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This acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from an award-winning author “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale” and includes a foreword by N. K. Jemisin.
When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ emotions.Amazon
I made up ASPECT and I like it, but I do tend to want to go out of order more often than not. Oh well, such is life.
T: Why This Book?
My book club used to read the same book(s) every month and then talk about them. But then… covid. It was hard to borrow books from each other, it was hard to borrow books from the libraries, and for a lot of people, it was just hard to read. We started picking books for the group more as a theme “this month read a mystery” or by subject “read a book that relates to food in some way” and this month we decided to be a bit more specific: “Read a book by Octavia Butler!”
I picked Parable of the Sower as I have always heard that it is Butler’s best work or at least the one she is the most famous for but I had never read it.
The book takes place in the early/mid 2020s… 2024-2027. The “future” it paints is… horribly not all that implausible. It is weird to read books set in the future that is now because you cannot help but compare, to see the differences, and to be horrified by the overlaps. Interesting to note, Butler wrote this book in the early 1990s. She was writing only thirty years into her own future which is a pretty bold move considering how she described it.
ALSO worth noting… because heck, this is my review and I have been really good about not putting Star Trek into everything… but that’s about to change…
This book came out in 1993 and in 1995 the two part Deep Space Nine episode Past Tense came out and it has sooo much overlap that I am willing to bet a rabbit that the writers over at DS9 read this book. Both take place in 2024, both have the walls, and the abhorrent poverty…. Both have people fighting back… both have the government / police that do nothing…
I mean, DS9’s ep was optimistic with the benefit of this being a time traveling episode where we know that *eventually* things worked out for the humans…. Eventually… Butler’s look at the future is far more pessimistic, far more brutal, far more hard to live in for a while… but the parallels are interesting.
The atmosphere and the tone of this book is dark. The world is dark… but it is never unbelievable. That is what makes it so scary. We believe every word that Lauren, our protagonist, tells us. More on Lauren in a second, but before we move away from atmosphere… again, I say that this book is so presiant and believable that it is difficult to get through.
The book is about a horrible horrible world and the horrors never stop. In the hands of a less skilled writer, you could get desensitized to what is happening. So many murders. So many rapes. So many children being killed. But somehow Butler keeps us feeling those feelings without ever going numb, as much as we might wish we could.
Butler’s writing, especially her writing of our main character Lauren, is really layered. There are a lot of things going on both in the world around Lauren and in Lauren’s mind that even Lauren isn’t fully aware of, but that we as readers know… and then there are the things that Lauren decides to not tell us. This is a complicated character who walks a very, very fine line between being competent and a Mary Sue. And honestly, I think she strays over that line a few times. She is the only one who really sees the danger? She is the only one who has done XYZ? She is… gifted but also like, touched by the God she doesn’t believe in. What keeps her away from annoying Mary sue-ness, I think, is that she is a prophet and she legit has a weird supernatural ability that does her more harm than good. Also, she thankfully surrounds herself with helpers and is humble enough to learn from others. She doesn’t see herself as the Chosen One even if she acts like it. And let’s be clear, she is creating a religion out of the chaos of her world, and as someone with a healthy dose of skepticism for any religious leader, I sometimes found her hard to understand. Which… I think is okay. I am curious if her “specialness” continues to fuel her and if she becomes the thing she mistrusts… Was Butler planning on writing a series where Lauren would evolve into something that early Lauren would not have liked? Does power corrupt? Sadly, Butler only wrote one more book in this “trilogy” before she died. And… honestly I haven’t decided if I want to read it yet.
We are reading Lauren’s journal so a lot of times we get action scenes backhanded. The entry will open up with “we survived the attack” and then we get the story of the attack etc. This works fine… but sometimes it made it hard to get the adrenaline pumping during a scene that should have had us on the edge of our seats.
And… is Lauren a reliable narrator? Sure. Mostly. But we are limited to her experiences and her perception of those experiences. And… ok… I know she is the special gifted person… but sometimes I had trouble really buying that her voice was authentic. When I found myself bumping on her words though I would just remind myself that she is a supernatural being who is the founder of a religion in a world where people have supernatural abilities… it is hard to quibble over what parts of the fantasy are hard to believe when you remember that this is speculative fiction, not just dystopian fiction.
As for any other note about Butler’s writing style. Well… I feel like Lauren’s voice was mighty similar to Dana’s voice from Kindred. Maybe that’s just Butler’s voice coming through and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, there you have it.
It’s a bit long and I think it might have benefited from having a shorter/quicker start. The story really picks up after Lauren is forced to flee her neighborhood. Until then, it was a lot of set up and exposition but it was very clear that everyone, even the characters, were waiting for something to happen, waiting for the story to really start. I could have seen this story working really well if the “before the exodus” bit had been told in flashbacks on the journey. But the story itself was interesting enough to keep me reading.
Yes. It was clearly setting up a longer story, and so there were some aspects that went past slow burn and into “those coals are only kinda warm” territory for me.
And yet… I cared a lot about what was happening. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, and I was downright worried for several of the characters. So, yes. It was entertaining.
Would I recommend it?
Probably. I think I liked Kindred better.But yes, this is a really interesting book full of interesting and frightening warnings about the future. I am glad I read it.
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?T This? Why did I read *This* book?