After writing about my avoidance of dystopian fiction, and subsequently reading dystopia-lovers’ reasons for reading post-apocalyptic novels (e.g., to caution us against our gluttonous ways and to prepare ourselves for Armageddon), I decided to read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a dystopian novel set in the years 2024-2027 in southern California. A recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Butler was among the few African-American women writing science fiction in her time, and she was the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award; if I was to attempt another post-apocalyptic novel, I wanted it to be one of hers.
In Parable of the Sower, there is not a clear indication of what has happened to produce the horrifying state of the US in the year 2025 – it hasn’t rained in southern California in years, nobody uses cars because fuel is prohibitively expensive, clean water is as precious as money, middle-class citizens live in walled communities and must arm themselves when they venture outside their walls, and a drug called pyro, which makes fires more enjoyable than sex, has metastasized in the outside world like a cancer – but the implication is that we consumed and cleared and polluted beyond a critical point, and chaos has ensued as once-civilized populations revert to the more animal nature of kill or be killed.
This world that Butler portrays is not unimaginable, especially in light of the 1992 L.A. riots that surely informed scenes in this book. As any good dystopian novel will do, Parable of the Sower made me think outside of my comfortable box, outside my regular assumptions of the middle-class world: we can currently leave our homes without guns; we have ready access to food, fuel, and water; we don’t have to know how to survive in the wilderness or travel hundreds of miles on foot to try to find a safe place to hide and settle. We don’t have to worry yet, not on an on-the-ground in-the-now way, about having used up our planet and its resources. It made me think about a world without clean water or transportation or police and government who protect and defend, a world where violent death is an ever present threat, even to the currently insulated middle-class America.
It is not a comfortable place to be, outside my cozy middle-class box, but it makes me think, if all of it were stripped away, would I be able to survive? If I couldn’t buy food at the grocery store, if clean water did not stream from my tap, if drug-ravaged hooligans burned down my neighborhood and then came in for the kill, would I despair and give up or would I, like heroine Lauren Olamina, learn how to defend myself, accept and embrace change, and band together with other survivors to plant a new community? The world Butler imagines in Parable of the Sower is not unrealistic; her prediction could easily happen if we continue to consume and pollute unchecked. The threat in the world right now is not immediate to me like it is to Lauren in Butler’s story, but it makes me want to get a little closer to the land nonetheless. Just in case.