‘Parable of the Sower’ extends boundaries of science fiction

Parable of the Sower, this year’s selection for Williams Reads, is not your typical science fiction novel. The term generally calls to mind alien invasions or super high-tech gadgetry, neither of which figures into the plot of Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel. Rather, the novel takes current problems – global warming, climate change and race relations – and envisions their effects as a gruesome portrait of the United States’ future.

Williams Reads provides free copies of a book during Winter Study with the hope that people will read and discuss it over the term. An opening ceremony for the program was held on Jan. 4 in Baxter Hall, where students and staff read excerpts from the novel and books were available for pickup. An important criterion for a book’s selection is its attention to diversity. Butler is one of the few black female science fiction writers, and the protagonist, Lauren Olamira, is a young black woman born in 2009.

The novel begins in the year 2024 in a suburb of Los Angeles. Lauren and her family live in a cul-de-sac with 11 other families that are completely walled off from the outside world. Poor people live on the streets outside the walls, and they will steal from or kill anyone and everyone they can. Those inside the walls avoid leaving; if they do venture outside, they must be armed.

The United States’ economy has clearly taken a major hit, as drastic climate change has made traditional foods like corn and wheat almost impossible to grow. Very few people have cars, because there is little gas to run them. Even water must be bought, and all commodities have incredibly inflated prices. Televisions and computers are few and far between, and radios are a hot commodity on the street market because they are the only news source. No one votes anymore, either.

Lauren’s father is a Baptist preacher and so has become the unelected leader of the community, leading them both in prayer and in preparing for the worst: an invasion by street people. Lauren, like her father, has a knack for leadership. However, she cannot believe in the same deity he does. Her experiences have led her to believe that “God is change;” as she grows older and more certain of this fact, she begins to develop a new religion, Earthseed, which she hopes will grow into a community with the ultimate goal of moving to outer space (the most stereotypical moment of the novel).

The greatest challenge to survival is the rise of a new drug, pyromania or “’ro,” which drives people to light fires and ultimately costs most of Lauren’s family members their lives. When their walled community is invaded and burned to the ground, she is forced to try to make her way north in an attempt to survive.

The book is written as if it were Lauren’s journal. Free verse about Earthseed precedes each chapter, helping to outline Lauren’s perspective on her world as well as foreshadowing what may happen later on. I found that the first-person account made for an easy and quick read, although I also felt like it was way below my reading level – I haven’t read someone’s “journal” since the sixth grade.

While considered science fiction, Parable of the Sower seems to be more of an indictment of our current behavior. Although written almost 15 years ago, it is quite timely in its examination of how our current habits may affect the future. Poverty in America tends to get pushed aside easily in today’s discussions – what would happen to society if the United States gradually became a third-world country? This novel addresses all of these issues in a very human way, and will give most readers a chance to really consider their actions and whether they are helping to build the future they would like to see.

If you have not yet had a chance to read Parable of the Sower, free copies are available in Paresky Mail Room, Sawyer Library Lobby and the Science Atrium. Various professors and students will hold discussions of the book today at noon and 4 p.m., and tomorrow as well as next Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the Henze Lounge on the second floor of the Paresky Center. An additional discussion will be held next Wednesday at noon in the Center for Community Engagement in Paresky 204. All discussions are open to faculty, staff and students.