“I’ll get to a place where water doesn’t cost more than food and where work brings a salary”
I have not read dystopian science fiction in some time. I chose to read Parable of the Sower because the reviews had been interesting, and because I thoroughly enjoyed reading Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood and considered her style and creativity a refreshing approach to science fiction.
I should first mention that the author, Octavia Butler, is the only Black female Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science-fiction writer that I know of. That perhaps accounts for her unconventional approach to an already unconventional genre where so many themes are frequently recycled. In her works, Octavia often uses women of color as her lead characters, and plays with gender identity in refreshing ways. In Lilith’s Brood, she created an alien race where there were three genders, with just as elaborate mating processes and hormonal changes taking place among them. I remember thinking, as I was reading, that sci-fi should be this mind-bending.
Parable of the Sower explores race and gender also, but is quite different from LB. It presents us with a future America that has descended into a libertarian dystopia. It has all the features that anarcho-capitalists idealize, including private armies and privatized water, all presented in their worst possible expression against a background of Somalia-like lack of rule of law. In the absence of normal tax collection by states, basic services, like policing, are for profit and provided by gangs of thugs just as evil and corrupt as street gangs.
The anarchy, chaos, pillaging, and violence are made worse by zombie-like gangs of arsonists who are addicted to a drug that makes fire exciting, and who decide to burn up all signs of civilized life. Octavia also conjures up images of cannibalism, of human maggots descending upon the recently dead to steal their goods, and explores issues of wage slavery by presenting a labor dystopia where companies are unregulated and reinstitute slavery, initially under the pretext of debt re-payment.
In the midst of all this, the author feels that her heroes need hope, that they need to believe in something. Anything. So she invents a religion for her heroes–Earthseed–complete with prophecy according to which their destiny is to take root among the stars. “God is change”, her prophet-heroine says, and she redefines God into oblivion and irrelevance as most New-Age prophets do. Perhaps change can be taken for what it is: merely change, without deification? These and other philosophical issues are explored in the novel through dialogue.
Although she describes, via the narrative, the end results of anarcho-capitalism, the novel is not preachy or political, nor does it intend to be. It is meant to be entertainment, and at that it succeeds .The novel’s plot is engaging, with the balance tipping more towards the pessimistic than the optimistic extreme.
Having said that, sometimes I feel that science fiction authors have a unique power to speak to future generations, to give them a warning, and to engage them with moral and philosophical questions that the current generation has not yet had to seriously ask itself. Parable of the Sower is set in the middle of the 21st Century. The curious thing about Butler’s prophetic work is that today, Nestle’s CEO has already declared war on public ownership of all water and said that access to water is not a human right, so that the possibility of water becoming a source of international conflict on par with oil is becoming more of a reality that we will all have to face very soon in this century.
Octavia Butler is no longer with us. She passed away, but has many devoted fans of her fiction and the webpage Octavia’s Brood is dedicated to her literary legacy and to the promotion of the fantasy and science fiction genres among authors of color.