All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
I put off reading Parable of the Sower because dystopian is a genre that I have a hard time reading. I’m already fighting off my pessimism about the future, I don’t need a constant feed of bleak reminders.
Both Earthseed books hit a lot of common dystopian tropes (heck, probably originated a few of them), but the realism of the books is what gripped me. Many dystopian books have ‘what if’ scenarios, with a vast range of likelihood, but this duology felt like a legit course our society could take.
The series starts off in the near future, and the first book is structured as a ‘coming of age’ story for Lauren Oya Olamina and her life living in a walled-in community outside of Los Angeles. The classic ‘coming of age’ story is genre staple, but like Dune I think this story’s beats are different from standard bildungsromans.
This book is also part divine text as we witness the birth of a new religion, Earthseed. The end of the Sower is the establishment of the first Eathseed community. I would usually just read and review the first book but after reaching the end I realized how interconnected the two books were and Parable of the Talents really needs to be read soon after.
The second book is where the meat was for me, and broke me open in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Olamina isn’t perfect, but in the first book, since the narration is from her alone, the reader is sympathetic to her flight and her strength. Talents has a dual narration, the primary is Olamina’s journals picking up five years after the Earthseed community starts and the secondary is her daughter Ashe’s commentary, decades into the future reflecting upon her estranged mother’s work.
From the jump Ashe’s commentary is helpful but the bitterness is real. It’s clear that Ashe is writing her thoughts and her story in order to process her own feelings about her parents and viewing her mother as a zealot. Criticism from a hurt place can be difficult and the reader is the ultimate judge on how Ashe’s biased stance affects her reflections. I found this fascinating, getting Olamina’s viewpoint and Ashe’s counterpoint. I think Ashe brings up strong points and once her whole upbringing is revealed, let’s just say I have sympathy for what the character has endured.
After going into Afrofuturism last week and how it’s a part of SFF, I find it funny that the first series I dove into has very little in the way of sci-fi. Dystopian fiction tends to be more speculative and a part of the ‘mundane’ sci-fi trend. Mundane doesn’t relate to the quality of a work, it just means that it’s sci-fi that tends to be set on Earth and about the day-to-day (think Black Mirror).
The only element of the Parables that’s slightly sci-fi is that Olamina’s birth mother abused a memory enhancing drug while pregnant. Due to this Olamina now has hyperempathy syndrome and can feel others’ physical pain. This hyperempathy is rough in a time where cruelty towards others has increased drastically.
Even though this series is not based in the stars, this is still Afrofuturism. The protagonist and the characters the books choose to focus on are voices that are usually left out of dystopian novels. Olamina lives in a walled cul-de-sac where the majority of the families are Black and hispanic, with a couple of white families. As Olamina meets more people through the novels a majority of those ill-used by this broken society are minorities.
In a society where the middle class completely vanishes and the majority of American society lives in poverty, this is going to affect marginalized people more. We can already see the beginnings of that happening.
Climate change is also at the background as one of the major contributors of the social turmoil, as access to clean water lowers and the destruction of fires in California increases. Rain is a distant dream. Ecology is a running theme in Afrofuturism and though it’s not at the forefront all the time, it is definitely crucial in this book’s landscape.
“I hope people who read Parable of the Sower will think about where we seem to be heading – we the United States, even we the human species. Where are we going? What sort of future are we creating? Is it the kind of future you want to live in? If it isn’t, what can we do to create a better future? Individually and in groups, what can we do?”
Octavia Butler, May 1999
I know for myself that this series will show up on my ‘best of’ list for 2021. Parable of the Talents is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read, and much of that is due to the amazing development from its prequel. I know dystopian fiction can be rough, this series definitely looks darkness straight on and there’s a list of trigger warnings attached to it.
At the center isn’t bleak pessimism or nihilism, but strangely a strong sense of hope. Olamina believes that her religion will bring back stability and its impersonal god is what is needed in such an horrific time. Honestly, maybe it’s needed now.