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Hope Amidst the Ruins

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I originally became acquainted with this novel and the Earthseed religion of God is Change when I was writing an article on Kindred and had to do a brief summary of the author's other novels. With the current upheavals, I decided to read it and its sequel Parable of the Talents as a way of reconciling myself to day-to-day unpredictability.

The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, lives in a tiny island of community amidst a civilization coming apart at the seams. She has a condition known as hyperempathy syndrome as a result of her biological mother abusing an Alzheimer's drug. She lives with her father and stepmother in a walled neighborhood where people try to maintain something resembling a middle-class existence in the face of disintegrating public services, ever worsening shortages, and civil disorder caused by drug abusers who set fires while high. The families of this island of sanity try their best to educate the children after schools have closed. They grow as much food as they can, because hyperinflation and the disintegration of food distribution systems have made store-bought food well-nigh unaffordable. They teach one another how to defend themselves and their community, and when the madness outside tries to force itself into the gates, they set watches to scare away the intruders, or kill if there is no other choice.

Things first go wrong when Lauren's brother Keith leaves the community, then starts bringing back large sums of cash and various consumer goods. It's clear he's fallen in with a bad crowd -- and then his parents are called to identify his tortured and mutilated body. Then Lauren's father fails to return from work. Lauren and some friends go searching amidst the ruins of what was once Los Angeles, but the only evidence they find is a severed arm of about the right musculature and skin tone. It's our first hint that cannibalism is becoming a problem beyond the walls.

And then comes the night in which the pyro druggies force their way in and torch the tiny neighborhood, destroying, stealing, and killing. Lauren and two other members of their community are the only survivors, and there is no way they can maintain their neighborhood by themselves. There's nothing to do but salvage what they can carry, including bundles of nearly worthless money, and join the crowds of people on a grim trek northward to a hope that may not exist.

On the way they encounter other refugees, some of which have turned predator on their fellow unfortunates, and others who are frightened and in need of help. At first Lauren and her surviving neighbors regard every stranger as an enemy, but bit by bit they begin to trust those who seem to be good people, and a new community forms. One of their number is trekking to his own personal Promised Land -- a small farm owned by his sister and her husband. He thinks there may be room for their community, since more people means more watchers to protect against the druggies and roving bands of bandits. It's better than the company towns that are little better than a new form of slavery.

The ending is a bittersweet discovery of old hopes destroyed, and the possibility of creating a new hope. Reading this novel, I kept thinking about some of the things John Ringo's protagonist in The Last Centurion kept talking about -- the importance of social trust, and what happens when it breaks down. Lauren's world is one in which general trust has collapsed, and people can only trust those they know, and then only guardedly. Companies offer security, but at the price of debt peonage, and sometimes outright human trafficking. But Lauren is hoping that her Earthseed religion, a deist faith for the modern mind that the pre-Copernican worldview of the traditional religions cannot satisfy, will help create an ever-growing network of new communities that trust one another, and will take humanity and life to the stars, like seeds scattered on the wind.



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