Review: Parable of the Sower
Growing up, I didn’t gave much thought to the lack of diversity among my favorite science fiction authors. That’s become much more important to me in recent years, so I’ve been branching out from Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein with more contemporary and diverse voices like Martha Wells, Anne Leckie, and Ada Palmer. Naturally, a friend’s recommendation of Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler shot to the top of my reading list.
The novel ticks the more superficial boxes for speculative fiction. You’ve got “pyro,” an illicit drug that induces obsession with fire. You can imagine how that goes over in a dystopian society. And then there’s the psychological condition known as “sharing,” where those affected involuntarily experience the pleasure and pain they witness in others.
Although those concepts are fun and thoughtfully integrated, they ultimately don’t matter too much. Butler’s investigation of interpersonal relationships provides far more substance. Partly that’s thanks to fertile soil: a revered father, an estranged brother, and a betraying friend each offer a lot of opportunity for exploration. The novel rises to the challenge with some pretty nuanced interpretation of these characters’ interactions. (Although this makes the treatment of the protagonist’s boyfriend seem out-of-place. Far be it from me to suggest that Parable needs a stronger male voice, but the narrator has surprisingly little to say about this person who she suspects she may love.)
More than just being entertaining in its own right, reflection like this gives the handholds necessary to observe real character development. Lauren–the book’s narrator–is particularly reserved for her age. That immediately spoils the hackneyed coming-of-age arc that you might expect from a story with a teenaged narrator. Lauren’s development is much more unique than that, and it’s only appreciable thanks to her empathic nature and Butler’s skill at portraying it.
It’s just one aspect of the book’s unceremoniously tragic tendency. Terrible things happen with little warning or reason, and due to the narrator’s limited perspective, many other developments are hopelessly ambiguous. Parable is a page turner, but it is not a beach read. The book’s brutal inclinations made reaching the conclusion particularly nerve-wracking.
…but it might be the best way to understand the story’s setting. The state of the world is never explained in so many words, so there’s plenty of room for interpretation. Instead of some cataclysmic event, Butler’s dystopia appears to be have been precipitated by gradual degradation through years of social unrest. Her central argument may be that we’re already headed in this direction–no catastrophe required.
Butler’s ideas about policing, capitalism, and modern-day racism may be more palatable for liberally-minded readers. Although I found Parable’s overtly political content compelling, I’m interested to see how it reads to my more right-learning friends.