When I first started reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology, it seemed like some sort of cruel practical joke by the friend who recommended it to me. “Set in an apocalyptic 2020s where society has largely collapsed due to climate change, growing wealth inequality, and corporate greed, these books tell the story of Lauren Olamina. She is a pastor’s daughter who forms a cult called Earthseed based around science to try and stem the tide of fascism from a crazy president of the United States, who got elected on the campaign slogan ‘make America great again’.” This book was written in the 1990s and it is so ridiculously on-point compared to what is happening in the world right now that it boggles the imagination. The duology comprises Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. While I would recommend both Parables on their eerie historical accuracy alone, there is a lot more here to like than Butler’s prophetic wisdom – to the point where I might consider these two books some of the best I have ever read.
As I mentioned, the Parable novels follow a single character – Lauren Olamina. We travel with her throughout the majority of her life that is broken up into essentially four sections over two books. The first is her time with her family in a gated community in a crumbling California. The second is her journey to form a cult based around science and bettering the world. The third is the trials she is put through as her cult begins to grow and attract notice. And the fourth and final section I won’t tell you about as I don’t want to spoil too much. Lauren’s character growth throughout all these stages is unusual. She doesn’t change a lot as a person from the start to the end of the book, but it is very interesting to watch events around her harden and clarify her existing character traits and draw them out more fully. Butler has a beautiful talent for writing believable and natural characters. Everyone you meet in both books feels like a real person – not a caricature that Butler made to sell you on the themes of the book. There is this impressive ecosystem in how the characters interact and coexist that pulls the reader in and makes them more present. This means that you need to strap in and get ready to be sad as a reader because these books are brutal.
Having only read these two books from Butler’s catalog of works, I am not an expert on her writing – which is a shame because her writing is amazing. But, given what I have read of her so far, I think it is safe to say that Butler was a master of atmosphere. She was amazing at creating unique and evocative landscapes that get the reader into the mind and place of her characters. The reader can feel the tension rising and understand the pure primal terror that the characters are experiencing on every page. What’s truly interesting and despair-inducing about Earthseed is how close to home the conflicts hit. These aren’t abstract problems or far-reaching hypotheticals that Butler writes about. We are dealing with these conflicts right now, taken to their next level of progression. The future looks bleak.
However, Butler didn’t just write about Lauren watching the end of civilization – she also proposed a solution in the form of Earthseed, a cult based on science. The Earthseed doctrine claims that humanity’s ultimate goal should be to spread among the stars, like a dandelion spraying its seeds into space. The concept is similar to terraforming themes in many sci-fi books, people who are preparing a world they will never see for future generations. It’s always an interesting idea to see the lives of people who have given up everything for descendants they will never know, and Butler is particularly good at capturing this experience. Earthseed is a really interesting concept both in and out of the book. Internally, the trails that Lauren goes through as she travels around proselytizing are fascinating. She is asking people who have been trained to be distrustful and selfish to be the opposite, and it is a powerful story. Externally, it’s cool to read a book where the “solution” to the problems is a literal cult. It is certainly a different take on how to improve the world and a ringing endorsement in the power of faith as long as it is placed in the right people. I don’t know if I agree with the faith part of Butler’s themes, but it is certainly written powerfully and compellingly.
Earthseed excels at showing the reader both the depravity and the wonder of the human spirit. These two books manage to pack in all the bad and the good that makes up people simultaneously and laser it into your brain with stunning clarity. The world feels present and real, on top of being a beautiful story with powerful messages, it is extremely relevant to the current state of the world. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are two of the best books I have read; I highly recommend you check them out.
Parable of the Sower – 10/10
Parable of the Talents – 10/10