Friday, June 13, 2014

Weekly Book Review: Parable of the Sower

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Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Released: 1993
Genre: Science Fiction


When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister's young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny... and the birth of a new faith.

[From Goodreads.]


This is a brutal novel, but not without hope. Survival seems possible even amidst the echo of gunshots and glint of knives, largely due to its protagonist, Lauren, an intelligent teenage girl with a no-nonsense approach to the outside world. While others are sticking their heads in the sand, Lauren prepares for the inevitable destruction of her home town safehold in whatever ways she can. Her methods don't always work out, but she approaches survival with such intelligence and foresight that a good ending always seems possible.

Parable of the Sower takes its time in moving beyond the walls of Lauren's home town. This allows the novel to fully explore both life inside of walled communities and life outside of them. That the outside is able to reach greater magnitudes of misery than Lauren's almost post-apocalyptic home base emphasizes how dire the world's situation has become. This emphasis heightens tension and adds to the bleak tone of the latter half of the novel.

The diary style of the novel gives events a sense of urgency while simultaneously allowing Lauren time to stop and think about all that's happened. It also allows the story to bypass filler in favor of more interesting events, though it doesn't always do so successfully. As much of Lauren's characterization involves secrets unknown to all but a few, access to her thoughts is integral. As for the other characters, we know only as much as Lauren does. Many stories are cut short by the dangers that her growing band of travelers faces, and character arcs are in short supply.

There are a few problems with the novel. Lauren's competence in the face of things she's never experienced before leaving the safety of her walls can be a little unbelievable given her youth and inexperience, and her hyper-empathy seems as though it was meant to be a larger theme than it ended up being. Like many novels with long scenes of travel, things drag a bit after Lauren leaves the confines of her previously walled community. The idea that the outside is brutal, that most people have been driven to extreme cruelty through desperation, that there are a few, a very few, who are still trustworthy, is reiterated over and over again through a variety of means, including attacks, backstory, attempted thefts, and arson. It never quite gets tiresome, however, as the novel's exploration of its alternate future was intriguing enough to keep me reading.

While not necessarily an enjoyable read, Butler's novel is a good one. Its problems never outweigh its strengths, and Butler's clear mastery of world-building shines through in every gritty detail. While not technically post-apocalyptic, fans of that genre will probably appreciate this grave vision of our country's future.

You should also read:

The Handmaid's Tale

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