Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Octavia Butler and the Parables (part 3; on the Sower novel)

Butler, Parable of the Sower

This lengthy summary/analysis will be greatly abridged in the book, but hopefully this more lengthy version will encourage people to read this thought-provoking novel.

Butler's science fiction novel Parable of the Sower combines the story of a young woman “coming of age” with a quest story—with people searching to find a place to survive and perhaps even to live happy lives. But, as McGonigal observes, many of Butler’s works could better be categorized as science fact, instead of science fiction: “It is imaginative writing but it is firmly grounded in the world in which we live, where we come from, and in the bodies and minds we inhabit, not only physically, but morally and spiritually” (Francis 2010: 134). Butler herself notes:
I have written books about making the world a better place and how to make humanity more survivable. . . . [T]he Parable series serve as fairy tales. I wrote the Parable books because of the direction of the country. You can call it save the world fiction, but it clearly doesn’t save anything. It just calls people’s attention to the fact that so much needs to be done and obviously [there] are people who are running this country who don’t care. I mean look at what the Congress is doing in terms of taking money away from every cause that is helping people who aren’t very rich (Francis 2010: 227).
. . .
I want to talk about what’s going to happen if we keep doing what we’re doing, if we keep recklessly endangering the environment, if we keep paying no attention to economic realities, if we keep paying no attention to educational needs, if we keep doing a lot of the things that are hurting us now, and that’s what I wound up writing about . . . (Francis 2010: 220).
Lauren is the first to realize that life within the walled enclave is unsustainable; sooner or later, their neighborhood will be attacked, looted, and destroyed, and the inhabitants killed. Most of Lauren’s cohabitants in the walled enclave are deluded into thinking that if they only survive long enough, the “good old days” will return. As Butler notes:
Their way of life is going nowhere. What they’re doing is trying to hold on until the good-old-days come back. Even though they’re decent people, that’s what we would do, because we wouldn’t know what else to do. And the people who pick it up and carry on from there are the kids. Because it doesn’t occur to them that they don’t know what gold-old-days they’re talking about because they weren’t around for them (Francis 2010: 46).
Lauren, however, realizes that their time is limited before the community is attacked and destroyed:
God I hate this place.
I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough (48)
Society has been so devastated that people cannot or do not trust each other unless they are family or are partners within a walled community. People in Lauren’s community travel in armed groups whenever they had to leave their walled community, but they were not safe from attacks, even within their walls. One by one, people begin to be killed. Thieves also regularly break in to steal food or other valuables, so the small community set up a neighborhood watch with two-person patrols to guard the neighborhood at night. The attacks worsen, as thieves start breaking into homes and murdering people who got in their way.

The long term plan of Lauren’s emerging Earthseed God-is-change religion is to bear fruit, like the seed of the Sower parable that fell on the good soil, but the good soil was ultimately to be found on other planets:
We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe., Godseed is all there is—all that Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads Earthlife to new earths. The universe is Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars (71).
Like plants who “seed themselves” both near and far to survive—they don’t “sit in one place and wait to be wiped out”—human beings have to move both near and far to ensure their ultimate survival (71-72). Religion is the tool that Lauren (Olamina) uses to create the long-term goal of what Butler calls “human insurance” of Earthseed taking “root among the stars,” where people “go to heaven” while still alive and hopefully prevent human beings from going the way of the dinosaurs on earth (Francis 2010: 175).
Lauren begins to prepare to survive on her own by studying books on how to live on one's own in the wilderness, California plants and their uses, what to do in case of medical emergencies, how to build log cabins, and other works helpful for survival. She prepared a “survival pack” in case she needed to escape quickly.

It became clear that their time of relative safety was soon coming to an end when there were seven intrusions—three successful—by thieves into the community in less than two months. Lauren’s brother Keith was killed, and then her father went missing and was presumed dead as well. Even though she was no longer a Christian, Lauren took his place at church the next Sunday and preached a sermon to the dwindling congregation of frightened people. 

Lauren preached a sermon about perseverance, and she chose as her text the parable of the Importunate Widow. Lauren says that she always liked that parable, because it tells the story of a woman who is so persistent in her demands for justice that she “wears down” the amoral judge. The moral of the parable is that the “weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary” (124). Lauren’s point was that the community had to persist, now without her father’s leadership, in order to survive. She concluded by warning the congregation/community of what awaited them if they did not persist:
. . . Starvation, agony at the hands of people who aren’t human any more. Dismemberment. Death.
            We have God and we have each other. We have our island community, fragile, and yet a fortress. Sometimes it seems too small and too weak to survive. And like the widow in Christ’s parable, its enemies fear neither God nor man. But also like the widow, it persists. We persist. This is our place, no matter what (125).

Lauren herself had been preparing to leave the little walled community for over two years, but she preached this sermon for her father and for what he stood for, even though she knew her words about the community were not true: “. . . as much as I want all that I said to be true, it isn’t. We’ll be moved, all right. It’s just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces” (125).

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