A Dystopia both Topical and Firmly Rooted in History
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower begins in a suburb of LA in the year 2024 with the United States on the brink of collapse. California’s economy has crumbled in the face of endless drought and soaring water prices. A new drug called pyromania is ripping through the US, its addicts setting everything from people to neighborhoods alight, creating wildfires that decimate cities. Public institutions such as police and firefighters have been privatized, and extortion and police brutality have eroded any trust the public once had in those institutions. Unemployment is the new norm regardless of education level and class divides are larger than ever. The wealthy live in gated and protected mansions, the upper-middle class either sequestered within heavily fortified suburbs or privatized communities: factory towns that turn denizens into indentured slaves. The majority of citizens live on the street—constantly under threat of assault, rape, and cannabalism.
Published in 1993, Butler’s novel springs from the era in which it was written: from Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots to the weakening of labor unions and anxiety over the recession, her dystopia is topical and firmly rooted in history.
We watch society erode through the diary lens of Lauren Oye Olamina, a fifteen-year-old black woman living in one of LA’s fortified suburbs. Born to a drug-addicted mother and a Baptist minister, Lauren suffers from hyper-empathy syndrome: a condition that causes her to psychosomatically experience the pain and pleasure of anyone in her line of sight. This leaves Lauren unable to engage in her parents’ denial regarding the magnitude of decline that the US is experiencing. She has never seen the “good old days” that the adults around her are convinced America will return to, but one trip outside her community’s walls leaves her feeling the pain of every stab wound and murder she witnesses. Lauren sees her father’s religion and it’s promise of security as another face of denial and in response, she creates her own religion called Earthseed. Believing that Heaven is on earth and Hell is on earth, that God is Change and that with mindful intention and hard work a better future can be created, Lauren creates a new system of hope. When a group of pyro addicts break into her neighborhood and burn everything to the ground—killing and raping all but Lauren and two other survivors—her religion is all that sustains her. They escape to the highway, walking with a mass of humanity north towards the promise of water, work, and unclaimed land on which they can start a new and better community that Lauren is determined to found on the principles of Earthseed.
Published in 1993, Butler’s novel springs from the era in which it was written: from Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots to the weakening of labor unions and anxiety over the recession, her dystopia is topical and firmly rooted in history. Distrust of law enforcement permeates her novel. Early on, the older generation still calls on the police in case of an emergency, knowing full well they won’t show up for a couple of days. When they do show up, it is to extort those who called them and drag innocent bystanders to jail without due process. They are described as robbing and beating the poor and protecting the rich—cohorts indistinguishable from the gangs that run California. This distrust of law enforcement is often challenged by white characters in the novel, many of whom remember a time when law enforcement swore to protect and serve. The younger black and Hispanic characters consistently dissuade their white counterparts from going to the police for help, noting that they’ll do more harm than good. Seen through the lens of the Rodney King trial in 1992 which sparked the LA riots, Butler’s work takes the generations of distrust and mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement and runs with it to it’s worst possible scenario. Butler cajoles her readers who see this behavior as dystopian science fiction to pause and acknowledge that for generations of Americans of color, this setting is their current reality.
To that end, Butler utilizes a chain of arson and looting in her novel to take the vast economic disparity within the US in the wake of the early 1990s recession to its logical and extreme class-war conclusion. Before it is burned to the ground, Lauren’s neighborhood is one of the few non-privatized middle class enclaves left. The destitute who arrive to loot Lauren’s home praise the addicts who burned Lauren’s it to the ground for redistributing wealth despite the fortresses of the ultra-rich remaining untouched by violence, protected by gangs and law enforcement alike. The poor who call for the destruction of the middle class are beaten and robbed by the same police and gangs who protect the rich and gouge the middle class for money. Lauren reflects that they have barely more to their name than the people who burn down her home, but that in being so much closer and more vulnerable than the remote and well-guarded rich the disparity in wealth must have been unbearable. The conflict in Butler’s novel between the poor and middle class is laid out as a false conflict: Lauren alone sees how little separates the middle class behind their wall from the fate of the street poor while her neighbors live in denial that their way of life is already gone. Despite the acknowledgement that the conflict is a false one, Butler lets the rage of the dispossessed crush the middle class acknowledging that the income disparity between the upper and lower class is so large that the rich cannot be a viable target for anger. After all, their fortresses are the only safe places left, no matter that working in those mansions or factories amounts to wage slavery and indentured servitude. As in the LA riots, the triggers for violence are marked by vast economic disparity, skyrocketing unemployment, and rampant police abuse.
Butler ties in the anxieties born of income disparity and unemployment with the consequences of dismantled labor laws in her dystopian world, evoking the damage done first by Regan in the early 1980s when promoted an anti-union agenda and disregarded workers’ rights during the early 90s recession and subsequent protests. The president-elect in 2024 promises to return America to its glory days by doing away with minimum wage laws, worker protection laws, and environmental protection laws for any employer who takes on homeless employees in return for room and board. Over the years detailed in the novel, this leads to widespread indentured servitude and slavery, employers charging more for room and board than their workers are paid. The reestablishment of slavery has racial underpinnings as well, a white character is informed he could probably make good money as an enforcer for one of the factory towns: employers liked white men who could read to keep the slaves in line. Like her depiction of class warfare, racial segregation and police brutality, the premise of the reemergence of slavery within the US seems a figment of science fiction until one reflects that although slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, it exists constitutionally within our prison systems where black people are incarcerated at a rate of 20 to 50 times the rate of white people in some states and work for pennies.
Butler uses the platform of science fiction to tell a story removed just enough from reality to be palatable, but embedded enough in history to act as a warning. History as we know repeats itself, and while dystopia within Parable of the Sower sprung from the conflicts of its time, it is as relevant as ever today. Where she wrote about police brutality in the wake of Rodney King, today we have Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Antonio Martin, Jerame Reid, and so many more. Where she had 1990s recession, gaping income disparity and the rise of white supremacy groups, we have an emerging “alt-right”, an even larger recession, and a progressively gaping income gap, demonstrated by the fact that the eight richest men in the world have as much money as the world’s poorest half.
Butler’s novel is a warning for the reader—a grim and dire future so well informed by recent history that the dystopia seems more darkly prophetic than fantastical.
In echoing and expanding on these historical contexts, Butler makes her novel a parable of the sower for those within the narrative, as well as for her readers back home in the real world. The parable of the sower is a parable of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels. In the story, a man sows some seed. Some falls on the path onto rocky soil and is lost, and some falls on good earth, growing and yielding many times what was planted. In the novel, Lauren’s words of warning and attempt to preach her new gospel fall by the wayside within her own segregated community. Ignored and dismissed by those living in denial, everyone she holds dear perishes at the hands of an uncaring post-apocalyptic world. Outside her neighborhood, her preaching is tolerated by some and accepted by others. These others form the backbone of her new community in rural northern California, and just like in the Biblical parable, in that fertile soil, the words of Earthseed bear fruit in the form of a new and tolerant community. Butler’s novel is a warning for the reader—a grim and dire future so well informed by recent history that the dystopia seems more darkly prophetic than fantastical. It begs the question: will the warnings and conclusions that literature gives space to plant fall on fertile ground or stony ground? Will we choose to nurture the seeds that grow such violence and division in our own time, living in the privileged comfort of denial, or embrace change and our role in creating a community and culture that is more inclusive, just, and resilient?