Yesterday I went out for coffee and finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Butler wrote an oddly optimistic-yet-harrowing dystopian novel, which describes an America in decline — riddled with crime, corruption, drought, famine, and slavery. Butler tells the story of a teenage girl who watches an already-broken society fall further into chaos. The main character, Lauren, figures out how to survive in the new world while also creating a philosophy that articulates why to survive, a collection of original scripture called Earthseed.
My friend recommended Butler to me a few years ago, and — as a compulsive non-fiction reader — I was thankful for a good fiction recommendation. A few months ago I walked into a recently reopened queer bookshop in my neighborhood, and I found the Butler in the sci-fi section.
Butler was a Black feminist lesbian, one of the most influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century, and a MacArthur “genius grant” fellow. She died of a stroke in 2006 at the age of 58. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, but it feels like it could have been written last year. The book’s narrative starts in June 2024.
Parable of the Sower never had me completely transfixed as a gripping page-turner does, but I enjoyed reading it all the way through. I found the dialog a little clunky. The narrative felt very linear, with no unexpected twists and no grand climax; though, I think that’s a deliberate style, as it conveys the plodding quality of a long march and a steady social decline: a whimper, not a bang.
The book bears comparing to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was published thirteen years later. I imagine that McCarthy must have read and admired Parable of the Sower. Like Butler, McCarthy’s dystopia was a story of family traveling by foot down a long highway in a post-collapse America. Both books have harrowing scenes of cannibalism. And both books explore the themes of grief, helplessness, and hope. McCarthy’s writing is much more spare, while Butler’s writing is more socially relevant. While McCarthy’s book reads like a horror story, Butler’s reads like political observation.
And Parable of the Sower feels very real. This story from 1993 described refugees seeking safe harbor and instead falling into the trap of slavery. Here in 2022, the world is getting ready to watch a World Cup built with migrant slave labor. And I think that’s the point. Dystopian fiction processes our current reality. Orwell’s 1984 was not a warning about the future. It was a satire about the British power politics of the day.
Good dystopian fiction is a powerful reminder: when we talk about the end of the world, we’re not actually referencing annihilation. We’re talking about the end of the world as we — we the Western liberal class — understand it. An end which is always already underway. We know this because modernity has already brought an end to many worlds: the Indigenous worlds of Oceania and the Americas, the Jewish worlds of Europe, the imperial worlds of Africa. As Indigenous journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “To be Indigenous to North America is to be part of a postapocalyptic community and experience.”
Next on my list of dystopian fiction to read: Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents; Moon of the Crusted Snow, an indigenous perspective on dystopia by Canadian journalist Waubgeshig Rice; and Disnaeland, about the experience of the apocalypse in a poor Scottish town.←