Cover image of "The Parable of the Sower," a dystopian novel

Welcome to one of the most acclaimed dystopian novels of recent times. 15-year-old Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a Baptist minister and the eldest of his five children. Both Reverend Olamina and his second wife, Lauren’s stepmother, are African-American, and both hold PhDs. Lauren’s father reaches at a local college, her stepmother at the neighborhood elementary school.

American civilization in tatters

The year is 2024, and American civilization is in tatters. The drug epidemic, global warming, and the cost of endless foreign intervention have taken their toll. Government is breaking down. The police now demand “fees” for their services and frequently fail to provide them, anyway—or arrest the victim. A tiny number of immensely wealthy families live behind walls on estates patrolled by private armies. “There are at least two guns in every household.”

The Parable of the Sower (Parable #1 of 2) by Octavia E. Butler (1993) 368 pages ★★★★★ 

Lauren’s family lives in a walled middle-class neighborhood in a town near Los Angeles. In California, “it only rains once every six or seven years.” Water is more expensive than gasoline, which few could afford anyway. The Olamina family is on the edge of survival, as are all their neighbors. The neighborhood is in constant danger of invasion by poor people desperate for food and water. Young men high on a new designer drug are driven to commit indiscriminate arson and murder. At 15, Lauren is fully aware of all this. Though most of her family and neighbors are in denial, she understands that things can only get worse.

A powerful heroine searching for God

Lauren keeps two big secrets. She is hyper-empathetic, a condition that causes her to feel pain or joy as deeply as the people around her. And she is writing a journal called “Earthseed: The Books of the Living.” Earthseed is growing into a religion based on the belief that God is Change and that humanity’s destiny is to populate new worlds around distant stars. Her life revolves around these two secrets.

The story that unfolds in Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel, The Parable of the Sower, centers on Lauren’s quest to understand her God and to build a community around the Earthseed faith. “What is God?” she asks. “Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected?” Like the Biblical Job, she experiences one disaster after another. As society disintegrates around her, Lauren grows more secure in her faith and proves to be a charismatic leader.

A successful dystopian novel

The Parable of the Sower is one of the most successful dystopian novels of the 20th century. (It’s the first of two novels in the Parable story.) Author Octavia Butler vividly paints a picture of the desperation that has taken hold of the American people. The novel was published in 1993, when 2024 must have seemed to represent the distant future. From the perspective of 2017, the conditions Butler describes seem unlikely to come about in less than a decade. Skip ahead 20 or 30 years, though, and that picture is more believable. And that is the ultimate function of a dystopian novel.

About the author

The late Octavia E. Butler twice won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. She was one of the best-known women authors in the field and among a handful of successful African-American science fiction writers. I’m familiar with the work of only two others: Samuel R. (Chip) Delany and Walter Mosley (although Mosley is best known for his crime fiction). She wrote 14 novels and two books of short stories. Her best-known works are the five books of the Xenogenesis series and the two Parable novels.

This book is a prime example of Octavia Butler’s prescient science fiction. It’s also one of the many Good books about racism and of 20 good nonfiction books about the future.

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