved this book. I'd like to put it in the hands of everyone who reads about formulaic heroines with supernatural boyfriends or dystopian warrior-teens stumbling their way around a world constructed with more gosh-cool factor than depth and history.
That said, I'd have to warn that it's not a light or cheerful read. Octavia Butler is as brutal as Cormac McCarthy, but when there's rape, murder, and cannibalism in her stories, it's not just to set the mood.
Verdict: This is an exciting, complex, thoughtful, tense, dark but hopeful story that succeeds on every level. Most dystopian fiction you're reading today is weak, dumb tea, especially if it comes from the YA shelf. I'm all for reading stories just because they make you think and make you uncomfortable, and Parable of the Sower does that, but it's also just plain good storytelling.