By: Samantha Kubiak
In the novel Parable of the Sower, author Octavia Butler sets up a menacing dystopia in a future, collapsing United States, set in the 2020s. The country has become ravaged by the crippling effects of climate change, enormous wealth inequality, and rampant capitalistic greed. The story itself centers on a young woman named Lauren Olamina who lives in a small gated community near Los Angeles. She possesses hyperempathy syndrome which allows her to feel the pain and sensations of others as she witnesses them. Throughout the novel, based on inherent truths of the world evident to her, Lauren develops her own religion that is rather utopian in sentiment, which she calls Earthseed. When her gated neighborhood is destroyed by street poor from the outside and her family, along with most of the people she grew up with, are killed in the event, Lauren is forced to flee her home along with a few survivors. She is abruptly immersed into the complete dystopia of the world around her. The only chance of enduring through these circumstances rests on her strong will to survive and vision for Earthseed, as she wishes to acquire followers and establish a community in its name. With Lauren’s mindset of cultivating Earthseed amidst a horrifying external reality, Parable of the Sower challenges the confines of what a utopia can be, despite the encompassment of a grim dystopia.
Lauren, along with the survivors from her neighborhood, Zahra and Henry, wander the freeways North hoping to find a safer place to live; however, the group quickly encounters the heinous aspects of dystopia all around them, due to the multitude of other people roaming the roads as well. As they travel, Lauren wants to be hopeful and trust in other people but fights against the urge, stating, “we need our paranoia to keep us alive” (Butler 180). Zahra recognizes these stark realities as well and expresses to the group, “Nobody’s safe… No matter how pitiful they look, they can steal you naked” and “Keep your eyes open… People get killed on the freeways all the time” (Butler 181, 178). Out on the streets, in the cities, and traveling the highways and various roads, it is all too commonplace for people to get robbed, raped, and murdered. Even Lauren and her companions are forced to kill others in certain circumstances. This becomes especially necessary for Lauren. Her hyperempathy results in her feeling the crippling pain of attackers she injures and killing them is her only way to end it. Although Lauren’s group only kills other people out of self-defense, unlike others who do it for sport, it is still extremely dismal to look at these horrid, inescapable circumstances that have become normalized in this society.
Despite the cruel and appalling situation surrounding her, Lauren is able to ground herself, endure, and maintain a sense of hope and it all stems from the utopian ideals associated with Earthseed. Her religion embraces the inevitability and ongoing reality of change and inspires followers to yield to it when necessary, but also create and shape change in a positive way as much as possible. Although Lauren’s company is skeptical at first and questions the notions of her religion as they attempt to grapple with an understanding of it, Lauren slowly begins to expose, and even convert, some of her companions into humble followers of Earthseed. When she first opens up to her initial companions, Zahra and Harry, with her created set of beliefs, she begins by sharing what she chose to be the opening lines of the first book of Earthseed. She claims that “These lines say everything. Everything… All that you touch You change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change” (Butler 195). Lauren’s belief challenges the common notion of God as a superior, omnipotent being; rather, it teaches simply that God is change, because change is a powerful, ever-present force that cannot be stopped. She also implies the ability of all individuals to create change, thus having the ability to make a world of their own. These basic, but poignant beliefs Earthseed promotes are especially motivating to Lauren and her companions in the novel. It allows them to maintain hope of creating a better life as they navigate the dystopia they find themselves in. With this, Octavia Butler challenges readers by presenting Earthseed, a set of beliefs, as a utopia, opposing the traditional perception of a utopia being a place, some sort of tangible, organized, seemingly perfect society. Earthseed essentially is a state of mind allowing Lauren, and eventually other characters, to ground themselves in the hope of creating positive change and bettering their own lives, even while facing a starkly contrasting dystopian reality.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 2000.