Review: Parable of the Sower

When I was reading SF in my younger days, I tended to stick to hard SF and Space Opera. Those have their pleasures, and expand one’s thinking in some interesting ways – though often in what’s missing than what’s there, I’ve been gravitating toward more literary SF of late. The freedom to speculate seems even more powerful to me when meshed with a fresh contemporary point of view.  Dhalgren and and the like (if there is anything like Dhalgren) have been greatly invigorating.

Octavia Butler came to my attention via the brilliant KPCC show Off-Ramp.  After hearing her praises from such a trusted source I had to read something and I picked Parable of the Sower. It lived up to any hype.

Parable is set in a near-future collapsing America well on its way to dystopia.  Butler brings a keen eye for how real communities and people behave to this world. The collapse is not with a bang, but a progression.  Individual neighborhoods and suburbs hold on to different degrees, but they are being slowly consumed by the larger collapse.  One can see the frog boiling, but it’s also clear why the people in the world don’t.  And why we probably wouldn’t. People’s powerful cocktails of  experience, continuity, and hope will leave them in various positions of denial.

Importantly, Butler breathes life into both communities being overrun by mobs and the mobs doing the overrunning.  Every one is believable and to some extent sympathetic.  It is difficult to imagine walking a mile in even the worst mob member and condemn them.  Having seen this, many other fictional societal collapses feel contrived.

At the core of Parable is a young woman who perceives the danger and also takes inspiration from some bits of the collapsing society.  She’s a slowly forming charismatic leader motivated to form a community to carry a form of civilization forward.  Again, one believes who she is, even as the question of who in the world might follow her, and if that’s a good idea remains profoundly open.

The idea of community is central to Parable. Butler depicts the collapsing communities – from nation through neighborhood to family – with compassion and power. It seems to me that she also believes that humans will always form communities, and so she shows us the evolving tribes and the sorts of connections that form them.  It is a virtuoso performance with much to learn from and consider about it.

By the way, her writing is quite brilliant taken sentence-by-sentence and chapter-by-chapter.

Strongly recommended.

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