A book review of Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

I just finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I was turned on to the book after listening to a 3 part Black History Month series by Throughline.

Cover image of Octavia Butler Throughline episode by Joelle Avelino

A quick bit about Throughline

Throughline is a thought provoking podcast by the folks at NPR with two amazing hosts: Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. If you like RadioLab or any of the work from Alex Blumberg at Gimlet Media (acquired by Spotify), you should definitely listen to Throughline. My favorite episode is the one titled Supreme — on the history of the US Supreme Court. Check it out!

Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah from Throughline

Austin Kleon (who I’ve quoted a few times and am a big fanboy of), just finished reading The Parable of the Sower, too. And after reading his post, these 2 things combined really pushed me to pick up the book. It’s funny and serendipitous how you start seeing signals the more you look and listen around you.

I’m going to take a bit more of a fluid tact to this post and just pull out some thought-provoking quotes from the book. I don’t quite have a concrete conclusion to any of this, and honestly; theres so much to take in from the book — I may not have one any time soon.

OK, getting to the book

A “sci-fi” dystopian future on the streets of ‘Greater LA’, in California in 2030. The book’s protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina creates her own religion called EarthSeed which seems to be compared to Confucius and Buddhist thinking around impermanence.

Your teachers

Are all around you.

All that you perceive,

All that you experience,

All that is given to you or taken from you,

All that you love or hate,

need or fear Will teach you — If you will learn.

God is your first and your last teacher.

God is your harshest teacher: subtle, demanding.

Learn or die.

The book seems almost like we’re living the prequel to what the future looks like (I took this analogy from Austin). Modern day slaves are indebted to large corporations that run entire cities. Climate change has created a barren wasteland that has crippled the food and water supply. Citizens on drugs find more ecstasy in watching things burn than sex, and thus the US burns.

There is a sort of historical permanence as well, even with California (and the US) in such a bad state. The incoming president, Donner — still holds onto older ways of running society. Almost like there is a disconnect between policy and the actual ‘feet on the ground’.

This quote really sticks out:

“No. No, Donner’s just a kind of human banister.” “A what?” “I mean he’s like … like a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future. He’s nothing. No substance. But having him there, the latest in a two-and-a-half-century-long line of American Presidents make people feel that the country, the culture that they grew up with is still here — that we’ll get through these bad times and back to normal.”

Which brings Lauren to EarthSeed and this concept of change.

EarthSeed — Lauren’s Religion

As Lauren Olamina is grows in the decrepit streets of future outer-LA, she questions reality and the future of the human race. As she begins to write and structure her new religion, EarthSeed — two quotes that really stick out around storytelling and naming.

“SOMETIMES NAMING A THING — giving it a name or discovering its name — helps one to begin to understand it.”

“Well, today, I found the name, found it while I was weeding the back garden and thinking about the way plants seed themselves, windborne, animalborne, waterborne, far from their parent plants. They have no ability at all to travel great distances under their own power, and yet, they do travel. Even they don’t have to just sit in one place and wait to be wiped out. There are islands thousands of miles from anywhere — the Hawaiian Islands, for example, and Easter Island — where plants seeded themselves and grew long before any humans arrived. Earthseed. I am Earthseed. Anyone can be. Someday, I think there will be a lot of us. And I think we’ll have to seed ourselves farther and farther from this dying place.”

This is such a powerful idea to bring to today. So many times I’ve had vivid images and ideas that I’ve seen in my head, which become difficult for others to digest. Hand waving and continuous explanations just sometimes don’t work. Naming something, building out structures, construct lego-blocks to help people understand what you’re trying to say.

Hyperempathy Syndrome and the 3 Body Problem

Lauren has a syndrome called Hyperempathy. Basically, she feels the pain that any one around her feels; on a spectrum of anger and sadness to physical pain. Here’s a quote from Lauren in the book:

“If hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people couldn’t do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help”

Liu Cixin’s 3 Body Problem

This brings me to another sci-fi novel I’m reading by Cixin Liu called the 3-Body Problem. I won’t go into details of the plot, but an alien civilization attacking the world doesn’t have a need to converse. Humans conversing allow people to ‘hide emotions’ and seem inferior and inefficient to the alien (Trisolaran) method of communicating. The Trisolarans (from 3 Body Problem), are able to communicate in full transparency. These two concepts strike me as very similar, that if we were to just understand more and reduce our biases — we’d be able to better cooperate together.

The conclusion?

I don’t really have one, actually. I’d totally recommend going to pick up the book, Octavia Butler is an amazing writer, and really puts some thought provoking questions out there. If there’s one thing I take away, it’s in the beginning of the book. All that you touch, you change.

However, the two questions that I’m asking myself:

  1. How do I reduce bias and becoming more ‘hyper-empathetic’. I’m going to take a crack at understanding my own biases as well as the biases that pulse through the world. If we’re to do any good, we need to get better a communicating. I’ve signed up for Irrational Labs course on behavioral science, and hoping that this gets me 1% closer to understanding this.
  2. How do I build a climate resilient future and not end up in Octavia’s future. I’m thinking about small changes I can make to my daily life to hopefully make more of a compounding impact. I’ve gone 99% vegan back in March-2020 and will think through more ideas on how to better change the way I live, purchase, and build. Hopefully with the reach I have with Sutro, water management, and the other things I build — I can create a more lasting impact to strengthen the human experience.

I’ll leave this post with a quote that’s towards the beginning of the book.

All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God Is Change.

Music I was listening to while I wrote this

Herb Ellis & Remo Palmier — Windflower (1978). An amazing jazz record that I just bumped into today, thanks YouTube!

Herb Ellis and Remo Palmier — Windflower (1978)

This is day 14 of my #90DayOfProse challenge

Disrupting water.