On Hot, Dry Ground: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”

On Hot, Dry Ground: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” April 15, 2015

I’ve read Butler’s phenomenal sci-fi short story collection Bloodchild, but this is the first time I’ve dived into one of her novels. It’s about a California slowly being devastated by climate change, where society is breaking down daily, just slowly enough that people can stay in denial. A teenage girl in a relatively-privileged multiracial gated community is the only one who will admit that the future will be murder; she plans for emergencies and begins to craft a new religion whose fundamental principle is, God is Change.

The first hundred pages or so were very hard to get through. Lauren Oya Olamina, our narrator, was really hard for me to take. She’s a stereotypical teen in many ways. She judges everyone around her with the harshness of someone who’s never had to admit serious fault. Like all teens in YA these days, she’s put-upon and constantly hurt through no fault of her own. In Lauren’s case it’s because she has a medical condition which causes her to feel “hyperempathy”: If she thinks you’re hurting, she’ll feel what she believes you feel. I… I hope it was ironic on purpose that this constantly judgmental character thinks her big problem is that she has too much empathy? Anyway I was pretty sure that the narrative would teach her some hard lessons, and I trusted Butler, so I stuck it out.

I’m glad I did. Lauren did get a bit easier to take as she made mistakes (though never big ones–I really wish Butler had let her fail more) and learned to listen to others. She’s still deeply no-fun. I did think of Butler as a grim writer, but not as a humorless one, so I was surprised at how humorless POTS is. Virtually every time anybody laughs in this novel, they’re laughing at the narrator! I’m so glad I’m not an adolescent anymore.

The supporting characters are much more memorable for their situations and backstories than for their personalities; Lauren’s love interest is condescending in a mansplaining way which was realistic but, again, fun-free.

But the thing which kept me reading was the vivid portrayal of the collapsing society. All the details of Lauren’s quest for survival–and, eventually, community–are so persuasive and brutal. The book becomes suspenseful once she leaves home, and I gnawed through the last half of it eagerly. There’s a sequel and I’m definitely planning to read that, even though lots of things about this book didn’t really work for me.

The religion… ah, I’m not the audience for this. Everything Lauren believes is plausible and I could see it being helpful to someone in a bad situation. “God is Change” is plausible. It’s also vastly less weird–and therefore, from my pov, less compelling–than, “God is a homeless virgin criminal, executed by the state and risen from the grave.”


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