Reading a dystopian novel in the time of Coronavirus: A Review of the Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler

I love realistic fiction so I have not read much science fiction or fantasy. The first and only fantasy novel I have read by a POC author is Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. I generally gravitate towards stories or books that reflect the world around me in very simple terms. I rely on film and television to satiate my appetite for science fiction and the supernatural. Parable of the Sower was initially recommended to me by a friend for our Summer 2019 Book Club, members voted to read another book instead. Octavia E. Butler was one of few African American writers who specialized in science-fiction. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, as the first book of a duology. When I started reading Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, we were already under strict guidelines to stay at home as much as possible, and stock up on essentials and avoid “non-essential travel” due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus. The timing of this review and my choice in books is eerie because Parable of the Sower is a futuristic dystopian novel that covers the time period July 2024 to October 2027. When the book was published, 2024 was 31 years away. I am now reading this book 4 years before 2024. The novel is written in a diary format. The author of this diary and the protagonist of the novel is a black girl living in Los Angeles, Lauren Olamina. In 2024, Los Angeles and the rest of the country has gone to the dogs. Lauren lives in one of the many walled neighbourhoods created to protect middle-class families from the restless and growing homeless population. Social services are privatized. For example, if you call the police to attend to a robbery, you are required to pay a fee. Jobs are scarce and there is pyro (a drug that causes pyromania) epidemic. Lauren Olamina loses her family in a violent clash between her middle-class neighbourhood and the surrounding homeless gangs who can only afford to terrorize the mildly rich, as the rich are protected. The death of her entire family forces Lauren to leave a home city of Los Angeles and seek refuge in the north. The saying “It’s not the destination but the journey” is especially true for Octavia E. Butler’s ninth book. The journey from Los Angeles to a yet to be determined destination exposes the wide-spread poverty and chaos caused by the country’s economic collapse. While on this journey, Lauren Olamina sows the seeds of her new religion Earthseed. The core teaching of this religion is that “God is Change.” To me, this new faith represents the possibility and need for change. The timing of this novel reveals more to us about what is and what is not fiction in this novel. Parable of the Sower was first published during the crack epidemic which lasted from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States between 1981 and 1989. Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs disproportionately affected African American families and communities. Furthermore, Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs began the history of the militarization of the police in the United States. The militarization of the police and the lack of social responsibility by the government is a major theme in the novel, as I have alluded to in my summary. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say Octavia E. Butler was inspired to write Parable of Sower by the real-life events that took place during the Reagan presidency. Another eerie coincidence about the timing of this review and my choice to read this book is that Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again” is also the slogan of the current president of the United States. The president-elect and later president in this novel also claims he will return the country to its former glory, despite evidence that his policies have the opposite effect, sound familiar?

A dystopia is described as “an imaginary place or state in which everything is extremely bad or unpleasant.” While there are elements of sci-fi in the novel, this novel never fails to reflect the intensity of the reality of the country’s most marginalized. When asked “what is it about writing?” Octavia E. Butler responded, “You got to write yourself in whether you were part of the greater society or not. You got to write yourself in.” Octavia E. Butler writes the story of the marginalized into her interpretation of this period in American history. Parable of the Sower is not a purely a sci-fi novel in the way technology is used or society is structured, there is an element of extending one’s imagination that is required to imagine one’s future reality based on the reality of the present.