SF/F Saturday: Parable of the Sower/Curse of Chalion

Last year, I mentioned that I was making an effort to read more science fiction and fantasy by female authors. I’m still working on that goal – I’m now up to 15 out of 100 – and here are two of the latest ones I’ve read from that list.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

I’ve had a hard time getting into Octavia Butler’s writing. She’s a gifted author, but I read fiction mostly for escapism, and her books aren’t great for that. Almost all of them center around protagonists in terrible dilemmas who have to make the best of a bad set of choices.

Kindred, about a woman pulled out of time into the era of one of her enslaved ancestors, is almost unbearably bleak and violent. Dawn is out-and-out body horror: a race of aliens save a small number of humans from a nuclear holocaust, but in exchange, they want to interbreed with us – and they’re not asking for consent. Parable of the Sower, though it’s not exactly uplifting, I thought was the most readable yet.

It takes place in 2024, in a dystopian near-future U.S. which is collapsing into anarchy. The few people who still have jobs huddle together in walled towns, banding together to defend themselves from violent hordes of thieves, looters and drug-crazed arsonists who besiege them at night. The federal government is a distant and unconcerned power, making lofty speeches about funding colonies on the Moon and Mars while the country disintegrates. (Yes, this all feels a little on the nose right now.)

Butler’s heroine, Lauren Olamina, is a teenage girl who lives in a gated community near Los Angeles. She’s afflicted with what Butler calls hyperempathy syndrome – she feels the pain and suffering of those around her, whether she wants to or not – which makes her almost incapable of defending herself, a major liability when violence is always on the margins.

Although her father is a minister clinging to his faith, Lauren is a heretic. She’s invented a new religion, which she calls Earthseed, the premise of which is that “God is change” and that believers who learn to go with the flow can find peace in a world lacking stability. It also teaches that humans have a destiny to escape the worn-down, used-up Earth and take root among the stars.

Lauren is almost alone in recognizing that their way of life is becoming untenable. When her warnings are borne out and their community is destroyed, she flees into the wilderness with a patchwork assortment of followers. With no one to rely on but each other, they strike out in search of a new place to settle, spreading the gospel of her new religion as they go.

Butler’s plot is like a modern religious allegory – each chapter is written as one of Lauren’s journal entries – which is an angle I liked (and wanted to see more of; the story ends before we see how it all turned out). However, I wasn’t a big fan of the Earthseed idea. I think she was aiming for something like Taoism with a sci-fi twist, but mostly it’s just vague platitudes. To be fair, it’s probably only familiarity that makes actual religions seem any less silly to us.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Now that’s more like it.

The list’s recommendation for Lois McMaster Bujold was Shards of Honor, a space opera. I read that and its followup, Barrayar, and enjoyed them a lot. But they’re an extended prologue to a longer series I haven’t read, so I’ll have to come back to them.

But that was enough to get me interested in Bujold’s other books, which convinced me that she’s an author I really should have known about long before now. Her novel The Curse of Chalion was outstanding, better than any fantasy I’ve read for years.

Chalion is set in a kingdom reminiscent of medieval Spain, except its people are polytheists. They believe in four deities, Father, Mother, Son and Daughter, each associated with a season. But there’s also a fifth, the Bastard, the god of “things out of season”. Among other things, the Bastard is a god of justice. If there’s someone who’s wronged you terribly, you can pray to him to deliver a lethal smiting, and sometimes he will… but if the Bastard grants your death prayer, your own life is forfeit as well. How can you not love worldbuilding with a concept like that?

Bujold’s protagonist is Cazaril, an old soldier scarred in body and mind from a bloody war and a long, brutal captivity. As the novel begins, he returns to the home of his former patron, seeking nothing more than a fireside to curl up on. Instead, almost in spite of himself, he winds up yoked to a new purpose: tutor to the fierce, intelligent but impetuous princess Iselle.

When Iselle is summoned to a distant court, Cazaril accompanies her – only to find that the places of power in that court are occupied by the false friends who betrayed him the first time. When those enemies set their sights on Iselle, Cazaril resorts to the darkest and most forbidden magic to protect her. But instead of sacrificing himself as planned, he discovers he’s become a most unwilling pawn of the gods as part of a divine plan to lift an old curse that’s haunted the land.

But all else aside, this is just plain great storytelling. Bujold’s writing fairly crackles with wit and energy, and she has a gift for dialogue. Cazaril is wonderfully sarcastic, and gets some great lines like this one, where he’s offering a prayer for the dead:

“Mercy, High Ones.” Not justice, please, not justice. We would all be fools to pray for justice.

Bujold’s depiction of female characters is also excellent, not surprisingly. Far from being passive prizes for the men, they have desires and agency of their own and find ways to exercise it, even in a feudal-medieval world that restricts their choices similarly to the real world of the corresponding era.

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