This little note about Octavia Butler’s Parable Series was written by Kavya Murthy in May 2020, when things around the lockdown were very pressing. Read Kavya’s review, and get Butler’s books from Champaca, available as a limited edition gift box.
I began Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler a little before we began the lockdown, when the atmosphere in India was pre-CoVid19. I was attempting to be more comprehensive in my reading of Butler, and this was the least sci-fi of her books, with very few technological advancements. As always, her protagonists were Black, and the future was not the same future that white people imagined.
March 2020, when I started reading, was a time for fear and anger, certainly, but not of contagion, and we were laughing at those people who “stockpiled” antibiotics and did elbow-hellos and frightened everyone around them at gatherings.
I finished Parable of the Talents well into lockdown in May 2020, when I had gone through a round of worrying about essentials and supplies. Masks had become the unsaid norm. The large scale exodus of migrants showed us how brutal our social realities are, and how fragile the systems we depend on remain. Being privileged meant a home and food; being poor meant long queues for ration and no access to home.
Was it a good idea to read these two books at this time? Not really. But I understood the power of what is often spoken of as prescience with speculative fiction. It had me thinking about the things we don’t think about when the world seems ‘normal’. The things we think we understand academically, which seem very different when things go wrong, and which are frightening when they arrive at our doorsteps. The future, when the sense of normal begins to break.
Parable of the Sower was written in 1993. The world of the book is set in 2024. It is horrifying when dystopian fiction or film written or made two decades ago is situated in a year that is almost our present (Bladerunner comes to mind). In the book in 2024, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, a family lives in a state of urgent, frugal fear. Theirs is a gated community that gathers weekly at a small church, mostly Black or Latinx. There are walls to protect this community and keep poorer people out. Water costs money, and sea levels elsewhere have risen, and there is no civic public sphere that is safe. The police are unreliable and live to make money, there is gun violence, slavery, and many people cannot read or write. Dogs are no longer friendly but dangerous creatures. There are drugs that induce pyromania that the very rich have a proclivity for. There is a demagogue in power. The hierarchies we all know but look away from in everyday life come rising to the surface – black and white, rich and poor.
The book begins with a sense of a peaceful past that lapsed quite brutally and suddenly within a generation. We travel – and here in a literal sense – with Lauren Oya Olamina, through her diaries. She is a teenager preparing for the future, and imagines a world where people know how to build their own homes and to garden and grow food and trees. Her father is the pastor of their community, a natural leader who she learns from. She studies books from his shelves on plants and maps and tools, creating for herself a survival toolkit.
Having been raised listening to his sermons, Lauren has a sense of faith. She begins to build her own system of beliefs, and hopes for a future community that will come to be known as Earthseed. The journals take us through her life from here to many other places, as the world disintegrates, and people migrate in search of an elusive safety, in bands and groups. There are great details of what you need to carry if you were to suddenly travel on a long empty highway to survive. There is such violence that this book needs a warning for those who read – rape, torture, death.
Having given away little about the plot of the book and yet saying enough to possibly frightening you into never reading it, I now tell you what it was that stayed with me. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents were showing me a world in which home as a category belonged only to those with money to pay for water. In this book, the future is not a technologically enhanced world of space cars and AI robots, it is not a world run over by machines. It is a world where all social hierarchies burst at their seams, and resources are hard to find, and climate change disaster has arrived. The resources remain in the hands of those in power. It is frightening because it is so utterly possible, and scenes of this world began to appear in front of our eyes, as we moved into a long lockdown.
With the lockdown, we looked at what our world would be if it shrunk to the size of our homes, even as we had homes to recede into. And while we sat there grumbling, millions of migrant labourers from cities began to walk home, often without food or money. This included children and the elderly, and brutal police violence. Many migrants died. The future felt like it had arrived, in Butler’s sense of it.
If we confront it, this contagion born of a globalised world is the brink of our apocalypse. From now, the world is going to shrink. Those who suffer the most are the ones who already suffered thanks to low wages and poor work, little or no access to quality health care and a broken public health care system, and those who grow our food but receive very little in return.
But what the two books taught me was that if we have to survive this world, we have to dream of gardens and build resilient communities. That we have to rough it out and know who suffers worse than us. And that this is really what we can do - imagine a better way to live. The books reflect this hope and possibility with an ending that stays with you, and makes you wonder what you can do to change the world.
Butler herself abandoned the Parable series, finding them too depressing to write, and wrote a book with a vampire novel Fledgling next to have a little fun. If you haven’t read any of her work, start with Kindred, which with its aliens and time travel is easier on the brain during the pandemic.