Delving Deep into Sci-Fi Lore

Lessons from a fictional past cast light on humanity’s future.

Delving Deep into Sci-Fi Lore

I recently had a conversation with a friend during which we discovered how both of us had been hesitant to read one of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpieces, Parable of the Sower, because of its bleak and emotional content. (If you’re like me, it feels exceptionally hard to consume difficult, complex books these days, when everything feels difficult and complex.)

That said, a few weeks ago, I dove headlong into the novel. It felt as though I didn’t come up for air until I finished.

Parable of the Sower is a dark read. Set from 2024-2027, the book, published in 1993, imagines the world — or at least that part of it known to protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina — as an apocalyptic hellscape devoid of most of civilization. Walled communities with different degrees of wealth have grown up in place of the towns and cities that once existed; in Lauren’s, guns are commonplace, makeshift schools grapple with the task of educating children, and food is largely homegrown and -made.

Despite chafing against the boundaries set by her community and her Baptist preacher father, Lauren spends years creating — or discovering — a new religion, Earthseed, though she struggles to envision how she’ll birth it into this stunted world. These concerns are abruptly truncated when, at 18, she witnesses her street razed and her friends and family murdered by misguided marauders.

Suddenly, Lauren is cast into the world with only two acquaintances at her side.

The 2024 envisioned by Butler is significantly worse than our current world, yet parts of it ring achingly true. Basic resources such as water, food, and electricity are scarce and expensive. Warring factions debate the future of the country, mostly using their weapons as talking points, with the predictable result that the strongest (rather than the smartest or most thoughtful) often win out. Despite these horrific conditions, Lauren not only wants to survive but also to disseminate Earthseed.

In observing how this young woman navigates a landscape foreign to her, I discovered some parallels to my own life. To be clear: I have no inclination to start a religion. (Having grown up areligious, I wouldn’t know where to begin!) But it’s an age-old condition of humanity to feel ill-prepared to navigate the world — a condition Lauren and I share.

It took me decades to learn this fact, and I’m frequently relearning it. No matter how often I tell myself that someone before me has faced whatever struggle I’m engaged in, I still manage to feel as though my burdens are unique. The obstacles seem insurmountable regardless of what my fellow humans have achieved.

Interestingly, Lauren and I have similar ways of dealing with this conundrum: Putting our heads down, focusing on what’s right in front of us, and simply continuing to exist. While she endures far more terror and turbulence than I ever have, she (like me) has learned to divide things into manageable bits and to move through them as best she can.

By the end of the book, Lauren has made a fragile peace for herself and her loved ones, which is the same thing I aim for in the long term. Parable of the Sower, despite taking place in a vastly different world from ours, holds valuable lessons for all of us.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus