[by Krystal Wu]
Seminar Title: “Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents”
Guide: Christopher Rose
Novel Series by Octavia Butler:
Parable of the Sower (novel)
Parable of the Talents (novel)
All that you touch,
All that you Change,
The only lasting truth
(from Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler)
Although many people discover science fiction and fantasy books when they’re children, I am an adult convert. Early in my career as a high school English teacher, an eager student kept leaving her favorite novels on my desk, insisting that I read them. Soon, I found myself lugging home the Harry Potter series, then The Raven Boys, then Cinder. I was hooked.
Knowing the power speculative fiction texts have to engage and challenge young people, when I had the chance to create my own elective course at Catlin Gabel School, I decided to teach “Speculative Fiction as Social Commentary,” with a focus on speculative fiction written exclusively by authors and protagonists historically marginalized by the field. (Though I realize “speculative fiction” is a term that has historically been controversial in the science fiction/fantasy community [see this debate], I use it as an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror, and alternative history books). I knew I wanted to begin our course with one of Octavia Butler’s novels as she is one of the most celebrated sf authors of color, but I wasn’t yet sure which one to choose. Then, I received Literary Arts’ guide to the Delve seminars and saw not only that Christopher Rose was leading a seminar on Butler’s Parable series, but also that the seminar’s start date coincided with the beginning of my high school class. The stars, it seemed, had aligned.
Delve offered a unique opportunity for the adult participants in the seminar to learn from and respond to my high school students, and vice versa. I originally envisioned myself a sort of mediator between the two groups, cross-pollinating both classes with the discussion topics and questions from the other group and encouraging inter-generational dialogue. What happened instead was even more magical: I didn’t need to be a mediator between the groups at all. Instead, both groups ended up discussing, expanding upon, and even critiquing each other’s ideas without any guidance from me. They were in conversation with each other across time and space in their discussion of the novels, just as we were all in conversation with Octavia Butler as our “Shaper,” guide, and fearless leader. What follows are some of the highlights of these conversations.
“I can’t believe this was published in the 90’s!”
Published in 1993, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower opens in 2024 and follows Lauren Olamina on her journey to forge a new destiny for herself and her community after her home burns down and her family members are killed. Lauren is fifteen, African American, and has disability called “hyperempathy syndrome,” which makes her feel the same pain and pleasure as those around her. Published five years later, Parable of the Talents continues with Lauren’s story as the founder of a new religion, the leader of a new community, and a new mother.
Perhaps because both books are set in California, and the characters move northward toward Oregon and Washington, we all agreed that Butler’s novels felt especially prescient. That Butler intended the series to be an “if this goes on…” exercise in speculation makes the similarities between our world and hers even more disturbing. As she told an audience at MIT in 1998 in reference to the series, “And if it’s true, if it’s anywhere near true, we’re all in trouble.” That’s how we all felt as readers when we first began the novels: that if these texts continue to be as prophetic as they’ve been, then we’re screwed.
The ever-present threat of natural disasters and climate catastrophes felt eerily relevant. When we began our reading of the series, it had only been months since Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Southern United States, Hurricane Maria had decimated Puerto Rico, the Thomas Fire had been contained in Southern California, and the Eagle Creek Fire had devoured Oregon forests. Likewise, characters in the Parable series are always aware of the ways in which the changing climate can prove fatal to humans. At the start of Parable of the Sower, there’s a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico “killing people from Florida to Texas and down into Mexico” with “over 700 known dead so far” (15). The cost of water is several times that of gasoline and it hasn’t rained in six years in Los Angeles county, making the threat of fire ever-present.
In addition to the horrifying changing climate, adult and student readers alike were alarmed to see that the state of American politics reflected our current reality. Though Parable of the Sower opens on a presidential election year in 2024, Lauren shares that most people don’t vote anymore because they have “given up on politicians. After all, politicians have been promising to return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century ever since I can remember” (20). Parable of the Talents begins in 2032, another presidential election year, this time with a handsome, charismatic candidate who wants to strengthen the Christian ideals of the nation by eradicating religious freedom and difference and whose campaign speech includes the following sentence: “‘Help us to make America great again’” (20). Chris even shared that, of all of Butler’s work, he felt compelled to choose the Parable series for Delve for these very comparisons.
These deep similarities between our current world and Butler’s novels tended to make us feel one way or the other. Some readers continued to find the books depressing and dark because it just felt like “more of the same.” Delve participants mentioned that they liked to read to take a break from the news, whereas reading the Parablebooks felt relentless and almost monotonous because they were so similar to current news cycle. Other readers found the similarities inspiring and invigorating, mostly because our society is still not yet where Butler’s books predict and because Butler offers a vision of people coming together, as opposed to breaking apart, in the face of catastrophe. Although our worlds may be similar in many ways, Butler’s novels offer some hope as to how we might go about shaping the future of our communities despite our increasingly volatile geopolitical climate.
“This book reminds me of…”
Butler’s novels do not only feel connected to the present, however; they also invite us to reconsider our past. One interesting comparison that a Delve participant and a student in my class both made was between the Parable series and The Grapes of Wrath in their portrayal of climate-induced migration and what Butler deems “debt slavery” to company towns. In Parable of the Sower, the coastal town of Olivar has become increasingly uninhabitable due to rising sea levels, resulting in a “crumbling coastline” and beaches that are “just a memory” (118). In response, an international conglomerate purchases the town and expands the desalination plant and begins advertising jobs in regions devastated by unemployment. The catch? The jobs don’t pay well and sometimes don’t pay at all; nurses, teachers, and other professionals, for instance, must be willing to work for room and board. Characters’ different responses to Olivar serve as a warning to us all about not forgetting what history has attempted to teach us. Lauren, for example, says that many of Olivar’s residents remember “early American company towns in which the companies cheated and abused people” (119), yet her stepmother insists Olivar’s privatization is “wonderful” and is “just what [they] need” (120). By the end of Parable of the Sower and certainly well into Parable of the Talents, we learn that debt slavery has become commonplace and is widely accepted in Butler’s vision of 21st century America.
This weaving together of past, present, and future is part of what we all found compelling about Butler’s work. In particular, she weaves in the history of African Americans, making reference to the enslavement of Africans in the U.S., the Underground Railroad, the Great Migration, anti-miscegenation laws and other kinds of racial segregation, and the Black Power movement. In her world, where literacy has become unusual, Lauren’s journal-keeping as a black woman is not only rare, but also radical, as Chris reminded us, in that she writes her own story, without translation or transcription, in the same vein as slave narratives. Lauren’s narration also flouts the traditionally gendered conceptions of a woman’s journal or diary as being hyperemotional because Lauren is such a measured, rational, and even objective narrator. As one of my students said, “She barely even mentions her boyfriend!”
In fact, my students sometimes felt like Lauren was too unemotional about the horrific events around her, saying that it made them feel she had become numb to her surroundings. Chris, on the other hand, pushed us to consider that what feels dystopic in Butler’s novels–arson, rape, murder, drought, starvation–is the current reality for many people in the U.S. and around the world and that Butler’s novels blur the lines between fact and fiction, past and present, fantasy and reality.
“Is Earthseed a religion you could get behind?”
A considerable amount of the discussions we shared centered on the Earthseed religion of Butler’s creation. Many of us found solace in Earthseed’s teachings just as the characters in the novels do. Though the religion doesn’t seem like it should be comforting in that it doesn’t have a deity and doesn’t attempt to explain why the world is the way it is, the central tenet of “God is Change” and humans as able to shape God (and therefore, change their surroundings) proved intriguing to many of us.
Some of us thought Earthseed’s focus on extraterrestrial human settlement (its destiny to “take root among the stars”) to be a sign of the characters giving up on Earth. A few Delve participants were put off by what they deemed as Earthseed’s interplanetary focus, claiming its followers should be focused on healing our home planet instead of escaping to a new one. My students, however, almost unanimously agreed that interplanetary travel was not only hopeful, but also an appropriate vision for a religion in the context of the novels.
Perhaps what we all found most inspiring, however, was the way that Earthseed offered a purpose that attracted all kinds of people, especially those most traditionally vulnerable and marginalized. Though not all of Butler’s characters joined Earthseed due to its religious tenets, all of the people who Lauren picks up along the way find something worthwhile in Earthseed and in Lauren as a leader. Likewise, Lauren works to find something redeeming about almost all of the individuals she meets on her journeys. Although my students sometimes faulted Lauren for her faith and trust in others as they thought she put herself at risk unnecessarily, they were also intrigued by how effective her leadership proved.
The Earthseed communities that take root in Butler’s novels are multiracial, multigenerational, and multilingual with individuals from disparate life backgrounds. That Lauren, a black woman with what could be a life-threatening disability, seeks out and welcomes those whom society has deemed disposable (orphaned children, former prostitutes, former slaves, the injured, and the hungry) shows that Earthseed is about more than just taking root among the stars; it’s also about creating strong, healthy communities right here on Earth.
As my cross-curricular experiment proved, the Parable series itself can serve as a touchstone for a community of readers across race, gender, age, culture, language, and family lines, just as Earthseed does for Butler’s characters. In both classes, we–teenagers and adults alike–found ourselves seduced by the books, by Lauren’s teachings, and by Earthseed, which means we were ultimately seduced by Octavia Butler herself. (Indeed, if Lauren was a version of Butler’sidealized self, then the Parablebooks are Butler’s version of Earthseed. Read adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy to see the ways in which Earthseed’s principles continue to flourish.)
Now that we have finished reading Parable of the Sowerand Parable of the Talents, it’s up to us to begin to work toward creating the collective vision that would allow communities similar to Earthseed to thrive, both here on Earth and beyond, possibly even in the stars. For inspiration, we need look no further than the notes Butler wrote to herself in her own journals: “So be it. See to it.”