When I read Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower in preparation for John Green’s latest season of Crash Course: Literature, I was first drawn by the Biblical parallel in the title. In what way was this going to be like the parable of the sower? As I read I was looking for four types of people I could identify, much like in the Jesus parable: roadside soil, rocky soil, thorny soil, rich soil. Rather than analogize, Butler was drawing out the pessimism and the optimism in the illustration itself: Some seed will grow, some will not. The type of soil you are determines whether you will thrive. This is tragic to some, hopeful to others.
In a desert climate like Palestine, growth is life, and life is growth. In a creeping and realistic dystopia crouching at the door of a future Southern California, according to narrator Lauren Olamina, “God is change.”
As I read this fascinating and starkly realistic “if-this-goes-on story” of a terrible future, it wasn’t the climate change, bizarre drugs, colorful gangs, wildfire plagues, troubling psychic powers, or sweeping visions of societal collapse that most got to me. It was the walls.
Lauren lives in a walled community, sheltered by the societal decay of the world outside her own. Her walls are guarded by an advanced “lazor wire” (razor wire made of lasers? It’s not explained) that many people put faith in to protect them from thieves, murderers, and rioters. She loves her own home, but it feels to her like an island surrounded by sharks circling and about to come in. Everyone is, in her words, “huddled in our illusions of security,” and if things go on the way they do, “it will be like Jericho.”
This is why the novel functions so well as both a dystopian novel and a true utopian novel, and why it feels so immediate. We already have places in our country where people live in gated communities that make them feel safe from the world’s problems, and crime and disaster is always on the news, always seemingly outside our own domain. But when apparent stability disintegrates, you must deal with the reality of survival in a harsh and doomed world. You cannot cover your ears and bolt the doors and think it will not harm you.
Then the walls fall. The community collapses on itself. Its wealth is too much for pillagers to pass up, and its denizens are helpless to defend themselves, having been so complacent that they don’t know how to adapt to disaster.
How does Lauren adapt? She abandons the religious, moral, and philosophical foundations she has been given and forms her own new religion. She comes to realize that the failure of her community to last was a problem of “poor Godshaping” and a “lack of forethought.” Rather than embrace change and adapt to new conditions, communities like hers tried to deny that change could meet them, relying on the false security of some walls to shield them from the problems crouching at the door. Survival skills were not taught in her curriculum, and her father places more emphasis on hoarding and protecting what they have than on using what they have to prepare for the actual future.
Lauren’s own psychic abilities are an amplified, analogous trait. Her psychosomatically literal “hyper-empathy” allows her to feel the pain of others. She is protected from feeling too much pain in her town’s walls, but her abilities remind her that suffering is still real, and goes beyond the boundaries of skin, steel, concrete. She can “take a lot of pain without falling apart,” having been shaped by her abilities. Her exposure to the pain of others best prepares her for surviving and helping others survive. Her empathy is without borders.
Because Lauren’s empathy allows her to feel the pain of others, the illusion of high walls does not console her or restrict her imagination. She believes that if everyone had hyperempathy like her, people would not torture, there would be far less killing, and a public shared conscience would hold people together in common. She yearns for such a community. But because of her realism, she doesn’t seek out a utopia. Instead, when her walls come down, she is prepared to seek out the best possible community, defined by her adaptable self, her adaptable religion.
Lauren’s religion is naive, being that she is a teenager who grew up educated in a sheltered world, and yet her wide reading and hyperempathy together make her personal formation something prophetic, and the only thing left to embrace in a world of failed policies and practices. “We’ll have to be very careful how we allow our needs to shape us,” she realizes.
In Lauren’s world, everyone has resigned themselves to a single, rigid system, each selfish and destructive. The way people live is an illusion that destroys the world, or neglects it, or hides from it. Lauren’s way is to go out, collect, adapt, diversify, share, defend, and spread. She begins a new kind of community that, all things considered, is the best possible future she can provide for herself and those that follow her.
This is why my biggest takeaway from the novel is the power of empathy to dissolve the illusion of security and adapt to inevitable threats rather than quarantine yourself from them. We live in a world now where environmental disaster, drug abuse, crime, corporate fraud, political corruption, and racial tension are very real, just like in Parable. While Lauren Olamina’s community is hidden in a wall of space between her world and another, ours could be a wall of time. That is, the thin barrier between her safe world and the lost world outside could be much like ours, and time is the only factor separating the two. We can rely on our own security, or we can turn to an applied world-belief that is not walled-in by illusion.
While Butler’s novel acts as a sort of religious manifesto in its own way, it, like the titular parable, could be a comparison. Luaren’s Christian faith as professed by her father is dry, useless, and without empathy. The non-Christian faith she creates, one could argue, is, in her context, more Christian than the one she inherits. When the walls of Jericho come down, she must admit that her previous life was Jericho, and her new life must be one of Exodus. In the Judeo-CHristian tradition, it’s no secret whether Jericho or Jerusalem represented the side of good.
We live in a world of white flight in the big city suburbs and of support for a giant wall to keep out immigrants, where prison walls for an ironically unjust society, corporations are in charge of the environment, and countless people are without empathy. Do we really think that gated communities, a huge prison system, trust in multinational corporations in league with a federal government are the path to utopia?
If dystopia means ” “your world is coming to an end, and maybe you with it,” Parable of the Sower urges us to respond positively to change, not by sequestering ourselves, but by changing who we are out of empathy for our neighbor.
“We are a harvest of survivors,” Lauren Olamina declares. When seed is cast, our nature must adapt to support that seed. Or there will be no harvest, no survivors.
All worlds we build eventually come to ruin. Can we survive our worlds?