First installment in our new ongoing series tackling our contributors’ first encounters with genre texts we’re embarrassed we hadn’t engaged yet.
Between a BA in English Lit and a PhD in Cinema & Media Studies, there is literally no limit to the number of things I am deeply mortified to have not read or seen yet. High on this list was Octavia E. Butler’s dystopic classic, Parable of the Sower. Thanks to a timely loan this week and firm nudge to my ribs, I can finally cross this one off my bucket list as of last night, but it’ll be with me for a long time yet.
Published in 1993 and set in 2025, the book presents a sobering anticipation of our present income inequality, climate change’s encroaching impact on our landscapes, and the effects of unchecked capitalism on human lives and society. In our current societal moment, there is far too much to be recognized in these pages than allows for even a modicum of comfort. I’m sure I’m not the first nor the most insightful to note that aspect of the novel this year, or even this month, but I started the book wholly unprepared for how specifically familiar this dystopia would appear to me as an American living in 2017, and it threw me for a loop, possibly causing me to disengage a bit emotionally. I have no doubt some intense feelings will catch up with me eventually, but right now I’m still processing and imagine I will be for a while ongoing.
The plot is suspenseful and filled with jolts and twists that encourage a fast read, but most prominently, Butler is superb at worldbuilding and tracing out physical geographies simultaneously familiar to the reader, yet altered by the events of the narrative. The protagonist, Lauren, is odd, stubborn, and sympathetic, surviving her trials with courage and drawing strength from the the new religious philosophy she is building and gathering followers into–a humanist, existentialist take on reality that aspires to send our species one day to the stars. This is not exactly an easy read–there is a lot of dismemberment, rape, torture, and even cannibalism–but these events, while graphic, are presented in a manner that eschews indulging in horror porn.
All day yesterday, I tried to imagine how I was going to write this one up. A book-report-style summary alone would be insultingly naive, and a detailed examination of Sower’s complicated approach to race and representation is far better the domain of someone more qualified to speak to those topics than I. What can I really say in 600 words, about a book that has been out there for almost a quarter-century, that hasn’t already been said, especially with its strong relevancy to our current cultural and political moments in the US?
That I wasn’t ready. That I didn’t see it coming. Not this real moment we find ourselves in, and not this book. We are going to need a hell of a lot of brave and scary and downright jarringly strange art to get us through our own now, to forecast our potentialities, as a country, as a species, and what the best and worst can look like. Genre is a superb tool for these forecasts, because it lets us bundle the things we dare not imagine, the extremes of hope and despair, into safe-feeling containers–walls of familiar form and narrative shape–protecting us from the nightmares and dreams we whisper into happening to someone else, to imaginary people, to see what would happen, what their imaginations in turn might contain to answer these questions, without fully averting our eyes. If the worst happens. If the best happens.
It’s a really hard time to read Parable of the Sower. It’s a really good time to read it too.