Parable of the Sower
PARABLE OF THE SOWER
BY OCTAVIA E. BUTLER
Toyin Ojih Odutola, 26 October 2020
Change. It’s analogous to a smell.
It fills the awkward silences of our conversations and haunts our insomniac nights. It stays in the room after we’ve left and seems to linger in the ones we enter. It holds court despite the social distancing and no mask can quell its potency. To be clear, it’s not bullshit. It’s far less definable—in fact, its unknowability is its strength—and it seems the power of its fecundity is only growing as election day looms near. It doesn’t matter what you believe, what your background is, what your affiliations are, even if you choose not to care about the state of things, you cannot deny the pungency—shared by everyone. Is it a sign or, worse, an omen? It hangs at the tip of your tongue, a burning question: what the fuck is going on? There. And with that I answer in the words of the great theologian, Lauren Oya Olamina: change. Rapid, unrelenting, overwhelming change. So great, it's god-like.
At the height of the BLM Movement’s global resurgence in the months of May and June, a peculiar, albeit unsurprising trend, was spreading across our nation’s major publications. For a period of roughly six weeks, The New York Times’ “Best-Seller List,” for example, was occupied by tomes of the Black experience, struggle for equanimity, prison reform, the history of Jim Crow, and white fragility. I remember marveling at the sudden uptick in demand for such literature, trying my best to see the silver lining. My cynicism wasn’t unfounded: I understood the importance of the moment, the groundswell of yearning to learn about what was happening and what it meant. On some level, there was a severe lack of knowledge which needed to be addressed. This is not to say such works aren’t paramount in foundational building of knowledge on the state of humanity right now as well as mainstream consciousness’ ignorance of history; yet, to focus solely on what has already transpired in the hopes to fully understand what is happening without considering other stories is an unbalanced education. The speculative has always been my go-to in times such as these. Looking through those lists, I wondered: this can’t be the only avenue one should travel? It seems to me the most liberating genre for our times—for 2020 in particular—is science fiction.
The year 2020 feels like a science fiction novel. It’s precisely the kind of art we deserve at this point, though its nature and purpose get confused. Science fiction as a genre, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, is often simplistically viewed as extrapolative: a warning of seemingly inexorable, dystopian futures, when, in practice, it is far more imaginative and unrestrained. Science fiction is a journey through a thought experiment, full of depth and intersections of inquiry, yet the intention is not to be instructive. It demands a reader’s full participation to work.(1)
That requires immersing yourself into every notion it presents. The intimacy it fosters helps suspend your proclivities of thought, challenging you at every turn. It doesn’t matter how you engage, it builds in intensity the more you invest—and that’s when you know you’re doing it right. Sci-fi isn’t meteorology. You know where to look if you need to confirm Tuesday’s weather, but The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) doesn’t concern itself with whether you need a raincoat. As Le Guin doubles-down on her message, “our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists. (…) Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. (…) In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed. (…) the truth is a matter of the imagination.”(1) In sum, you gotta work at it, not just for yourself, but for everything, everyone. I like that it helps you care about the things you hardly think about, emphasizing your blind spots and limitations.
It also helps with the smell.
In light of the present circumstances, one thinks about the purpose of art within this cultural spectacle. For what is the purpose when everything feels so dire, fruitless and unfulfilling? We are already in dystopian times, why welcome more stories into what is already known, what is already deeply felt?
When speaking on the role of the artist in conversation with filmmaker Steve McQueen, Dr. Cornel West leans towards the audience and states plainly: “A great artist is always a thermostat, not a thermometer. (…) to shape the climate of opinion, not register it.”(2) We should not seek in art a measure or reflection of our times, rather we should demand its capability to adjust our thinking, our systems, our world. What if you entered a story that felt a little too close to our time, and with every page you sensed that familiarity with desperation and despair, and yet within it a glimmer of something true. So elegantly stated, so perfect in its arrangement, like a mantra you memorize for morning prayer. Within the third chapter of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, she gifts us this truth:
God is Power—
And yet, God is Pliable—
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.
This is the literal truth.
God can’t be resisted or stopped, but can be shaped and focused. This means God is not to be prayed to. Prayers only help the person doing the praying, and then, only if they strengthen and focus that person’s resolve. If they’re used that way, they can help us in our only real relationship with God. They help us shape God and to accept and work with the shapes that God imposes on us. God is power, and in the end, God prevails.
But, we can rig the game in our own favor if we understand that God exists to be shaped, and will be shaped, with or without our forethought, with or without our intent.(3)
Parable of the Sower was released in 1993. It is a profound thought experiment on America. We follow Lauren Oya Olamina as she chronicles the lives of her family, community, and, interestingly, the development of a fledgling religion as she journeys through the streets of Southern California, up along the West Coast. Her tale is fraught with uncertainty and there are many moments of doubt, yet her convictions remain clear. Like us, she doesn’t hold all the answers and seeks respite at every turn. Unlike most of us though, she never wavers from her beliefs, despite the obstacles that befall her and the horrifying monstrosities that plague her and those around her. She exists not too far in an alternate future—Parable begins in the year 2024 and pushes uncompromisingly forward—there are no flashbacks, no tricks of edit. Lauren recounts everything as it happens to her earnestly, considering every notion. And she needs to. Civilization isn’t doing so great in Lauren’s world. Ecological disaster has completely obliterated the economy. Rampant poverty is the norm. Crime and cruelty are the means of communications. Proper education sought after like a luxury good. Calamitous drug use abounds. And everyone distrusts one another, longing to return to the good old days, knowing those days are an illusion. Everything Lauren catalogs seems like a mirror to our contemporaneity, but in fact, it’s all metaphor. She shares in everything. This doesn’t mean it’s not true; you experience what she experiences because it feels real, familiar. However, she provides an intimate pattern through her process. We test out her theories as we read. We feel how she feels. What happens on the page is revelatory in how she brings us with her through the development of her hypotheses, her methodology, presenting possibilities for collective healing and liberation. No small feat for a character we encounter in the midst of her teens. We grow with her, stumble with her, hold her in our hearts when tragedy strikes, celebrate with her for the smallest triumphs. She is us—all of us. Butler’s virtuosity collates a variety of interests. Her words, at once allegorical and questioning, illustrate through Lauren’s fictional autobiography what resilience looks like: the day-to-day toil to build a new way of living—of seeing and becoming.
I started re-reading Parable this week, fighting against my own history and biases towards my deep love for this novel and respect for Butler’s vision as an artist. At the time, my apartment reeked of a strange smell. I’d just returned from travels and was quarantining. I attributed the dank smell to my absence. However, in the span of the week, reacquainting myself with Butler’s thought-experiment, it felt like an uphill climb, a gut-punch at times, but I knew I had to keep reading. Within its pages, every possibility and eventuality is confronted to you. Butler grapples with arguments and stances from every side. You must contend with them; you can’t ignore them like we do in our ordinary lives—switching off the news, deleting social media apps off our devices. The story exercises one’s empathy, stretching it in places, but not forcing it. Science fiction doesn’t concern itself simply with the ordinary, there’s so much room to explore. Butler, when asked about her fascination with the genre, recalled how it came to her early: “I wasn’t a particularly good student, but I was an avid one. I wanted to know about everything, and as I learned, I wanted to play with the knowledge, explore it, think about what it might mean, or where it might lead, write stories about it. I’ve never lost that fascination. And science fiction and fantasy are so wide open that I never had to drop them to be able to pick up other things. There doesn’t seem to be any aspect of humanity or the universe around us that I can’t explore.”(4)
The moment I accepted the book completely and immersed myself in its world once more, I felt my shoulders relax, my back less tense, and my mind less muddled. I was more focused, buzzing with ideas. A reminder of kindness towards others and myself washed over me, slowly and steadily. But, I’ll never get over Thursday morning, as I approached the book’s end. To note, I always burn some sage in the morning, which wanes by nighttime. This Thursday, it cleared the air and I noticed the strange smell was gone. I know, it’s not really a smell. It’s all the luggage I’d been carrying, full of frustration, fear, bewilderment, and pain, in a relentless loop, torturing my mind and manifesting itself on my body. Change had subsumed everything. The thoughts and feelings are still there, but like Lauren, I figured out a way to shape and concentrate them. To gather oneself, to become more self aware, to learn and unlearn, adapt and problem-solve—that is what it means to be a disciple of Earthseed. A disciple who is not afraid of change, regardless of its speed and power. Perhaps “smell” isn’t the best metaphor for this essay. “Seed,” in fact, is a better word. Both have the potential to proliferate, and, depending on the context, can cause damage. But a seed holds the possibility for life. Smells are ephemeral, whether they be warnings or pleasantries. Seeds are something one can build from, given the proper conditions of work and climate, they can be useful and sustaining. I don’t want to be a thermometer, constantly registering the moment, preoccupied only with the impact of its reflection. I want to adjust the thermostat and work towards a better, intersectional, evolving humanity of infinite possibility. When asked what she would like readers to impart from the novel, Butler asks: “Where are we going? What sort of future are we creating? Is it the kind of future you want to live in? If it isn’t, what can we do to create a better future? Individually and in groups, what can we do?”(4)
1. Le Guin, Ursula K. Introduction for The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969. p.xi-xvi. Penguin Group, New York.
2. “Steve McQueen and Dr. Cornel West on Paul Robeson, Art, and Politics,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 1 May 2016. (https://whitney.org/media/97 )
3. Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower, 1993. p.79. Grand Central Publishing Edition, New York.
4. “A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler,” Reading Group Guide. Parable of the Sower, 1993. p.335, p341. Grand Central Publishing Edition, New York.
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