Critical Essay on Parable of the Sower
Butler is a writer of great originality whose work does not fit neatly into categories. Although she is usually referred to as a science fiction writer and Parable of the Sower was reviewed in the science fiction section of the New York Times Book Review, there is in fact little science fiction in it. Butler pays scant attention to the technological aspects of her near-future society, merely mentioning in passing “Window Wall” televisions and the newest “multisensory” entertainment systems that include such things as “reality vests” and “touchrings.” Much more important to Butler’s purpose is the fact that almost no one in Lauren’s Robledo community can afford these items.
Parable of the Sower properly belongs to the category of dystopia. Dystopias come in many forms. George Orwell’s 1984 (1948), for example, depicts an oppressive, totalitarian society. A more recent form of dystopia is the “cyberpunk” novel, such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), in which highly sophisticated information technologies exist alongside environmental degradation, rampant crime, and the domination of ruthless corporations. Yet another form is the feminist dystopia, in which women are systematically oppressed, as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World (1974).
Parable of the Sower resists easy classification, though, since it has elements of a number of different kinds of dystopias. It offers some censure of the political system, although that is not the author’s main target. In Butler’s 2020s, the federal government seems to have become irrelevant rather than oppressive. It wastes money on space programs and makes futile attempts to tackle homelessness and unemployment by passing legislation that restricts workers’ rights.
The all-powerful corporation, at the heart of many “cyberpunk” dystopias, makes an appearance in the novel as the company town of Olivar, where people get protection from crime and unemployment but at the expense of individual rights and freedoms. The reader is left in no doubt that Lauren and Harry make the right choice when they elect not to go to Olivar. Feminist elements also appear in the novel, although it does not present a systematic portrait of the institutionalized oppression of women. Women have the opportunity to become astronauts and go on the latest mission to Mars. Indeed, a female astronaut is killed on Mars. But in contrast to that, Butler presents many examples of men behaving badly to women. Richard Moss, for example, adopts a quasi-religious patriarchal family system that creates a system of virtual slavery for his many wives. Apparently, this is a common practice amongst middle- and upper-class men. Butler delivers a crushing verdict on Moss when she describes him, after the catastrophe overwhelms Lauren’s neighborhood, lying stark naked in a pool of his own blood. So much for patriarchy.
To add to the complexity of this novel, it might be pointed out that within the dystopia is also a vision of utopia. Utopian works, of which the prototype is Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1515–1516), depict an ideal society. Lauren’s vision of Acorn, a self-reliant community built from scratch on a few hundred acres of farmland, in which the new, enlightened religion of Earthseed is to take root, is a utopian vision. It is still in the future, and there is no guarantee that it will succeed, but the verses from Lauren’s “Earthseed: The Books of the Living,” which appear as epigraphs to each chapter, are constant reminders that within this miserable dystopia a utopia is ready to spring up. Lauren, of course, thinks her religion is new, and some elements of it are, particularly the vision that it is the destiny of Earthseed to colonize the stars. But its central idea, “the only lasting truth is Change,” was expressed over two-and-a-half-thousand years ago by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whose famous phrase was “All is flux; nothing is stationary.” Even in 2024, it appears that there is still nothing new under the sun.
Be that as it may, within the dystopian/utopian framework of her novel, Butler manages also to touch on the archetypal pattern that mythologist Joseph Campbell in his...
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