Parable of the Sower

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Parable of the Sower

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading

Octavia Butler


Parable of the Sower (New York, 1993) by Octavia Butler is set in California and covers a period of three years, from 2024 to 2027. It is a grim near-future novel that exaggerates trends in American life that were apparent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as fear of crime, the rise of gated communities, illiteracy, designer drugs and drug addiction, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Climate changes brought about by global warming are also central to the novel.

The protagonist is Lauren Olamina, an African American girl who is fifteen years old when the novel begins. She lives in Robledo, about twenty miles from Los Angeles, which has become a walled enclave only partially protected from the rampant lawlessness and desperate poverty that exists beyond the walls of the neighborhood. When the enclave is completely destroyed by bands of arsonists and thieves, Lauren is one of the few survivors. She heads north, on foot, with a couple of companions in a perilous search for a better life.

Butler's disturbing dystopia, written in the form of Lauren's diary entries, is at once an adventure story, a coming-of-age story, and a thought-provoking exploration of some negative trends in American society that have become more pronounced in the decade that has elapsed since the novel was written.

Author Biography

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947, the daughter of Laurice and Octavia Margaret (Guy) Butler. Her father died when she was a baby, and her mother supported the family by working as a maid. Butler loved reading science fiction stories as a child, and she soon started writing them herself. At the age of thirteen she was submitting her own stories to magazines.

Butler attended Pasadena City College, and while a student there she was awarded fifth prize in the Writer's Digest Short Story Contest. She received an Associate of Arts degree in 1968 and went on to attend California State University, Los Angeles, in 1969, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

In 1969, Butler entered the Open Door Program of the Screen Writers' Guild, where one of her tutors was Harlan Ellison. At Ellison's suggestion she enrolled in the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop, held in Pennsylvania. As a result of taking the workshop, she sold two short stories. Deciding she wanted to be a writer, she supported herself with low-paying jobs such as dishwashing and cleaning, while continuing to write, often getting up at three o'clock in the morning to do so. When she was laid off from a telephone sales job in 1974, she decided to use the time to write her first novel, the science fiction tale Patternmaster, which she completed in less than a year and sold to Doubleday. Patternmaster was published in 1976 and was quickly followed by three more novels in the Patternmaster series: Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), and Wild Seed (1980). In between, Butler published Kindred (1979), a mainstream novel focusing on African American history.

In 1984, St. Martin's published Clay's Ark, a fifth volume in the Patternmaster series. In that year she also won the Hugo Award, for her short story "Speech Sounds," and in 1985 she won the three most prestigious science fiction awards for her novelette Bloodchild (1985): the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Locus Award. After this, Butler turned her attention to the science fiction trilogy, Xenogenesis, which was published by Warner Books. The three novels were Dawn: Xenogenesis (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989).

Butler then hit a barren spell. She knew she wanted to write about a woman who wanted to start a new religion, but she could not produce a manuscript that satisfied her. Eventually the ideas flowed smoothly, and the result was Parable of the Sower (1993).

Butler received a MacArthur fellowship in 1995. In 1998, her novel Parable of the Talents, which she described as a continuation of Parable of the Sower, was published by Seven Stories Press and republished by Warner in 2000. The novel won the Nebula Award for best novel, 1999. Also in 2000, the three novels in the Xenogenesis were collected under the title of Lilith's Brood and published by Warner Books.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–3

Parable of the Sower begins in July 2024, in Robledo, in southern California. It is Lauren Olamina's fifteenth birthday. California has changed drastically over the past three decades. Water is scarce and expensive, there are few jobs, and climate changes have produced massive rains followed by years of drought. Lauren lives in a neighborhood that is walled off for protection from the homeless people, drug addicts, vandals, arsonists, and thieves who roam the unwalled residential areas. Lauren's father is a Baptist minister, and Lauren goes to church to be baptized, even though she no longer believes in the Christian God. The church is outside the wall, and the family goes armed. Many of the houses are burnt out and have been looted, and homeless families wander the streets. Lauren feels their pain because she suffers from "hyperempathy syndrome," also called "sharing."

Several weeks later, a neighbor named Mrs. Sims shoots herself. She was in despair after her family died in a house fire started deliberately. Meanwhile, Lauren tries to form a new concept of God. She decides that God is change, because the reality of life is that everything changes.

Chapters 4–9

In February 2025, Lauren goes to the hills with a neighborhood group for target practice, where they encounter a pack of feral dogs. They shoot one dog, and as it dies, the hyperempathic Lauren feels its pain. Guns are essential because the family cannot rely on the police to protect them. In Lauren's neighborhood, every household has at least two guns.

In March, after three-year-old Amy Dunn wanders off and is shot dead, Lauren talks with her friend Joanne Garfield about how they need to make plans to survive before their neighborhood is overrun by thieves and killers. She wants to learn how to live off the land, and she plans to create emergency packs of supplies should they have to leave in a hurry. She tries to enlist Joanne's help, but Joanne tells her parents, exaggerating what Lauren said. Lauren's father tells her to stop panicking people, but he does allow her to start teaching the neighborhood kids about her ideas.

When thieves rob the gardens, the community sets up an armed neighborhood watch. But the thieves keep coming, and Lauren is desperate to think of a way out. She develops her God-is-Change belief system further, calling it Earthseed.

Keith, Lauren' thirteen-year-old brother, slips out of the neighborhood, stealing Cory's key. He returns, beaten up. Two weeks later he disappears again for nearly two weeks. When he returns, he is wearing new clothes, but he will not say where he has been. His father beats him severely. Two months later, Keith leaves again, this time returning with money, which he gives to Cory. Then he leaves again.

Chapters 10–13

In June 2026, Keith returns after an eight-month absence. He has been squatting in an abandoned building with friends but will not say how he acquires his money. Later, he admits to robbing and shooting. In August, he is tortured and killed, probably by drug dealers.

There are more robberies, and by October the community is starting to come apart. The Garfields move to Olivar, a coastal suburb of Los Angeles, which has been bought by a company called KSF. Lauren fears that the company will cheat and abuse people. She decides that next year she will go north, maybe as far as Canada.

In November, Lauren's father disappears and is assumed dead. Lauren speaks at a church service for him, and she begins to emerge as a leader in the community. She takes over her mother's teaching responsibilities.

The day before Christmas Eve, the Olamina house is robbed. Another house, where the Payne and Parrish families live, burns down, leaving only one survivor.

Chapters 14–19

In July 2027, the entire neighborhood is overrun by violent intruders. Fires blaze everywhere. Lauren is one of the few to escape. When she returns, the place is littered with corpses, and scavengers are at work. Lauren gathers supplies, and as she leaves she meets Harry Balter and Zahra Moss. Learning that her entire family is dead, Lauren decides to head north, and Harry and Zahra go with her. Lauren cuts her hair so she can be taken for a man. They buy supplies and begin walking on the freeway, heading for the 101 that would take them up the coast toward Oregon. Hundreds of other people are walking the highways. Lauren has a gun and Harry a knife to protect themselves against predators. Lauren insists that they trust no one. At night, they take turns keeping watch. On their first night, they are attacked by two men. Lauren and Harry kill them both.

They replenish their water supplies from a commercial water station. It is a dangerous place, and Lauren and Harry help to scare off two men who attempt to rob a woman and her husband. They reach the ocean, and Lauren improves their survival skills by devising a method to make seawater drinkable. The couple they helped, Travis and Natividad, and their six-month-old baby, Dominic, join up with them, although the newcomers are suspicious at first. As the days go by, Lauren talks to her group about Earthseed. Travis and Zahra are interested, and Lauren regards Travis as her first convert.

There is an earthquake, and fire breaks out in a community as they pass. Scavengers flock to it and there is gunfire. Lauren meets another traveler, Taylor Franklin Bankole, and he stands guard as Lauren and her friends pull two young women, Allison and her sister, Jill Gilchrist, from the rubble of a house. A man attacks Lauren, and she kills him with her knife. Allison, Jill, and Bankole travel on with Lauren's group. They reach Salinas, where they replenish their supplies, using money they have taken from corpses.

Chapters 20–25

They avoid the Bay area because the earthquake has created chaos there. Camping just east of San Juan Bautista, they emerge unscathed after a nearby gunfight at night. Bankole brings in a three-year-old child, Justin Rohr, whose mother has just been killed. Allie soon takes charge of him.

They reach the San Luis Reservoir. A friendship springs up between Lauren and Bankole, and she explains her Earthseed philosophy to him. They become lovers, and he is shocked when he finds out she is only eighteen.

By September, they reach Sacramento. They pass some horrible sights, including a dog with a child's arm in its mouth and a group of kids who are roasting a severed human leg. Bankole tells Lauren that he owns three hundred acres of land in the coastal hills of Humboldt County, where his sister lives with her husband and three children. He wants her to leave the group and go with him. Lauren thinks it might be a good place to begin the first Earthseed Community.

The group is surprised to discover that a ragged woman, Emery Tanaka Solis, and her nine-year-old daughter, Tori, have crept into their camp at night. After some discussion, the group decides to take them along with them. The next day, they are joined by Grayson Mora and his eight-year-old daughter, Doe. Grayson does not trust the group but stays for the sake of his daughter. It later turns out that Grayson, like Lauren, is a "sharer," as are Emery and Tori.

Several days later, a man tries to grab Tori and attacks Emery. Lauren shoots him, and the rest of the group fight off the remainder of the gang, but Jill is shot dead. They continue on their way, narrowly escaping a raging fire before they arrive at Clear Lake. Eventually they reach Bankole's land, but the house has been destroyed and all his family killed. They decide to stay and build Acorn, their Earthseed community.


Harry Balter

Harry Balter is a young white man from the same neighborhood as Lauren. His girlfriend is his first cousin, Joanne Garfield, but they split up when the Garfield family moves to Olivar. Harry survives the violent attack on the neighborhood and is one of the original members of Lauren's group. His new girlfriend is Zahra Moss. Harry is more trusting than Lauren, and on the road he has to learn to become more ruthless.

Taylor Franklin Bankole

Taylor Franklin Bankole is a fifty-seven-year-old black doctor who joins Lauren's group halfway through their journey. Since he is much older than the others, he is able to give them steady advice and support. Bankole is from San Diego, and he left his community after it was destroyed by arson. Five years earlier, his wife died after being beaten by thieves. Bankole and Lauren are attracted to each other and soon become lovers. He tells Lauren that he is on his way to three hundred acres of land that he owns in the coastal hills of Humboldt County, California. He hopes to meet up with his sister and her family who live there. Lauren and the group make this their destination, but when they arrive, they find that the house has been destroyed and the family killed.

Dominic Douglas

Dominic Douglas is the six-month-old son of Natividad and Travis.

Gloria Natividad Douglas

Gloria Natividad Douglas, known as Natividad, is a Hispanic woman, the wife of Travis Douglas and the mother of Dominic. This family joins Lauren's group quite early in the trek. With her husband, Natividad used to work as a maid for a rich couple, but she ran away when the man tried to seduce her.

Travis Charles Douglas

Travis Charles Douglas is a black man, the husband of Natividad. He used to work as a handyman and gardener for a rich couple. Travis is suspicious of Lauren's group at first but soon warms to them. He becomes interested in Lauren's idea of Earthseed.

Amy Dunn

Amy Dunn is a three-year-old girl in Lauren's neighborhood. She sets fire to the family garage. Later, she is accidentally shot dead.

Tracy Dunn

Tracy Dunn is Amy Dunn's sixteen-year-old mother. She was only twelve when her uncle made her pregnant with Amy. After Amy's death, Tracy disappears and is never found.

Jay Garfield

Jay Garfield is the head of the Garfield family, who are friends with the Olaminas. Jay, who is white, leads the search for Lauren's father after he disappears. Later he takes his family to the company town of Olivar.

Joanne Garfield

Joanne Garfield is the daughter of Jay Garfield, the girlfriend of Harry Balter, and Lauren's friend. Her friendship with Lauren cools when she divulges to her parents details of Lauren's plan for survival. After that, Lauren does not trust her anymore. Eventually, Joanne moves to Olivar with her parents.

Allison Gilchrist

Allison Gilchrist, known as Allie, is Jillian's twenty-five-year-old sister. After her father killed her baby because it would not stop crying, the two sisters burned the house down while the drunken father slept. Fleeing a life of prostitution and poverty, they took to the road. When Lauren's group pulls Allie and Jill out of the rubble of a house hit by an earthquake, they join the group. Allie takes charge of Justin Rohr.

Jillian Gilchrist

Jillian Gilchrist is Allison's twenty-four-year-old sister. She shares Allie's history of poverty and abuse. Neither she nor her sister can write, although they can read a little. Jill is shot dead when the group is attacked by a gang.

Bianca Montoya

Bianca Montoya is a pregnant seventeen-year-old Latino girl in Lauren's neighborhood. She plans to marry her boyfriend, Jorge Iturbe, and continue to live in the neighborhood.

Doe Mora

Doe Mora is the eight-year-old daughter of Grayson Mora.

Grayson Mora

Grayson Mora is the Latino father of Doe Mora. He joins Lauren's group toward the end of their trek. He is quiet, aloof from the group, but protective of his daughter. Like Lauren, he has hyperempathy syndrome.

Richard Moss

Richard Moss is the father of Aura and Peter Moss. He has three wives, including Zahra, whom he bought from her homeless mother when she was fifteen. Moss is an engineer for a big commercial water company. He has also put together his own form of religion, which emphasizes patriarchy and the subordination of women. Moss is killed when the neighborhood is overrun.

Zahra Moss

Zahra Moss is the youngest of Richard moss's three wives. Ross bought her from her homeless mother. Her new home is the first house she has lived in. When the neighborhood is destroyed, Zahra sees her baby daughter killed. But she escapes and heads north with Harry, who becomes her boyfriend. Zahra cannot read or write until Lauren starts to teach her.

Cory Olamina

Cory Olamina is Lauren's stepmother. An educated woman with a Ph.D., she teaches the neighborhood children. When the neighborhood deteriorates, she wants to move to Olivar but cannot persuade her husband to go. After her husband disappears, she takes over the teaching side of his job. Cory is killed when the neighborhood is attacked and burned.

Gregory Olamina

Gregory Olamina is Lauren's youngest brother. He is killed when the neighborhood is overrun.

Keith Olamina

Keith Olamina is the oldest of Lauren's three brothers and Cory's favorite, although he and Lauren do not get along well. He is twelve when the story begins. Keith is not very intelligent and dodges work and school whenever he can. His ambition is to leave the neighborhood and go to Los Angeles and make money. When he is thirteen, he frequently leaves the neighborhood for long periods. He acquires money and new clothes, but he will not say where he got them. After a few months of living dangerously, he is tortured and killed, possibly by the drug dealers he thought were his friends.

Lauren Olamina

Lauren Olamina is fifteen years old when the story begins. She lives in Robledo, California, with her father, stepmother, and three brothers. Her dead mother was taking the prescription drug Paracetco, and this was why Lauren contracted "hyperempathy syndrome," which means that she feels the physical pain of others in her own body. On the advice of her father, she tries to keep this condition secret, since she thinks she might be perceived as weak. She only confides in people she trusts.

Lauren is an academically gifted student. She finished her high school work early and has taken college-level courses. She also reads voraciously and is extremely well informed about history and current events. Although her father is a Baptist minister, Lauren has already lost her faith in the Christian God. She develops her own religion called Earthseed, based on the idea that God is Change. Change is her watchword. Even before disaster hits their community, she is certain that she does not want to live the life that is expected of her: to marry young, have children, and live in impoverished circumstances in Robledo. She also guesses that her neighborhood will be destroyed in the near future, and she makes plans to escape, reading everything she can about how to survive in emergency situations and how to live off the land.

When the disaster happens, Lauren shows that she is strong willed and determined and that she possesses great leadership qualities. She is the undisputed leader of the small group that heads north along the freeway, seeking a better life. She is ruthless, she kills when she has to, and she ensures that her group does what it has to do to survive. Gradually, she also instills in her companions a sense of ethics and community. Although she is tough, she also cares about others and shows compassion. She is rewarded when the group arrives at Bankole's land, where she can put her dream of founding an Earthseed community into practice.

Marcus Olamina

Marcus Olamina is Lauren's brother. At thirteen, he is already handsome, and he attracts girls. His friend is Robin Balter, Harry Balter's sister. Marcus is killed when the neighborhood is attacked.

Reverend Olamina

Reverend Olamina is Lauren's fifty-seven-year-old father and the husband of Cory. He is a college professor and dean and a Baptist minister. A very strict father, he severely beats Keith for misbehavior, which produces a permanent estrangement between father and son. He has also beaten Lauren, but she does not hold it against him. Reverend Olamina is a tough-minded man who does his best to protect his family in difficult circumstances. His own parents were murdered fifteen years earlier, and his first wife was a drug addict. Olamina goes missing from the neighborhood one day and is never found. He is presumed dead.

Wardell Parish

Wardell Parish is a strange and solitary man who lives in Lauren's neighborhood. His sister and all her children are killed in a house fire.

Justin Rohr

Justin Rohr is a three-year-old boy who is taken in by Lauren's group after his mother is killed just outside San Juan Bautista.

Emery Tanaka Solis

Emery Tanaka Solis is the twenty-three-year-old mother of Tori Solis. She married at thirteen and bore three children. After her husband died, she worked for an agribusiness conglomerate that made a virtual slave of her. She fell into debt, and the company took her two sons. She then fled with her daughter and headed north. They are taken in by Lauren's group toward the end of their trek.

Tori Solis

Tori is the nine-year-old daughter of Emery Tanaka Solis.

Curtis Talcott

Curtis Talcott is Lauren's boyfriend in Robledo. He wants to marry her and leave Robledo, but she says she must stay and help her family until she is eighteen. Although she says she will marry him if he waits for her, her heart is not in it. There is too much of herself that she is unable to share with him. She never sees him again after the neighborhood is attacked and burned, and she assumes he was killed, though she never knows for certain.

Kayla Talcott

Kayla Talcott is the mother of Curtis Talcott. After Reverend Olamina disappears, Kayla takes over some of his preaching and church work, even though she is not ordained.



Lauren rejects traditional religion. Based on her experience, she sees no relevance in a belief system focused on the Christian God. Instead, she forms her own religion based on her observation that everything in the universe changes. Change is the one constant in life. People can either accept change and work with it for the betterment of themselves and their community, or they can resist it, hoping in vain that things will carry on the way they always have done.

For Lauren, change is God. This God shapes humans and is in turn shaped by them. God is dynamic process, not a static, transcendental lawgiver and judge. Change is an irresistible force, and humans can harness it to promote the spiritual evolution of the race. According Lauren's Earthseed religion, each human life is a seed that can sprout into something valuable and productive if it can adapt to changing realities. By yielding to change, this human earthseed can also shape it constructively. The consequences of failing to do so are death and chaos. The ultimate expression of Earthseed, its destiny, is "to take root among the stars," to spread human life to other planets and galaxies.

Topics For Further Study

  • Research the history of illiteracy in the United States. What can be done to tackle illiteracy in the United States? How have educational methods developed over time to accommodate new finds or theories in literacy studies? Develop a political platform, a curriculum, or a tutorial that employs some of the methods for dealing with illiteracy that you encounter during your research. Try to propose some of your own resolutions and include them in your project.
  • In the novel, water is scarce and expensive. Research the topic of water supply. Is water likely to become a scarce commodity in the twenty-first century? If so, what regions of the world already have this problem or will have this problem? Will the United States be affected and, if so, which areas?
  • There are many sides in the current debate about global warming and climate change. Study the arguments about whether global warming is currently happening or not, about the effects of global warming on the environment as well as industry, and about who is responsible for helping industries comply with environmental sanctions aimed at reducing harmful emissions. Document your findings and prepare to debate with other members of your class by picking the argument with which you agree most and developing a strong defense for your position.
  • Research the history of company towns in the United States in the nineteenth century. Write an essay that explains how your research compares with the description of Olivar in the novel. Is Butler's representation of Olivar historically accurate? Does the author leave out important elements that you found in your research? If so, what are those elements?
  • Is Butler's pessimistic vision of America in the 2020s convincing? Are such developments likely or unlikely? Can you see ways in which America might develop differently?


Lauren's trek north is a journey toward freedom. She is escaping the prison of a walled community in which there is no hope for a full, productive, free life. Most of the people her group accumulates on the way are fleeing from some kind of slavery or exploitation. Zahra Moss is escaping an oppressive marriage that rests on a belief in male superiority. Harry has turned down a chance to go to the company town of Olivar, in which the residents give up their freedom and their rights in order to buy security. Jill and Allie flee from a life of prostitution in which their pimp was their father; Travis and Natividad escape from menial service to a rich man who thought he had the right to seduce Natividad; Emery Solis and her daughter are escaping virtual slavery to an agribusiness that keeps them in permanent debt and even takes Emery's sons away. Bankole, too, is escaping from conditions of life similar to those that Lauren was enduring. He seeks freedom on the land he owns in the coastal hills. The members of Lauren's Earthseed community who decide to settle there will at least be free to shape their own destiny, although there is no guarantee they will survive.

Loss and Restoration of Community

The novel is divided into two halves. The first half, set in Robledo, shows how the social order in California in 2024 has broken down. Society is split into several groups. The rich live in walled estates, with lavish security systems. The middle classes, much threatened and impoverished, live in walled communities and try to maintain a semblance of normal life. But jobs are scarce, and no one has any prospects. Inflation has eroded the value of money, and essentials such as water are expensive. In Lauren's neighborhood, people try to grow as much of their own food as they can. For meat, they rely on eating rabbits. Everyone in the community over the age of fifteen is trained in how to use guns, since they cannot rely on a corrupt police force for protection against the thieves who regularly break into their community. Outside, in unwalled areas, the rule of law and the sense of community have totally collapsed. Homeless, dirty, desperately poor people roam the streets, along with drunks and drug addicts. Many are addicted to a drug that makes them commit arson, because they love to watch things burn.

The second part of the novel presents a gradually emerging contrast between the lawlessness and brutality of life amongst the traveling bands of refugees and the sense of community and mutual responsibility that eventually characterizes Lauren's group. Lauren's quest is to recreate what an ideal community should be. At first, because of the dangerous situation she is in, she is ruthless, trusting no one and looking out only for herself and her two companions. But as she continues to travel north, she does not shut out the voice of compassion. A key moment is when she pulls Allie and Jill out of the rubble of a house. Bankole, who has never lost his sense of values, says to her, "I was surprised to see that anyone else cared what happened to a couple of strangers." Another key moment comes when Emery and her daughter are found in the group's camp. Lauren goes out of her way to feed them, offering them two of the five sweet pears that she had bought only two days earlier. Seeing her example, other members of the group share what food they have. When Lauren puts out the idea that Emery and the girl could join their group, Harry tells her she is going soft. "You would have raised hell if we'd tried to take in a beggar woman and her child a few weeks ago." But Lauren is not going soft. She is simply demonstrating that in spite of the degradation and danger all around her, humans can still show that they care about each other. Then, when Jill is killed, Lauren comforts the grief-stricken Allie with a hug. The message she conveys is "In spite of your loss and pain, you aren't alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family." When Lauren's new "family," a heterogeneous, multiracial group that spans several generations, arrives at their destination, they have learned to take care of each other. They are ready to develop a community based not on fear or exploitation but on mutual respect and shared values.



A dystopia is an unpleasant, sometimes frightening, imaginary future world. Dystopias usually take undesirable aspects of present-day society and depict a world in which those aspects have become dominant. In Parable of the Sower, Butler creates a dystopia by magnifying some disturbing social trends that occurred in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These trends included the widespread use of designer drugs (custom-made, mind-altering drugs such as Ecstasy). In the novel, use of the drug pyro reaches epidemic proportions. It makes people commit arson because doing so feels better than sex. Another trend in the 1990s was the increasing popularity, particularly in California, of gated communities protected by security fences. These become the walled communities in 2024 California. In both cases, the walls go up because of fear of crime. Homelessness, illiteracy, and global warming were other issues in the 1990s that appear in larger form in the novel.

Image and Metaphor

The novel takes its title from the parable of the sower in the gospel of Luke. The sower is like the spiritual teacher who spreads the word of truth. Some people listen; others do not—just as seeds take root in some places but not in others. In the New Testament, the sower is Jesus; in the novel, it is Lauren. The metaphor of the seed occurs again in the name Lauren gives to her new religion, Earthseed. It is also reflected in the name of the first Earthseed community: Acorn. The acorn image occurs earlier in the novel, too. Lauren loves to eat bread made with acorns rather than wheat or rye. Her father tells her that he had a difficult time persuading his neighbors to eat acorns. They wanted to cut down the oak trees and plant something else they considered more useful. Lauren learns from a book how to make acorn bread, and this helps to sustain their group as they travel north. The acorn image conveys the idea that the seeds of new life are always available, not only in nature but in humans, too.

Historical Context


Rising rates of illiteracy became a matter of public concern in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989, it was estimated that 13 percent of seventeen-year-old Americans could not read or write and that twenty million Americans had problems with literacy. Some could not read or write at all, and this often resulted from poverty or being in culturally disadvantaged families. Others were partially literate and could read street signs and grocery lists but not much more. Often this was due to undiagnosed learning disorders such as dyslexia. According to a 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress government survey, although 96 percent of those between twenty-one and twenty-five years old had basic reading skills, less than 48 percent were capable of reading a map well enough to use it properly. In the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey by the Department of Education, over 40 percent of the adult population fell short of the literacy skills needed to succeed on a day-to-day basis.

Gated Communities

In the late 1980s, fear of rising crime in urban areas led to a growth in the number of gated residential communities in the United States, particularly in California and other western and southern metropolitan areas. These were communities where access was controlled through gates and security guards. Sometimes fences topped with barbed wire surrounded the community. An example of a gated community is Canyon Lake, located seventy miles east of Los Angeles. Created in 1968, it incorporated as a city of its own in 1990. Gated communities proved an effective deterrent against crime, and their numbers increased throughout the United States in the 1990s. In 1997, there were about twenty thousand gated communities, which increased to around fifty thousand by 2000.

Fear of Crime

Fear of crime was a prominent feature of life in the United States at the time Parable of the Sower was written. According to a 1994 Gallup Poll, 52 percent of the people in the United States named crime as the most important social problem, up from only 9 percent in a similar poll conducted eighteen months earlier. A 1993 poll showed that 87 percent of U.S. residents thought that crime was higher than a year earlier. This was not in fact true, since the crime rate fell from 1991 to 1994, but people thought it was true. There was a particularly strong fear in urban areas of street crime and random, gang-related violence. Fear of crime led legislators and the public at large to call for harsher punishments for criminals. In California, a "three strikes" law was passed in 1994. It mandated a sentence of twenty-five years to life for a third felony conviction if the previous felonies were serious or violent.


Homelessness in America increased drastically during the 1980s, to an estimated two million people in 1989. Some experts argue that the policies of the Reagan administration were to blame for cutting welfare programs and making massive cuts in the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD was the main government sponsor of subsidized housing for the poor. The situation was not helped by the fact that poverty also increased during the 1980s. In 1978, 24.5 million people lived below the federal poverty line; by 1988 this had risen to 32.5 million. The gap between rich and poor also increased. Another factor in the rise of homelessness in the 1980s arose from concerns about the rights of the mentally ill. It became harder to commit people to mental hospitals against their will. The result was that many mentally ill people ended up on the streets. It is estimated that one-third of the homeless during the 1980s were mentally ill and that a similar proportion had problems with substance abuse.

Climate Change

Concerns about global warming, an increase in Earth's average surface temperature, were first raised in the 1980s. The phenomenon was also known as the "greenhouse effect." Many scientists believed that global warning was caused by an increase in emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide resulting from the burning of fossil fuels for energy production. In 1988, James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, told a U.S. Senate committee there was strong evidence that global warming was being caused by human activity. He warned that if global warming were not reversed, it would cause catastrophic climatic changes. Throughout the 1990s, scientists warned of extreme weather including floods, heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes that would occur as a result of global warning.

Critical Overview

Although Four Walls Eight Windows, the original publishers of Parable of the Sower, tried to present the book as similar to the fiction of other African American writers such as Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara, reviewers seemed still to regard it as science fiction. This did not prevent the novel from receiving high praise. For Faren Miller, in Locus, it "presents what is simply the most emotionally and intellectually appealing religion I've encountered in nearly four decades of reading sf." Miller commented on the grim nature of the world depicted and the religious issues Butler presents but added that the novel "functions beautifully as fiction, brimming with living characters and the crazy complexity of life."

Hoda Zaki, in Women's Review of Books, pointed out that Butler drew extensively on African American history:

[I]mages of slavery remind us of the U.S. past: slaves hiding their attempts at self-education and literacy, and fleeing cruel overseers; Lauren's band of survivors, which recalls the Underground Railroad; the pervasive feeling that freedom, work and security lie to the north.

Zaki also pointed out that Butler shows characters from a variety of racial backgrounds in positive roles that are not usually found in science fiction novels about the future. Zaki concluded, "In a world increasingly polarized ethnically and racially, [Butler's] work contributes a needed critical element to the genre of science fiction."

In a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review, Gerald Jonas commented that although religious awakenings are common in science fiction of the future, they are often arbitrary and conventional, but Butler "dares to take Lauren's revelations seriously," and this enables her to show how Lauren's ideas capture the allegiance of her followers. Jonas concluded that the novel succeeded on many levels: "A gripping tale of survival and a poignant account of growing up sane in a disintegrating world, it is at bottom a subtle and disturbing exposition of the gospel according to Lauren."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses Parable of the Sower in terms of dystopias, utopias, archetypal patterns, coming-of-age novels, and the character of the narrator, Lauren.

Butler is a writer of great originality whose work does not fit neatly into categories. Although she is usually referred to as a science fiction writer and Parable of the Sower was reviewed in the science fiction section of the New York Times Book Review, there is in fact little science fiction in it. Butler pays scant attention to the technological aspects of her near-future society, merely mentioning in passing "Window Wall" televisions and the newest "multisensory" entertainment systems that include such things as "reality vests" and "touch-rings." Much more important to Butler's purpose is the fact that almost no one in Lauren's Robledo community can afford these items.

Parable of the Sower properly belongs to the category of dystopia. Dystopias come in many forms. George Orwell's 1984 (1948), for example, depicts an oppressive, totalitarian society. A more recent form of dystopia is the "cyberpunk" novel, such as Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992), in which highly sophisticated information technologies exist alongside environmental degradation, rampant crime, and the domination of ruthless corporations. Yet another form is the feminist dystopia, in which women are systematically oppressed, as in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986) and Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World (1974).

Parable of the Sower resists easy classification, though, since it has elements of a number of different kinds of dystopias. It offers some censure of the political system, although that is not the author's main target. In Butler's 2020s, the federal government seems to have become irrelevant rather than oppressive. It wastes money on space programs and makes futile attempts to tackle homelessness and unemployment by passing legislation that restricts workers' rights.

The all-powerful corporation, at the heart of many "cyberpunk" dystopias, makes an appearance in the novel as the company town of Olivar, where people get protection from crime and unemployment but at the expense of individual rights and freedoms. The reader is left in no doubt that Lauren and Harry make the right choice when they elect not to go to Olivar. Feminist elements also appear in the novel, although it does not present a systematic portrait of the institutionalized oppression of women. Women have the opportunity to become astronauts and go on the latest mission to Mars. Indeed, a female astronaut is killed on Mars. But in contrast to that, Butler presents many examples of men behaving badly to women. Richard Moss, for example, adopts a quasi-religious patriarchal family system that creates a system of virtual slavery for his many wives. Apparently, this is a common practice amongst middle- and upper-class men. Butler delivers a crushing verdict on Moss when she describes him, after the catastrophe overwhelms Lauren's neighborhood, lying stark naked in a pool of his own blood. So much for patriarchy.

To add to the complexity of this novel, it might be pointed out that within the dystopia is also a vision of utopia. Utopian works, of which the prototype is Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1515–1516), depict an ideal society. Lauren's vision of Acorn, a self-reliant community built from scratch on a few hundred acres of farmland, in which the new, enlightened religion of Earthseed is to take root, is a utopian vision. It is still in the future, and there is no guarantee that it will succeed, but the verses from Lauren's "Earthseed: The Books of the Living," which appear as epigraphs to each chapter, are constant reminders that within this miserable dystopia a utopia is ready to spring up. Lauren, of course, thinks her religion is new, and some elements of it are, particularly the vision that it is the destiny of Earthseed to colonize the stars. But its central idea, "the only lasting truth is Change," was expressed over two-and-a-half-thousand years ago by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whose famous phrase was "All is flux; nothing is stationary." Even in 2024, it appears that there is still nothing new under the sun.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Parable of the Talents (1998) is Butler's sequel to Parable of the Sower. The Earthseed community that Lauren founded is collapsing. Her followers are enslaved, her daughter is kidnapped, and she is imprisoned by religious fanatics. But Lauren continues to believe in Earthseed and must find a way for the Acorn community to survive.
  • Neal Stephenson's bestselling Snow Crash (1992) is a fast-paced, near-future dystopia, in which the United States is a collection of city-states controlled by corporations and the Mafia controls pizza delivery. The hero, named Hiro Protagonist, is a computer hacker (and samurai swordsman) who battles with a deadly designer drug called Snow Crash, that is also a sinister, world-endangering computer virus.
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962), by Anthony Burgess, is a grim dystopia narrated by Alex, a member of an extremely violent teenage gang. When Alex is imprisoned, he is subjected to a new government-sponsored treatment program designed to cure his violent behavior. He comes out of it as a model citizen but has no free will nor the capacity to do good or experience pleasure.
  • The Handmaid's Tale: A Novel (1986), by Margaret Atwood, is a near-future fable in which the United States has become the Republic of Gilead, controlled by religious fundamentalists. Women are strictly controlled and have no rights. Atwood's target is the Christian right's views about the proper role of women. She attempts to show what might happen if such views are taken to their logical conclusion.

Be that as it may, within the dystopian/utopian framework of her novel, Butler manages also to touch on the archetypal pattern that mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) described as the "monomyth." In the monomyth, the hero hears a call to adventure, leaves his familiar environment, and journeys to an unknown or unfamiliar realm, where he undergoes many trials. He then returns to his society to bestow a boon on his fellow man. It is not difficult to see a similar pattern, with some variation, in Parable of the Sower, as well as some of the standard elements in a coming-of-age novel. Lauren—a female protagonist, of course, not a male one—is only fifteen when the novel begins. On the threshold of maturity, she must decide what she believes and what she wants to do with her life. When another neighborhood girl, Bianca Montoya, gets pregnant at seventeen and decides to marry her boyfriend, Lauren knows that this is the life expected of her too—to marry young, have children, and remain in poverty. Lauren would sooner commit suicide than endure such a life. Like many a strong-willed fifteen- or sixteen-year-old, she clashes with her stern father, who, as the representative of the older generation, is more conservative and cautious than she. Lauren knows she must break with the old ways of doing things, just as she has already broken with the religion of her father, which does not speak to her personal experience. She boldly plans to encounter life beyond the walled neighborhood that is all she has ever known, and she does not falter when this "call to adventure" finally comes. When she shepherds her small group on their dangerous journey north, like the hero of the monomyth, she faces many dangers in an environment where the rule of law, and human kindness, no longer exists. The boon she brings is a vision of renewed hope for humanity—an agrarian, back-to-nature utopian community that will act as a counterpoint to corrupt cities and lawless countryside where all civilized values have been destroyed.

It is Lauren, then, who carries much of the interest in the novel. She is far more well developed by the author than any of the other characters, most of whom, except perhaps for Bankole, remain somewhat sketchy. (Bankole, incidentally, has something in common with the archetype of the wise old man. His ethical values are not impaired by the chaos around him, and it is he who guides the group to their safe haven.) Lauren is certainly an unusual, even strange, figure. She is something of a child prodigy, since even at fifteen she has a sophisticated understanding of the world and an emotional maturity well beyond her years.

As Lauren matures over a period of three years, she becomes a visionary, a prophet, and a charismatic leader, who also has formidable, practical organizing skills. No one in her group ever disputes that she is their leader, and she never lets them down, usually one step ahead of the others in anticipating danger and taking steps to avoid it.

In an interview with Rebecca O. Johnson, published in Sojourner: The Women's Forum, Butler commented on her character Lauren, but in a way that some readers might find surprising. She says she found it hard to write the book "because I knew I would have to write about a character who was power-seeking. I didn't realize how much I had absorbed the notion that power-seekers were evil." Butler thus found herself out of sympathy with her main character. She got around the problem by deciding that "power can be a tool.... [M]oney, knowledge, religion, whatever is common among human beings, can be beneficial or harmful to the individual and is judged by how it is being used."

An author's views of her own work must be respected, but it does not mean that other views are not possible. It might be interesting, for example, to discover how many readers reach the conclusion that Lauren is a power seeker. Certainly she has a missionary desire to promote certain ideas; she wants to persuade and lead, but those personal qualities do not of themselves make her a power seeker. Lauren's situation in life is as much forced on her by circumstances as created by her own will. Earthseed, the religion she creates, teaches humility before the irreducible fact of change. It does not sound like a religion that calls for a messiah figure or an autocratic leader.

If the creative and resourceful Lauren does seek power, it is not from any egotistical or selfish desire to dominate others. This would be doubly hard for Lauren since she is an empath. She has the capacity to feel the pain of the oppressed to an unusual degree. The origins of this "hyperempathy" lie in her mother's abuse of a drug named Paracetco when she was pregnant with Lauren. In creating this detail, Butler builds on a distressing fact that emerged in the early 1990s: Some babies born to cocaine-addicted mothers were addicted to cocaine from birth. Lauren emphasizes that her condition is a delusion (the doctors call it "organic delusional syndrome"), but delusions are real to those who suffer from them. She is also encouraged to keep her condition a secret, since it is perceived as a weakness. The pain of others has the power to disable her completely, but sometimes a person's greatest weakness is also the source of her greatest strength.

It is not hard to see in fifteen-year-old Lauren as she rides her bicycle in an unwalled area, absorbing the distressing scenes ("I tried not to look at them, but I couldn't help seeing—collecting—some of their general misery") an echo of the legend of the Buddha, who as a young man walking in the street was awakened to the reality of human life by the sight of old age, sickness, and death, from which he had previously been shielded. From this arose his desire to find the cause of suffering and the means by which it might be removed. Just as the compassion of one man gave rise to one of the world's great religions, so the vision of a young girl, in entirely different circumstances, in a different time and place, and in a different way, gives rise to Earthseed, a religion that embraces suffering as an inevitable part of the change that is the fundamental principle of life itself.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Parable of the Sower, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Madhu Dubey

In the following essay excerpt, Dubey identifies "current urban problems" in the changing communities of Parable of the Sower, and argues that "investing literature with broadbased social value" to resolve such dilemmas is problematic.

In "The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston," first published in 1991, Hazel Carby seeks to account for the recent academic revival of Zora Neale Hurston's southern folk aesthetic. Carby argues that Hurston's writing, locating authentic black community in the rural south, displaced the difficulties of representing the complex and contested black culture that was taking shape in the cities and that the current academic reclamation of Hurston's work illustrates a parallel logic of displacement. Carby concludes with the suggestion that present-day critics of African-American literature and culture "begin to acknowledge the complexity of [their] own discursive displacement of contemporary conflict and cultural transformation in the search for black cultural authenticity. The privileging of Hurston . . . at a moment of intense urban crisis and conflict is perhaps a sign of that displacement."

Carby's provocative argument can be extended beyond its specific reference to the academic recovery of Zora Neale Hurston, and applied to the turn toward southern folk culture taken in so much of the criticism surrounding novels by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, and others. Although most of these writers have published city novels, criticism on these novelists has tended to privilege those selected texts and textual elements that help consolidate a black feminine literary tradition derived from southern folk culture. Following Carby's logic, we might argue that these critical texts are executing a "discursive displacement" of problems of urban literary representation, but this displacement is itself an oblique form of response to the widely prevalent rhetoric of contemporary urban crisis. This rhetoric, magnetized around the notorious term "underclass," tends to frame the issue of urban crisis essentially as a crisis in black culture and community. In popular media and academic discourses, the underclass is commonly represented as a recalcitrant urban mass polarized against an expanding black middle class and caught in illicit culture of poverty. Given the public sway of these discourses, it is not surprising that so much recent African-American literature is framing urban crisis as a problem of representation, and grappling with the questions of whether and how the writer can bridge class divides and speak for, as well as to, a wider black urban community. This problem of representation is exacerbated by the fact that contemporary literary readerships are highly specialized and restricted as well as racially and culturally diverse, and are certainly not coextensive with "the black community."

The southern folk aesthetic exemplifies a "discursive displacement" of this crisis in literary representation in the sense that, if black community is perceived to be irreparably fractured in the contemporary city, the folk domain of the rural south operates as a site where integral black communities can be imaginatively restored. These face-to-face models of community are typically bound together by ties of place, distinctive cultural modes of knowing (clustered around the term "conjuring") and styles of communication (oral tradition). The turn toward southern folk culture works essentially to guarantee the writer's ability to identify, address, and speak for a wider black community. For example, Alice Walker declares, in a much-quoted passage from her essay "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," that "what the black Southern writer inherits as a natural right is a sense of community. Something simple but surprisingly hard, especially these days, to come by." If we accredit current discourses of urban crisis, black community does appear surprisingly hard to come by these days, requiring as it does difficult acts of mediation across intraracial class, regional, and cultural distinctions. The literary turn toward a rural southern past helps short-circuit this labor of mediation, furnishing community as the writer's "natural right." Alice Walker's, remembered image of wholesome southern community hinges on a "cooperative ethos" that mitigates intraracial class divisions, precisely the ethos that is often said to have dissolved in the contemporary city.

Houston Baker, in his study of black women novelists, specifies the type of community implicit in the southern folk aesthetic, as he opposes the "mulattoization"—or racial dilution—of black urban culture to "a field of 'particular' or vernacular imagery unique to the Afro-American imagination," a field Baker situates in the rural south. Even Addison Gayle, a prominent advocate of the city-based Black Aesthetic of the 1960s, has more recently argued that black southern folklore gives us "the genesis of a racial literature"; despite "the fact that modernization, urbanization, and all the concomitant evils have come to the South," the African-American writer who taps into southern folklore can be "one with his community, and his works . . . validated and legitimized by the community itself." As these passages suggest, the southern folk aesthetic stakes a claim to crisis-free literary representation, and strives to recover, in Toni Morrison's words, "a time when an artist could be genuinely representative of the tribe and in it." Morrison's use of the word "tribe" (and, elsewhere, "village") invokes a metaphor of organic community that serves to secure the contemporary writer's claims to literary representation, and that bespeaks the difficulty of affirming the writer's social function within the more complex and conflicted conditions of contemporary urban community.

The critical currency of the southern folk aesthetic has obscured those African-American novelists who explicitly engage the difficulties of writing an urban fiction that cannot configure its reading audience as an organic racial community. In this essay, I shall focus on one such novelist, Octavia Butler, whose recent novel, Parable of the Sower (1993), addresses several concerns feeding into a contemporary crisis of urban literary representation. Octavia Butler is a prolific writer whose novels have usually been targeted at a restricted science-fiction readership and, with the exception of Kindred, have therefore remained outside the critical purview of the African-American women's fictional tradition. Butler's latest novel merits attention because its unusual approach to questions of community broadens and complicates influential current accounts of black women's literary tradition. If, as Hazel Carby contends, southern folk aesthetics exemplify a discursive displacement of urban crisis, Parable of the Sower attempts squarely to confront this crisis through its starkly dystopian urban setting. The novel self-reflexively deploys scientific modes of knowing and textual forms of communication (rather than the magical epistemology of "conjuring" or oral tradition) in order to assess the writer's role in mediating urban crisis. The novel forcefully rejects localist and organic notions of community, reaching instead for more complex ways of representing communities that are not coextensive with places or with discrete cultural traditions. In what follows, I treat Parable of the Sower as a lens that clarifies the dangers of advancing folk resolutions to current urban problems. I then go on to examine Butler's resolution to dilemmas of urban literary representation, which depends on the very same model of organic community that her novel struggles to discredit as an unrealistic and undesirable ideal. As I shall argue, the contradictory terms of this resolution reveal not only the difficulty of investing literature with broad-based social value within contemporary urban conditions, but also the constraints placed by current discourses of urban crisis on the African-American literary imagination.

If the urban migrations of the first half of the twentieth century constituted a mass movement of African-Americans from "medieval America to modern" as well as a collective effort to seize "the larger and more democratic chance," the reverse literary turn toward the rural south in the last decades of this century may be read as a form of "desperate pastoralism" born out of acute disenchantment with the failed promise of urban modernity for African-Americans. As so many urban historians have observed, the American city at the end of the twentieth century is typified by two contradictory but interdependent trends—hardening racial and economic divisions on the one hand, and on the other a promiscuous intercourse between cultural signs of racial difference that maintains the mirage of a "consumer democracy." Locating authentic black community in a segregated folk domain, the southern aesthetic enables writers to divest from the illusory pluralism promised by the contemporary city.

Parable of the Sower similarly exposes the hollowness and duplicity of recent American ideologies of urban development. The novel takes as its point of departure an uncannily credible future in which ideals of the American city as a "consumption artifact" have devolved into a precarious urban order founded on economic and racial inequality. Octavia Butler has said in an interview that in this novel she "made an effort to talk about what could actually happen or is in the process of happening." The dystopia presented in Parable of the Sower is so closely extrapolated from current trends, as Stephen Potts observes, that it produces a shock of familiarity rather than estrangement. Butler identifies the walling of communities as one process that is actually and already occurring in contemporary urban America. And, in fact, the novel's depiction of walled neighborhoods as spatial manifestations of a segregated urban order based on unequal distribution of economic resources uncannily resembles both John Edgar Wideman's journalistic description of contemporary Los Angeles as a city structured by "invisible walls" and Mike Davis's grim account of "Fortress L.A."

Set in Robledo, a "little city" near Los Angeles, during the years 2024–27, the first half of Parable of the Sower presents a walled neighborhood whose residents armed themselves to protect their property against threats of looting and arson. The streets outside this enclave are occupied by an urban underclass made up of "the street poor—squatters, winos, junkies, homeless people in general" who are "desperate or crazy or both." Inhabitants of the walled neighborhood are too fearful of street violence to send their children to the few schools that still exist; few jobs are available even for the educated. Past patterns of production and consumption have so thoroughly stripped the earth of its natural resources that even water has become an expensive commodity. Vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and livestock provide the means of subsistence for the relatively well-to-do, such as the residents of Robledo, whose struggle to preserve their property, their families, and their community ends when their neighborhood is destroyed by pyromaniacs, users of a popular drug that stimulates arson.

Projecting widespread scarcity and heightened class and racial antagonisms as the probable results of current patterns of production and consumption, the novel thoroughly discredits the enduring image (revived in recent times) of the city as a marketplace of abundant and diverse consumer options. It is the gated community rather than the vibrant and heterogeneous marketplace that Butler presents as the epitome of contemporary urbanism. Lauren Olamina, the eighteen-year old protagonist and narrator of the novel, describes Robledo as "a tiny, walled, fish-bowl cul-de-sac community." The novel's only other extended image of urban order is equally, if not more, dystopian. Olivar, a city bought out and controlled by a multinational company, offers its citizens employment, a "guaranteed food-supply," and security from the "spreading chaos of the rest of Los Angeles County." But the safety of a company town like Olivar is based on a system of labor exploitation that seems "half antebellum revival and half science fiction." Corporations pay their workers wages that barely meet living expenses, forcing them into a cycle of debt slavery that perpetuates their dependence on the company. The order of this privatized city is maintained by the suspension of "'overly restrictive' minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws," so that corporations can do away with money wages altogether and hire labor in exchange for room and board.

The gated communities of Olivar and Robledo sketch a future scenario in which American cities can no longer continue to function as systems supporting an equitable organization of production and consumption. In response, the novel's protagonist urges other characters to seek more viable economic and ecological alternatives, such as living off the land. This turn to a simple agricultural economy is certainly a logical consequence of the novel's refusal to equate current directions of urban development with the promise of progress. Lauren's mother remembers a past when this urban promise seemed tangible, when cities were "a blaze of light." In the novel's present, however, "lights, progress, growth" are discredited as the thwarted goals of urban development. In its critique of an urban order rationalized by ideologies of conspicuous consumption and in its turn to a modest agricultural order, Parable of the Sower decidedly recalls novels such as Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, which affirm primitive social orders situated in an imaginary rural south as alternatives to contemporary capitalist cities organized as artifacts of consumption. As Susan Willis has argued, seemingly nostalgic images of the rural south in black women's fiction often serve as Archimedean levers for criticizing urban capitalism.

Parable of the Sower shares this critique but refuses the polarization of rural and urban spheres that bolsters the southern folk aesthetic. Raymond Williams warns, in The Country and the City, that "we need not, at any stage, accept the town and country contrast at face value," because literary constructions of this contrast so often repress the realities of agricultural labor and thereby blind us to the functional interdependence of country and city in advanced capitalist economies. Butler is careful not to disguise the harsh facts of agricultural labor or to represent the rural sphere as an elsewhere to the urban capitalist economy. Emery, the only farm worker in the novel, has worked for an agribusiness conglomerate that paid wages in company scrip and practiced a form of exploitation through debt as pernicious as the debt slavery common in privatized cities such as Olivar. By means of such exact parallels between conditions of labor in rural and urban areas, the novel resists constructing an idealized fiction of the countryside to ground its opposition to urban capitalism.

Butler even more emphatically refuses the retrospective stance that typically characterizes rural-based critiques of urban conditions. Commenting on the literary method of using a fabricated rural past as a "stick to beat the present," Raymond Williams remarks on its tendency to turn "protest into retrospect," a tendency that curtails the radical reach of rurally grounded critiques of urban capitalism. In Parable of the Sower, Butler clarifies the strongly conservative (and conservationist) ideologies that tend to accompany a retrospective critical stance toward the present. The adults in Robledo are "still anchored in the past, waiting for the good old days to come back"; as Lauren frequently points out, this backward vision prevents them from reckoning with the many changes that have already occurred and from imagining future social transformation.

In explicit opposition to the "dying, denying, backward-looking" posture of her community, Lauren searches for a belief system that can "pry them loose from the rotting past" and push them into building a different and better future. To this end, Lauren establishes her own religion, which she names Earthseed. This name comes to her as she is working in her garden and thinking of the way "plants seed themselves, away from their parent plants." Based on her observation that "A tree cannot grow in its parents' shadows," Lauren envisions members of the Earthseed community (which, at this point in the novel, exists only in her imagination) as "Earthlife . . . preparing to fall away from the parent world," "earthseed cast on new ground," far from the familiar spaces of home, family, and neighborhood.

Butler's seed metaphor carries both a critical and a constructive response to conditions of urban crisis that strikingly diverges from the southern folk resolution to urban problems, crystallized around the metaphors of roots and ancestry. Taking their cue from Toni Morrison's essays, "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation" and "City Limits, Village Values," critics including Karla Holloway, Joanne Braxton, and Farah Jasmine Griffin configure the ancestor as a repository of southern folk tradition and a means of combating the presumed fracture of black urban community. The ancestor, as a bearer of collective folk memory, helps displaced city-dwellers to preserve their roots in the rural south; these roots support the foundation of "village" models of home, family, and community that alone can withstand urban alienation and dislocation. In this conception of the ancestor as the root or foundation of urban community, a remembered and imagined rural past grounds a critique of the capitalist city as well as an alternative vision of social order.

In contrast, Butler's critique of the capitalist city does not take its bearings from the past (whether real or imagined). If the metaphor of roots points toward consolidation of past values as a positive response to present urban problem, in Parable of the Sower, attachment to the "apparent stability" of home, family, and neighborhood obstructs action directed at change. Like the gated community, home, too, in this novel is figured as "a cul-de-sac with a wall around it." This is not to suggest that Lauren does not draw emotional solace from her home, family, and neighborhood. Butler has said in an interview that family seems to her to make up "our most important set of relationships" and, in fact, other novels by Butler have been criticized for the heavy redemptive weight they place on family. Parable of the Sower fully grants the sustaining value of home and family, but the novel sketches an emergency scenario of such wholesale urban devastation that these constructs cannot offer refuge from or guide a viable critique of dystopian urban conditions. As exemplified by the reactions of the adults in Robledo, people often react to perceived crisis by conserving familiar structures and values in an attempt to fend off the inevitability of change. This defense of traditional values associated with an idealized past often serves dubious political ends, as is obvious from contemporary discussions of the urban "underclass" that promote familial stability (associated either with rural southern life or with a "golden age of the ghetto") as a resolution to structural economic and political problems. The seed metaphor in Parable of the Sower suggests a valuable corrective to such approaches, urging as it does the necessity of discarding ideas and ideologies rooted in the past that aim only to stabilize, not to transform, present social conditions. Home and family in Butler's novel cannot escape or counter the systemic logic of urban poverty and unemployment. The novel delineates the broad national and international economic processes that impinge on every home and every neighborhood, clarifying the futility (and impossibility) of constructing urban communities on "village" foundations. Lauren's aspiration to seed herself away from the shadow of home and family signals her readiness to relinquish available mirages of stability and to embrace drastic change and rupture if these are the only means to future survival and growth. This readiness is expressed in the central principle of Lauren's Earthseed religion: "When apparent stability disintegrates, as it must—God is Change."

Both the name of Lauren's religion, Earthseed, and its governing metaphor of seeding suggest notions of place and community other than those inhering in the roots metaphor, which consolidates cultural and ancestral traditions as bulwarks against modem urban forces of displacement. Lauren's religion assumes mobility across space as its necessary and enabling condition. Recognizing that all visionary schemes of social transformation require an imagined elsewhere to inspire and focus action, Lauren writes that the "heaven" or "destiny" of Earthseed is "to take root among the stars." By this Lauren literally means that the future of the human race lies in extrasolar space. The importance of this image of heaven is its orientation toward a future space that can only be reached by means of modern technology. The extraterrestrial direction of Earthseed, a common enough science fiction device, hyperbolically conveys the expansive globalism of the novel's vision, a vision far removed from the localism of folk models of place-bound community.

I do not mean to suggest here that mobility is in itself a forward-looking urban value or that localism is necessarily aligned with nostalgic folk models of community. In fact, urban community movements have often sought to conserve the use values attached to specific neighborhoods as the only available means of resisting the instability of an urban space that is repeatedly deformed and reformed by the dictates of capitalist exchange value. As Logan and Molotch have persuasively argued, contradictions between use and exchange values, between place as the site of lived community and place as commodity, are at the root of "truly urban conflict." Poor neighborhoods inhabited by racial minorities have been especially vulnerable to the rapid conversions of urban space over the last two or three decades; the forcible dislocation of these residents has been the invariable byproduct of urban renewal and gentrification projects intended to raise property values. In this kind of urban context, mobility can hardly be affirmed as a more progressive stance than efforts to defend the use values of places and communities against the dis-embedding forces of capitalist spatial turnover.

This conflict between urban use and exchange values is dramatized in a recent novel, Tumbling, by Diane McKinney-Whetstone, which depicts a low-income black residential neighborhood in Philadelphia that forms the site of a closely knit community modeled on the southern "village." Residents band together to protest and obstruct an urban renewal project undertaken by real-estate developers and subsidized by the city administration, which threatens to raze the neighborhood. Despite the residents' efforts, their neighborhood church is bulldozed to clear the space for highway construction. Tumbling ends with the lines, "They would not be moved. No way, no way." In the novel's closing scene, residents form a makeshift community on the debris of the church in a last-ditch and ultimately futile effort to defend the use value of their neighborhood—futile because the community lacks the political and economic power to overcome the urban "growth machine" jointly run by "place entrepreneurs," city officials, and political leaders.

It is because neighborhoods and communities are imbricated in wider and unequally structured grids of exchange value and political power that struggles to preserve local value and communal integrity are almost always unsuccessful. For this reason, Parable of the Sower insists that readiness to move—to outer space, if need be—is crucial to survival in modern capitalist cities. Like Tumbling, the first part of Parable laments the inevitable defeat of movements to maintain local and communal self-sufficiency. The Robledo neighborhood cannot be sustained because its relative financial and social stability is structurally interconnected to the extreme instability of the poor and the pyromaniacs who throng outside the walls of Robledo and who eventually raid and burn down the neighborhood.

Just before the destruction of Robledo, Lauren Olamina preaches a funeral sermon for her father (who has disappeared and is presumed dead) and for the ideal of self-contained, stable, place-bound community that Lauren associates with an older way of life. Lauren's sermon commemorates her father's attempts to preserve the integrity and durability of locale and community: "We have our island community, fragile, and yet a fortress. Sometimes it seems too small and too weak to survive. . . . But . . . it persists.... This is our place, no matter what." This is, however, a funeral sermon and Lauren is mourning the death of traditional conceptions of community rooted in a fixed and impermeable sense of place. At the end of her sermon, a member of the community begins to sing the spiritual, "We Shall Not Be Moved," to which Lauren mentally responds, "We'll be moved, all right. It's just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces." Appropriately enough, then, the first half of the novel traces the literal destruction of Lauren's home, neighborhood, and community in Robledo, and the second half describes her journey north (with a band of fellow travelers she picks up on the way) toward a new home and community. The novel ends soon after the group reaches its destination. The entire action of the novel reveals the impossibility of maintaining "village" ideals of bounded community rooted in a stable locale. In this sense, even as it presents the complete collapse of actual cities, the novel insists on an urban understanding of place as the inescapable basis for constructing alternative images of social order.

In contrast to the Robledo community, based on the principle of self-contained localism, the journey section that constitutes the bulk of the novel presents community as process rather than settlement. This section traces the contingent formation of a community on the move—"born right here on Highway 101," as Lauren puts it—unified not by its attachment to past or place but by a common set of practical objectives that must be continually adjusted to meet changing circumstances. When Robledo burns down, halfway through the novel, Lauren runs into two survivors of the neighborhood, Harry and Zahra, who share her will to move toward a better life. The other fourteen people who join the group in the course of the journey north are distinguished primarily by the fact that most of them are racially mixed, and therefore "natural allies" in a society that frowns on miscegenation. Most members of the group have suffered some form of injustice, whether caused by poverty, forced prostitution, child abuse, or debt slavery. The sole purpose that unifies this group of diverse people is their shared resolve to move toward a better future.

Even though the itinerary of this "crew of a modern underground railroad" is explicitly calculated to bypass cities, which are sites of danger, their operation as a community is emphatically urban in most crucial respects. Despite the natural reference of its name, Earthseed is definitely not an organic community unified by collective memory, ethnicity, shared cultural heritage, or attachment to place. If, in order to resist the "mulattoization" of urban community, the southern folk aesthetic strives to recuperate cohesive racial communities consisting of cultural insiders, the Earthseed community, in contrast, is racially and culturally mixed and thus demands constant efforts of mediation and translation. The boundaries of this community, the porous lines between insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies, must be continually redrawn; they must "embrace diversity or be destroyed." The process of finding unity in diversity is necessarily risky and difficult, requiting the ability to interpret unfamiliar cultural codes and the alert balancing of suspicion and trust typical of urban social interactions. This group makes collective decisions by way of rational argument and persuasion rather than by appeals to past precedent or tradition.

Given the novel's insistence on this thoroughly urban conception of community, the settlement established by Lauren and her Earthseed community at the end of the novel surely appears puzzling. The journey that takes up most of the second half of the novel ends in Humboldt County in northern California, on a piece of property owned by Bankole, one of the group of travelers who journey north with Lauren. Bankole offers the group (which by the end of the novel consists of four men, five women, and four children) rent-free use of his land. Several geographical features of Bankole's property make it a suitable (though not ideal) place for establishing an Earthseed community. Most importantly, arable land and a dependable water supply make the property amenable to gardening and farming. The economy projected at the end of the novel is small-scale, primitive, and self-sufficient in the sense that farming, breeding livestock, and building shelters are expected to take care of basic production and consumption needs. It is clear that jobs paying money are scarce in neighboring towns and, given that several members of the community are former debt slaves or throw-away laborers, working Bankole's land seems preferable to selling labor to "strangers" who "shouldn't be trusted." One of the more valuable characteristics of Bankole's land is its isolation; because it is "far removed from any city" and "miles from everywhere with no decent road," it is relatively immune to attack from outsiders. That the area's distance from cities constitutes a strongly emphasized advantage is not surprising considering that cities, as centers of asymmetrical accumulation, have been shown throughout the novel to be the most vulnerable to criminal violence targeting the scarce commodity. The Earthseed community plans to guard its settlement by assigning members to keep watch at night and later by training dogs to protect the property.

How is this settlement different from the walled and heavily guarded neighborhood of the beginning of the novel? We have seen that the Robledo community was destroyed because its goal of local self-sufficiency was unviable given its dependence on a wider, starkly inequitable economic order. The community at the end of the novel does acknowledge, though it does not adequately reckon with, the inevitability of such connections. Despite some affinities with arcadian rural communities such as the island of Willow Springs in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, the Earthseed community cannot be regarded as arcadian, in that it does not assume the essential moderacy, simplicity, or stability of human needs. The potentially destabilizing desire to accumulate surplus, on the part of individuals and the group, is expressed in Harry's remark that he wants a job outside the community that will pay money as well as in the community's plan to sell surplus produce in nearby towns. The members of the Earthseed community insist on the provisional nature of their settlement; as Lauren points out, there are "no guarantees," and should their experimental community fail (as most member of the group expect it to do), they will have to be prepared to move on.

Yet the Earthseed community also aims impossibly to maintain local self-containment and stability. The novel's concluding image of community does not suggest a more workable balancing between use and exchange value, between localism and mobility, than does its opening image of the walled cul-de-sac neighborhood. As we have seen, Butler's representation of Robledo forcefully repudiates notions of place-bound community, and the journey section of the novel reaches for a more complex way of imagining community that is not coextensive with place, and place that is conceived as a "concrete abstraction" rather than as a self-enclosed site of social meaning. Butler wrestles with the difficulties of writing a fiction adequate to this understanding of place and community, yet the Earthseed settlement at the end of the novel ends up establishing an insulated, agrarian, face-to-face model of community that is not so different, after all, from the organic communities associated with southern folk aesthetics. In this respect, the Earthseed community is symptomatic of the difficulty that limits the contemporary literary imagination seeking utopian urban alternatives. Its small-scale, self-sufficient, agrarian ideal is rife with contradictions: even if we know that any truly alternative social vision requires wholesale transformation of global economic order, we end up thinking small because the abstraction of this order makes it difficult to grasp and imagine large-scale change. Or, in Manuel Castells' succinct expression, "When people find themselves unable to control the world, they simply shrink the world to the size of their community."

Source: Madhu Dubey, "Folk and Urban Communities in African-American Women's Fiction: Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 103–28.

Lisbeth Gant-Britton

In the following essay, Gant-Britton explores how Butler creates "new patterns for the future" for African Americans in Parable of the Sower.

Haki R. Madhubuti, Claiming Earth">

Ideas [are weapons] and their creators run the world. Christianity is an idea. Islam is an idea. Buddhism and Hinduism are ideas . . . Capitalism and Socialism were ideas before they became reality . . . One's place in the world is partly due to the ideas that a culture has forced on one, and/or the ideas that a person 'freely' accepts and uses.

Haki R. Madhubuti, Claiming Earth

Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice">

Thought is no longer theoretical. As soon as it functions it offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates, unites or reunites; it cannot help but liberate and enslave. Even before prescribing, suggesting a future, saying what must be done, even before exhorting or merely sounding an alarm, thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action—a perilous act.

Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice

Many writers are speculating these days about what the United States may be like in the twenty-first century. However, few of them are African American, and fewer still are black women. Octavia Butler is one of them. Her novel Parable of the Sower, like its 1998 sequel Parable of the Talents, offers a vision of one potential American future, one which may take women of colour and other marginalized peoples beyond ourselves as we are constituted today. The only African American woman with a substantial body of science fiction writing to date (ten novels), Butler has a vision worth examining. She considers the central question of how a black woman writer may project a liberated and liberating future while at the same time figuratively endeavouring to suture the still-open wounds of an embattled past and problematic present.

Reviewing the literature by African American women writers, I noted that until recently, fiction by multiply-oppressed women has been more concerned with re-envisioning the past or finding voice in present oppositional discourses, than it has been with imagining a world of the future. Many black women writers have seen literature as the primary way they could re-envision an egregious history. This work is definitely vital and ongoing, and I believe it should go on. But at the same time, we stand at the border of a new millennium. And even though that millennium is itself an ideological construction, it does provide an 'in-between' space—as postcolonial and cultural critic Homi Bhabha puts it in The Location of Culture—a present-future juncture which becomes the terrain, if you will, for elaborating new 'strategies of selfhood' and 'new signs of identity.' These moments are 'innovative sites of collaboration and contestation,' as Bhabha says, 'in the act of defining the idea of society itself' (1994, pp. 1–2). Further, as Paul Ricoeur observes in Time and Narrative, each fictive temporal experience unfolds its own world, its own 'time.' This 'time' is meaningful to the extent that it portrays features of each text's unique temporal experience in relation to the cultural dilemma under consideration in the narrative.

In terms of an American context, at the present time, black Americans are situated at one of the most paradoxical junctures we have inhabited since the Reconstruction. Many African Americans in the middle and upper classes enjoy unprecedented material prosperity and societal influence. Indeed, in 1996, a black man was publicly considered as the Republican party's possible presidential, then vice-presidential candidate. At the same time, though, a post-civil rights backlash surged that has included some 200 black churches being burned. Against the backdrop of this paradox of progress, we hurtle through time. What kinds of futures are we, as a society, creating in the process?

Hortense Spillers notes that for many years black women writers have had no choice but to develop their own tradition of diegesis to narrativize the complexity of African American women's experiences in order to combat the mental oppression of already-circulating mis-characterizations. She aptly points out that new traditions of agency are not born. They are made in the face of social and cultural assaults—even if they must be fashioned as a patchwork of 'discontinuities':

'[T]radition' for [the] black women's writing community is a matrix of literary discontinuities that partially articulate various periods of consciousness in the history of an African-American people. This point of paradox not only opens the future to the work to come, but also reminds us that symbolic discontinuity is the single rule of terministic behavior that our national literature has still to pursue. The day it does so, the reader and writer both will have laid sight on a territory of the literary landscape that we barely knew was possible. (Spillers' emphasis, 1985, p. 251).

That our literary 'landscape' might one day evolve into something 'we barely knew was possible,' as Spillers puts it, is an appropriate metaphor for the central questions in Parable of the Sower. How does one begin to make a new tradition out of a legacy of discontinuities?

Octavia Butler's novel, Parable of the Sower is an exploration of continuity amidst discontinuity. It is set in a decidedly dystopic future. In fact, in this novel, Los Angeles and its surrounding areas are the trope of a failed future. The entire West coast, and a good portion of the rest of the country, is barely livable in the year 2025. L.A. of course, was once an icon of utopian promise in America itself. But in this twenty-first century situation, all that is left are remnants of the reification of such an ideal. The city's infrastructure has crumbled, services are at a standstill, water costs twice as much as gasoline (which is largely unavailable anyway), and those few families who still have jobs are huddled together in makeshift walled communities to keep out the majority of the population, which is homeless, drug-crazed and violent. The wealthy lived in armoured walled enclaves, with privatized police and fire departments.

At first glance, all that we may perceive in Butler's novel is a legacy of compromise and practicality. Yet we also glimpse an immense potential hidden in this narrative. Parable contains innovative strategies of agency for women of colour, but they are embedded within the work. Such hidden futurity is vitally important because it signals dormant subjectivity within otherwise seemingly impenetrable circumstances of domination. By subjectivity one may include moving from victimization to agency or autonomy. Charles Scruggs develops a similar idea in Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel when he argues:

in the novels of Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, and Morrison, the visionary city is always present within the tangible, and often terrible, conditions of black urban life. The critique of a society or of social conditions—even the realistic depiction of the most wretched horrors—inevitably implies something different and better . . . Often the visionary city lies dormant, asleep; but it contains within its dormant state the potency of dream and the possibility of making the dream manifest, if only temporarily (1993, pp. 2–3).

Scruggs's definition of an invisible city is an example of the invisible agency we may uncover in Parable. Possible new paradigms are born when the central characters stare straight into the face of impossibility (in the case of overcoming a failed economy for example) and effect change anyway. One may argue that the changes Butler's characters make are barely enough for the protagonists to save themselves. But that is precisely the point. In these novels, this hidden theorizing, these deeply-embedded new goals, often manifest themselves as no more than the presence, rather than absence of alternatives. But for many exploited people, change is often a matter of starting with almost nothing and making incremental advancements. As D. Soyini Madison comments in The Woman That I Am:

I remember my mother . . . speaking quietly but forcefully in a tone that could scare a bull. She would wilfully declare: 'Being the woman that I am I will make a way out of no way.' These were mother's words, but they are also the words and the will of all women of color who assert who they are, who create sound out of silence, and who build worlds out of remnants (1994, p. 1).

As Madison's observation attests, potentially fruitful agency is hidden within her mother's simple declaration. The unarticulated aspects of the older woman's commentary are rich with the unspoken but potentially instructive theory of a women of colour. Such embedded theories may include continued efforts to heal still unresolved aspects of black women's various pasts, while many of these women continue striving, if only for limited agency, in the present and future.

These embedded theories relate to what Bhabha characterizes as 'in-between' spaces which are opened up at this present-future juncture and which provide the terrain for elaborating what he calls new 'strategies of selfhood,' 'new signs of identity; and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself' (1994, pp. 1–2). Indeed, this transformational potential against all odds which Butler builds upon, has been the mainstay of many black writers' indomitable challenge to a past and present that do not seem capable of being significantly changed.

In Black Looks, bell hooks describes the 'response to the traumatic pain and anguish that remains a consequence of white racist domination' (1992, p. 169). She suggests that the residue of this pain and anguish continues to inform and shape the psychic state of black people, influencing how we view the world, and I would add, the future. This residue is also continually 'stirred up' by contemporary sociopolitical problems which recur, and which unfortunately still include issues such as the enslavement of peoples of colour in America and other countries, even in this day and age. Julia Kristeva in The Powers of Horror describes this continuing residue in psychoanalytic terms as 'phobic,' specifically naming the dilemma 'abjection.'

The phobic has no other object than the abject. But that word, 'fear'—a fluid haze, an elusive clamminess—no sooner has it cropped up than it shades off like a mirage and permeates all words of the language with nonexistence, with a hallucinatory, ghostly glimmer. Thus, fear having been bracketed, discourse will seem tenable only if it ceaselessly confronts that otherness, a burden both repellent and repelled, a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate: the abject (1982, p. 6).

Butler's project is consistent with both of these issues. It is concerned with the transfer of trauma from one generation to the next, as demonstrated by Parable's main characters. The black father dies, having only managed to keep his family alive during society's rapid deterioration. His daughter Lauren, the protagonist, carries on in his name. But she boldly attempts to mould a new future instead of coping with the present. The daughter's decidedly forward-looking vision contrasts with Toni Morrison's concept of 'rememory' in Beloved, in which discursive healing is seen almost exclusively as a backward-looking project to allow African American men and women to engage and re-envision what Morrison calls 'unspeakable things unspoken.'

But in Butler's Parable of the Sower, we see a shift of that past-oriented temporality of 'rememory' forward. We then have a model which allows readers to conceptualize the future in a broader manner. Butler's model privileges proactive rather than reactive thinking. This different attitude is potentially more empowering for the novel's characters of colour, since it assumes a certain authority on the part of previously marginalized peoples to engage and shape critical sociopolitical issues, in an effort to be part of the transformational process rather than to be at the mercy of it. As Susan Willis states in Specifying, black women's writing in particular often imagines the future within the present. It sees the future born out of the context of oppression. It produces utopia out of the transformation of the most basic features of daily life—everything we tend to take for granted (1987, p. 159).

Butler's novel focuses primarily on the Olamina family, and in particular, on daughter Lauren. The Olamina parents are an African American professor and his second wife, a Latina. Both have doctorates and own their own home. Despite regular assaults by homeless people, the father refuses to leave what little security he knows to seek what might be a safer place farther north. In the twentieth century, the elder Olaminas—a multiracial, professional couple—would most likely be characterized as progressive. But in the twenty-first century, they represent the last generation of Americans to have been socialized into what Butler describes as a dying capitalism. In fact, their daughter regards them as clinging to a conservative world view that focuses narrowly on the past and present, rather than one which embraces change as necessary for the future.

Daughter Lauren has been born into this post-technological age. She is ready to embrace Bhabha's 'vision and construction . . . to take [her] beyond' herself. She is already conscious of the ways in which the decaying dominant socioeconomic system in the novel structures her subordination through its abandonment of poor and working people. For instance, Lauren observes how the country's cloistered twenty-first century elite configures the master narrative of 'progress' as a panacea for the future, so it privileges the European and Japanese transnational corporations who set about to privatize entire American cities and towns. From her subject position as a downwardly mobile (in a socio-cultural as well as economic sense) working poor person, Lauren is ready to create a new world with fresh possibilities.

Even before her entire family is killed by marauders, she works from her interstitial position—multi-racial, female, youthful—to refashion the received master narrative of an omnipotent Christian God upon which her family depends. She reconfigures it into a new imaginary conceptual space and calls her new written ontology 'Earthseed: The Books of the Living.' In it, she reverses her father's references to a supposedly all-powerful Christian God. She inverts the human/supernatural positionality. She argues instead that 'God exists to be shaped . . . There has to be . . . a better destiny that we can shape.'

What does it mean that her father's God now exists to be changed by people, rather than the other way around? Empowerment. Subjectivity in Lauren's eyes. New definitions and enactments of selfhood. In this way, Butler's young protagonist is an example of the kind of proactive oppositionality that black feminists Stanlie James and Abena Busia outline in Theorizing Black Feminisms. These critics argue that many black women are often characterized solely as 'victims' because of their experiences of multiple interrelated oppressions, including but not limited to, racism and ethnocentrism, sexism and classism. But James and Busia agree with feminist critic Catharine Stimpson that when people of colour theorize, it provides us with opportunities to 'think, imagine, speak, and act' that can transform an individual from victim to activist. Indeed, this kind of development can transform a whole community, perhaps even an entire society as well.

It is significant that in Parable, all of the elders in the Olamina community are killed off or move away, whereas Lauren, with her newly-minted master narrative, is one of the few to survive. Here Butler seems to be dramatizing the death of an old worldview, leaving Lauren alive to pursue the work of creating a new one. At first, Lauren's new goals exist solely in the realm of the imaginary. They're more fantasy than reality, initially, no more than an example of the presence, rather than absence of alternatives. Yet, as she struggles to have them accepted, we witness Lauren's continual, gradual empowerment. As she 'sows' the seeds of these ideas in the minds of others, so do they grow. With this belief as her basis, Lauren attempts to reposition herself both physically and mentally within twenty-first century struggles against subalternization and dominance.

After Lauren's family is murdered, she has to create a new family for herself. So, she gathers together a prototypical new community from a cross-section of people of different races, ages, genders and classes. Then in a kind of Harriet Tubman-like Underground Railroad, she leads the group to northern California. She even disguises herself as a man part of the time as Tubman sometimes did. Because of gangs of starving people on the road, Lauren and her group even have to walk and hide along the freeway like escaping slaves. This metaphor is by no means accidental. In Butler's post-technological future, many people of all races are forced to work virtually as slaves for transnational corporations who dole out just enough wages for them to subsist. But Lauren struggles not to be demoralized by this system. Instead, she tries to use it as a catalyst for change. She writes:

All successful life is 
Interconnected, and
Understand this,
Use it.
Shape God

We see Lauren attempting to escape as much from mental and emotional slavery as from physical slavery. As such, her efforts resonate with Audre Lorde's admonition that:

Our future survival is predicated upon our ability to relate within equality . . . The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all [people] to identify and develop new patterns of relating across difference.

Thus, Lauren, in nurturing her new dream, becomes one kind of model for African American and other oppressed women who want to move away from narratives that construct them as being less than capable of constituting change.

In this way, Lauren's ontology also relates to Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Carole Boyce Davies' idea in Recreating Ourselves of a transformational discourse which seeks to change the epistemological bases on which the futures of people of colour may be formulated. But Davies warns in Black Women, Writing and Identity, that women of colour may also—consciously or unconsciously—participate in systems of oppression in the pursuit of their own goals of freedom. Davies cites a Caribbean-born woman as an example. The woman sends her children into the U.S. military, thinking it is their only hope for a better future. The mother does this—fully understanding that should another U.S. invasion of a Caribbean country such as the one in Grenada occur, her own children might well have to kill some of their Caribbean relatives (Davies, 1994, p. 27).

Indeed, in Parable, once Lauren herself is rendered parentless and homeless, she declares to her comrades, 'I mean to survive.' She explains that she has never stolen or killed, but that if it means staying alive, she will. And she does. This characterization indicates that we can't assume a benevolent direction for all efforts at change by women of colour—even though they may have good intentions. But Lauren's characterization as a survivalist is problematic in at least one other respect too. It reinforces representations of African American womanhood that configure women as robust, able to take care of themselves and others—closer to a male heroic mythological image. Also, these representations risk projecting the novel's Anglo American women by contrast into the mythical position of 'damsel in distress.'

Ricoeur critiques the 'remythicizing' effort in Time and Narrative in his reference to certain novelists' speculations (such as Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway) on time as it relates to their universe. He observes that the subject is interpellated by the fictional view of time as set forth in the text. In Parable, myths, despite their sometimes flawed appearance, recur throughout Butler's narrative project and do form an important subtext. For instance, the U.S. President is a mythical figure who periodically emerges in the novel. He is named President Donner. His authority in the crumbling country derives largely from his successful manipulation of the myth of a return to the 'good old days.' His continued relationship to, and reliance on, the narrative of 'progress and development' on which this country was originally founded, demands nothing less than a willing suspension of disbelief, a voluntary amnesia on the part of these poor citizens who now suffer in this text in the mid-twenty-first century. Donner asks these people to ignore their recognition that the very reason the land and atmosphere they have inherited are so ravaged, is because of that original quest for development in the first place. Yet he still asks them to participate in a romantic expectation of a future which Butler suggests is impossible to achieve in a post-technological twenty-first century, given the dearth of renewable resources to run anything. (For instance, computers exist in Parable, but there are hardly any sustainable resources such as water to generate electricity.)

Therefore, the president is effectively asking already oppressed peoples in this novel to participate in a kind of mental split to preserve a fiction which will further oppress them in the face of their devastating reality. He is actually asking them to look backward in the guise of looking forward. As such, President Donner is a symbol of a dislocated, schizoid future for the U.S. He continues to exist as a figurehead by pointing towards a future which can no longer be realized on the old, historical trajectory. Lauren describes Donner as a 'human banister.' She says 'he's like . . . like a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we're being pushed into the future.' We may say then that subscribing to Donner's point of view amounts to a construction of the future based on absence. The poor and working people in the text share Donner's sense of time only to avoid coming to terms with the grim future that really lies in front of them.

Donner's very name suggests mythological time. He reminds us of Donner and Blitzen in the Santa Claus myth. In German, Donner and Blitzen means 'thunder and lightning.' And in French, 'donner' means to give, but President Donner is the bearer of a gift that is not really a gift at all. Finally and most ominously, Donner's name brings to mind legends of cannibalism, as it alludes to the account of the Donner travel party that got trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846, and some members had to eat one another. In Parable, President Donner metaphorically feeds off his near-starving people.

The President is actually one of three father figures with whom Lauren cannot agree; the others are God the father and her own father. Lauren's father doesn't believe in the Donner-endorsed abundance myth, but he is set in his reliance on an omnipotent God—so much so that he even declares pollution to be God's will. Lauren and her younger brother Keith both reject the idea of God the father, and rebuff their own father's views as well. But they demonstrate those rejections in different ways.

Keith runs away to the world outside of their walled neighbourhood when he is just fourteen. He relies on a kind of secularized mythical time based on virtual reality. This 'timeless' time is enabled by a device called the 'TV window' which one can enter and experience, instead of just looking at, as we do today. Keith joins a band of homeless who steal equipment so they can spend their time being mentally somewhere else or effectively nowhere else, in a kind technological heterotopia or utopia. As such, they are a reminder of William Gibson's cyberpunks in Neuromancer and the computer hackers who 'jack' into the Internet. The 'net' enables Keith and his cohort to leave their corporeal reality behind and participate in a widely expanded range of temporal and sensual experiences. Sadly, Keith doesn't realize that he has simply traded one ephemeral enclave for another.

Lauren opts to substitute her Earthseed philosophy for what she considers to be her father's parochial world-view. Armed with Earthseed, she remythicizes time by speculating that humanity has the potential to be on a plane with that of the Christian God. Earthseed's altered temporal perspective centres around change. Instead of continuously trying to back away from what Lauren perceives as the grim reality of their future, either through cosmological, religiously-oriented time or secularized mythical time, she advocates a push forward in which time is more actively manipulated, as signified by her aphorisms embracing change.

These tenets add a dimension of the heroic quest to her group's journey north, which begins essentially as a local struggle. In one sense, Lauren as the Emancipator reminds us of Odysseus. She also reflects both Jesus and Moses, sowing seeds for a democratization of God's spirit. But for Lauren it is not a question of stoically sacrificing herself for the next generation. Rather, it is more an issue of becoming the next generation within the present one, that is, demonstrating transformation and change at the intersection of the present and the future. Thus, a kind of doubling takes place in the text, in which the men and women in the novel continue to exist in their 'present,' but because they also attempt to reconstruct themselves as the Earthseed collective, they're already no longer the same.

Lauren's double role as teenage girl and symbolic male leader of the group illustrates this conjunction. Rather than thinking of her temporary masquerade as a man strictly in terms of gender performativity, we could also regard it as a kind of temporal performativity. Symbolically, Lauren is both her present-day self as well as being the leader of the new, utopic community. She even dreams of their leaving earth altogether and founding a community on Mars, as they trudge along the decrepit freeway from Los Angeles to northern California.

In this way, Lauren both prefigures new black heroes to come, as well as reminds us of black figures who remade themselves in the crucible of history. In the often-quoted passage in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass delineates how, after finally standing up to his vicious overseer, Covey, he was already a different man, although he had not yet escaped from slavery. He says, 'My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.' Later, this defiant self-deterministic attitude would be reflected in the Harlem Renaissance's credo of the 'New Negro.' And Langston Hughes talks about this emancipatory spirit in his essay, 'The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.' Similarly, Lauren, vulnerable, but feeling less than vulnerable observes:

We are all Godseed, but no more or less
so than any other aspect of the universe,
Godseed is all there is—all that

On a metatexual level, Butler seems to be suggesting in Parable that for African Americans of any class to mediate authoritatively in the larger American society may remain a stiff task even in the future. But Lauren takes on the politics of self-authorization on both contemporary and historical levels, and in so doing, pushes the limits of the fictional formula. The space created by this forcing of the limits becomes 'the places of difference,' as theorist Valerie Smith puts it. Like Douglass and others, Lauren and her Earthseed comrades make a journey that is symbolic of the terms of cultural engagement that Bhabha suggests will be produced performatively in the future—not the result of preformed sociocultural beliefs, but developed fluidly out of changing circumstances (Bhabha 1994, p. 2).

Of course, whether Butler's characters eventually make it to Mars is secondary to the fact that they are willing to try. Thus, we could say that this dystopic 'cautionary tale' as Butler calls it, ends on a utopic note. This forging of possibility from the terrain of impossibility reminds me of what Chicana poet and theorist, Gloria Anzaldua says in Making Face, Making Soul. She says that the mere fact that many women of colour, who are normally enslaved by or have to service social and cultural systems in some way, escape long enough to create new patterns for the future, is an amazing feat in and of itself. As Anzaldua puts it, 'Our art is a sneak attack while the giant sleeps, a sleight of hands when the giant is awake, moving so quickly, they can do their deed before the giant swats them. Our survival depends on being creative.'

Source: Lisbeth Gant-Britton, "Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower: One Alternative to a Futureless Future," in Women of Other Worlds, edited by Helen Merrick and Tess Williams, University of Western Australia Press, 1999, pp. 278–94.

Robert Butler

In the following essay excerpt, Butler places Lauren within "a direct line of descent" of African American heroines and examines her psychological, spiritual, and physical journeys toward freedom.

I am not going to spend my life as some kind of twenty-first-century slave.

So we became the crew of a modern underground railroad.

Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler's fiction takes the African American journey motif one step further by projecting it quite literally into the future. Eight of her ten published novels are set in futuristic societies in which her heroic figures cope with and transcend various kinds of entrapment by undertaking an interesting assortment of open journeys.

Patternmaster (1976) describes a society that is controlled by an all-powerful ruler who dominates the inward and outward lives of his subjects by ruthlessly imposing a "pattern" of thought and behavior on them. Teray and Amber, the novel's dual heroes, seek to break away from this form of "physical slavery" and "mental slavery" by setting themselves in open motion. Amber, who is presented as an "independent" woman who is a "houseless wanderer," helps Teray overcome the tyranny of his brother Coransee by entering a liberating world of free space and motion. After killing Coransee, he breaks free of the "patterns" that have crippled him and he is able to experience physical and psychological freedom that is described in terms of open motion:

The canopy of awareness first seemed almost as broad as the sky itself.

Feeling like some huge bird, he projected his awareness over the territory. He could see, could sense, the lightly wooded land dotted with ruined buildings. He could see the distant ranges of hills, was aware of the even-more-distant mountains. The mountains were far beyond his striking range. In fact they were near Forsyth, still over a day's journey away, but he could see them. He swooped about, letting his extended awareness range free through the hills and valleys.

All of Butler's patternist novels are centered in this quest to transcend the mental structures and social institutions that imprison people in roles defined by hierarchical societies that are essentially feudal in character. Anyanwu, the heroine of Wild Seed, escapes various forms of slavery in Africa and America by becoming a fugitive in search of free space. A "shapeshifter" who can, like the Greek god Proteus, always change her outward forms to escape the entrapments that authority figures design for her, she becomes at several points in the novel a bird flying away from danger or a dolphin who can be "cleansed" by swimming in the sea. Like Ellison's invisible man, her identity is essentially fluid and indeterminate, always moving to new stages of development. Her antagonist Doro, however, has a rigidly fixed personality and is described as "a tortoise encased in a shell that gets thicker and thicker each year." Whereas Anyanwu's function in the novel is to free herself and others from oppressive ideas and social structures, Doro is intent on building slave communities in Africa and America that give him absolute power over his subjects.

Imago (1989), likewise, presents two worlds in conflict, a "hierarchical" society that freezes people into static roles and a free society of Onkali, "space-going people" who envision life as a dynamic process of discovery and growth. While human beings dominate each other and kill those who do not fit into the "patterns" that they have constructed, the Onkali are engaged in an ongoing quest, a "long, long search for new species to combine with to construct new life forms." Fully intending "to leave the solar system in perhaps three centuries," they envision life as a colossal open journey, an ongoing search for fresh space providing new life.

Butler's fiction, therefore, clears new space for African American literature by using a science fiction mode in which black writers have rarely shown interest and infusing this mode with social and political themes that are relevant to contemporary black people. But her work is also in the main tradition of black American literature dating back to the slave narratives. In a 1984 interview with Margaret O'Connor she pointed out that much of her fiction was inspired by "the narratives of Frederick Douglass and others who endured slavery." Indeed, most of her work can be seen as signifying powerfully on the slave narratives, projecting them into the future and probing the residual effects of pre-Civil War slavery in present day and future America. Like the authors of nineteenth-century slave narratives, Butler envisions freedom as a radically open journey that must be experienced on physical, mental, and spiritual levels.

Parable of the Sower, published in 1993, is an appropriate book with which to conclude this study of the African American journey motif, because it not only imagines the open journey in fresh ways but it also signifies meaningfully on every major text examined in this study. The social world envisioned in the novel clearly echoes the nightmarish city depicted in Native Son, a deadening place of walled neighborhoods that trap the masses and walled estates that protect the rich from the misery they have created. Lauren Olamina, the novel's central character, describes her community of Robledo in terms that are strikingly similar to the way Bigger Thomas perceives the ghetto that threatens him. As she travels through her neighborhood she observes that

A lot of our ride was along one neighborhood wall after another; some a block long, some two blocks, some five.... Up toward the hills there were walled estates—one big house and a lot of shaky little dependencies where the servants lived.... In fact we passed a couple of neighborhoods so poor that their walls were made up of unmortared rocks, chunks of concrete, and trash. Then there were the pitiful, unwalled residential areas. A lot of the houses were trashed—burned, vandalized, infested with drunks or druggies or squatted in by homeless families with their filthy, gaunt, half-naked children.

In such a "dangerous" and "crazy" place people are reduced to the same "fear and hate" that afflict everyone in Native Son, Physical movement is so dangerous that very few people dare to venture out of their walled communities and, when they do, they are either murdered like Lauren's father, tortured like her brother, or raped like the four-year-old girl to whom Lauren has become a surrogate sister. Social mobility has been destroyed by a devastated economy and intellectual growth has been stamped out by the complete elimination of any systems of education. Robledo becomes a frightening metaphor of America in gridlock, a world that closely resembles the nineteenth-century plantation that trapped Frederick Douglass and the twentieth-century ghetto that immobilized Bigger Thomas. But America in the twenty-first century is even worse than it was in the past, for slavery has been universalized to include all ethnic and racial groups in all regions of the country. All America has become a massive plantation, a gigantic ghetto.

Like Ralph Ellison and Charles Johnson, who sometimes portray the city as a Dantean underworld, Butler depicts an urban society that has "gone to hell" and is "teetering on the abyss." Butler's America has degenerated to such a point that it is seen in apocalyptic terms as a new version of "Jericho" and "Babylon," a culture that is paralyzed and on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own corruption. Like Ishmael Reed, Butler envisions America in the first quarter of the twenty-first century as having returned to a condition of "slavery" in which "the country has slipped back 200 years."

But Parable of the Sower, like the vast majority of classic African American journey books, does not present a vision of apocalyptic despair or an enervating nihilism. The heroine of the novel can save herself and others by constructing "a modern underground railroad" taking them north to liberating new spaces. Such spaces not only take the form of an actual "sanctuary" in the external world but also become mental, spiritual, and moral frontiers within the self. For Butler envisions the self as most African American picaresque writers do, as a protean process of limitless becoming rather than a completed state of being rooted in a particular place. Her heroine therefore is in a direct line of descent from Hurston's Janie Crawford, Walker's Ruth Copeland, Morrison's Pilate, and Williams's Dessa Rose, since all of these heroines transcend social roles that "place" them in restrictive identities by experiencing open journeys toward social freedom and personal transformation.

Lauren Olamina's central task is to find a way of moving from such constricting places to liberating spaces. Early in the novel she fears that "there are no safe places to move." Her own small city of Robledo is "a dying and backward place" where nearly all social institutions and moral values have collapsed and, as a result, a sense of community has been destroyed, reducing people to a bleakly Darwinian struggle for existence in a jungle of selfishness and violence. Feral dogs roam freely in the streets, which are populated mainly by "the street poor." Drug-maddened "crazies" burn down the few vestiges of civilization such as churches and makeshift homes while police and firemen refuse to do their jobs without extra payment, which very few citizens can afford. Things get worse when one moves beyond Robledo to places such as Los Angeles, which is described as a "carcass which is filled with maggots," or southern Mississippi and Louisiana, which are experiencing cholera epidemics caused by a hopelessly polluted water supply. A new community in a suburb of Los Angeles called Olivar offers an equally dim prospect. A town that has been "bought and privatized" by a gigantic multinational corporation intent on reducing its citizens to the "debt slavery" found in early-twentieth-century company towns, Olivar is an even "bigger dead-end" than Robledo.

The novel's opening scene clearly dramatizes Lauren's desire to escape from such a trap. The book begins with her describing a "recurring dream" that she has whenever she feels confined, "twist[ing] on [her] own personal hook." She pictures her neighborhood as a "crouching animal" that is "more threatening than protective" and then imagines herself as in a room whose walls are "burning." In sharp contrast with these grim images of paralysis and death are hopeful images of open motion and space. She envisions herself as "learning to fly" or "levitate" and, as the fire spreads through the room that threatens to become her coffin, she flies through a "door" which brings her into open space illuminated by "cool pale, glinting light" that allows her to look up at "the broad sweep of the Milky Way." Her vision is further clarified and enriched when she comes to see the stars as not only "free" but "windows into heaven. Windows for God to look through and keep an eye on us."

The entire novel is telescoped in this remarkable opening scene because it clearly equates place with death and open movement in free space with a new life. Lauren's physical journey begins after her family and home have been destroyed by several acts of senseless violence. Her old life gone, she does what most American and African American picaros do in such situations—she instinctively lights out for new frontiers, "heading North" into what she hopes will be a "better life." Like Frederick Douglass, she sees the North as an indeterminate space rather than a definite place. She knows that actual places such as Oregon are "closed" because its citizens are deeply afraid of the refugees who might settle there and thus cause additional economic and social problems. Armed with a backpack containing only her journals, poems, and seed, she sets herself in quintessentially American pure motion, desiring only to "just run and run." She knows exactly what she is leaving but has only the vaguest notion of where she is heading. As she joins the "river of people" who have become fugitives in their own land, she asks herself, "Where were the westward walkers going?" Her very American answer is "To something . . ."

Her physical travels bring her to progressively larger and freer forms of open space, which offer her relief from a social world that is literally "falling apart" from massive earthquakes and morally disintegrating from sociopathic behavior. She avoids cities that have been overrun by scavengers, cops, private security guards, druggies, and other "predators" intent on "destroying what's left." When she and her growing group of companions reach the Pacific Ocean, an enormous open space that is described as "half a world of water," they begin to sense a better life. Psychologically and physically refreshed by the water that cleanses them and the sheer space that fires their imaginations, they notice that the many people camping on the beach have also been "lulled" by the ocean into less violent, more humane behavior. They later reach an area outside of Sacramento that they marvel at, "rich country" that has not been affected either by earthquakes or human violence, a world that offers them "more water, more food, more room . . ." After Taylor Bankole joins them, they direct themselves toward the "safe haven" of his three hundred acres of farmland in northern California, a "godsend" that offers them a "better life" by giving them a sanctuary from the bondage of the past.

This outward movement triggers inward journeys that are psychological, spiritual, and moral in character. As their external surroundings become more spacious, their inward selves deepen and mature. Although Lauren has just turned eighteen when her voyage begins, she soon realizes that her experiences on the road have made her a "woman" and not just a "kid." No longer is she imprisoned by the "walls" of her own life; she now can break free of all restrictions that have held her back in the past and shape a radically new self. As she stresses in a poem she writes late in the novel:

The self must create
its own reasons for being.
To shape God.
Shape self.

Implicit in Lauren's dynamic view of the self as a process that is always developing is a religious vision that is clearly nonteleological, a theology that regards God and the universe as always changing, always evolving. Lauren emphatically rejects the static views of God that she has received from her Baptist upbringing. She moves away from her father's "fortress church," which is surrounded by walls and protected by armed guards and barbed wire, because such a church is grounded in rigid dogma and narrow morality that stifles her spirit. In a larger sense, she rejects traditional notions of God as a "big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God," because such stale concepts reduce God to an unchanging place in "nature," making him an authority enforcing the mechanical rules of a hierarchical society that oppresses people.

She comes to see God as pure process, a dynamic life force that is always changing:

... God is Pliable
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.

This sense of God leads her eventually to develop a new religion called Earthseed, a free and open religion that reflects the dynamic, protean nature of the soul and God. Rather than imagine her religion in conventional terms as a church with "walls" and a solid "foundation," she pictures it in terms of open motion, as seeds that are

... windborne, animalborne, waterborne, far from their parent plants. They have no ability at all to travel great distances under their own power, and yet, they do travel. Even they don't have to sit in one place and wait to be wiped out. There are islands thousands of miles from anywhere—the Hawaiian Islands, for example and Easter Island—where plants seeded themselves and grew long before any humans arrived.


I am Earthseed. Anyone can be. Someday I think there will be a lot of us. And I think we'll have to seed ourselves farther and farther from this dying place.

Her religion of Earthseed is centered in this symbol of open motion—traveling in a free but purposeful manner away from a "dying place" to a new space offering new life. In this sense Earthseed is a creative center to her life (she becomes Earthseed) in which all of her journeys mix with and enrich each other. Her movements through nature, the self, and God become one in this free but "unifying, purposeful" vision of "life on earth."

The vehicle that empowers her as she takes these psychological and spiritual journeys is art, her writing of her poems and Earthseed journals. Like Charles Johnson and Ishmael Reed, who consider art as a means of constructing an authentic self, Butler sees her writing as a way of consciously shaping and purposefully directing her life. When Lauren is asked by a friend how people can survive in the disintegrating world of twenty-first-century America, she replies, "[U]se your imagination"—that is, refuse to accept the "patterns" imposed by a repressive society and create your own directions. Lauren's writings therefore are critically important in her attempts to fashion a journey for herself that will not only move her beyond "walls" but also enable her to avoid the "abyss" with which her society confronts her.

It is not surprising therefore when she reveals early in the novel, "I have to write to keep from going crazy." Later, when vandals destroy her family and bring her old life to a horrifying close, she senses that her writing is her only chance to avoid madness and move toward a new life:

I have to write. I don't know what else to do.... I'm jittery and crazed. I can't cry. I want to get up and just run and run.... Run away from everything. But there isn't any away.

I have to write. There's nothing familiar left to me but the writing. God is change. I hate God. I have to write.

In a physical world of traps and terror where there seems to be no "away" into which one can escape, writing creates a "way" leading to inward and outward movement that is salvific. First of all, writing becomes a "way" in the sense that it is a means to empower the self by inducing and enriching self-consciousness. Secondly, writing is a "way" in the sense that it can direct movement in a flexible but purposeful manner, thus creating pathways to outer experience that the self freely maps out. Lauren's writings finally achieve both functions, enabling her to imagine a redemptive space called Earthseed and then move consciously toward this space. While the social world that others have constructed has produced violence and anarchy that rob Lauren of anything "familiar," thus making her "crazed and jittery," her writing allows her to picture her life as a clean slate upon which she can write her own identity, freely journeying to spaces within herself to which society has tried to block admission.

Acorn, the Earthseed community that her writings help her to imagine and construct, finally provides her and her fellow travelers with a new life of limitless growth, what Ellison described at the end of Invisible Man as a world of "infinite possibilities." The community that they establish is a socially open space whose purpose is to "take root among the stars," to become a world of ongoing growth that is in harmony with the protean nature of the human self and nature. Such a fluid society encourages them "to grow ourselves into something new," thus overcoming the slavery that has characterized their previous lives. Jillian and Allison Gilchrist shed their former roles as prostitutes and become the parents of Justin Rohr, the orphaned boy whom they rename Adam. Bankole, whose marriage was destroyed when druggies killed his wife in order to steal her medicine, marries Lauren, who in turn recovers the kinship relationships she lost when her family was destroyed by a variety of predators. The Douglasses, a racially mixed couple who were persecuted by conventional society, are fully accepted in the new society. Harry and Zahra also marry, transforming their previously empty lives. All of these people, who come from a wide assortment of races and backgrounds, become a multicultural community, an "interesting unit" committed to renewing the human race.

But although this Earthseed community is built on Bankole's land, which is "free and clear" of debt and is also an "empty" and "wild" space offering a fresh start, it is not idealized by Butler as a final resting place, a fixed and stable end point for their travels. Even though the land has an excellent supply of uncontaminated water and has a substantial "garden" for growing fruits and vegetables, it is not perceived either by the characters or the author as a place that can solve their problems permanently. For such a world is not immune to the ravages of the socio-paths and psychopaths who have blighted the society from which they came. When Lauren's group reaches their much sought-for promised land, they discover to their horror that Bankole's house has been burned to the ground, his sister and her family have been butchered, and his farm has become "a huge ruined garden." At best, this place is only "a possible sanctuary," a temporary way station providing them with some degree of rest before they reembark on their journeys to safer spaces.

What these spaces might be is never made exactly clear, just as the end points of journeys taken by picaresque heroes such as Huck Finn, the invisible man, and Ruth Copeland are never precisely defined. Their "new home" cannot be found on any maps because it is a space to be quested after, not a place that can be inhabited. Like the "home" over the River Jordan celebrated by the spirituals, it is a state of mind and a spiritual ideal. The future for Butler's characters, therefore, is liberatingly indeterminate, something that must always be creatively shaped and reshaped as they move and develop.

Source: Robert Butler, "Twenty-First-Century Journeys in Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower," in Contemporary African American Fiction, Associated University Presses, 1998, pp. 133–41.

Madelyn Jablon

In the following essay excerpt, Jablon explores how Butler transcends the science fiction and fantasy genre by incorporating elements of black history and serious social commentary into Parable of the Sower.

Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower also relies on social and political ideas to extend the boundaries of fantasy. In Fantasy and Mimesis, Kathryn Hume outlines four types of fantasy: escapism, expressive literature, didactic literature, and perspectivist literature (xiv). Butler's novel fits Hume's classification of didactic literature or "the literature of revision." This classification of fantasy literature "calls attention to a new interpretation of reality" as it "tries to force the readers to accept the proffered interpretation of reality and to revise their worlds to fit this interpretation." The authors of didactic fantasy literature offer "at least a token program of reform," which may be religious or moral, as in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, or social and political, as in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (xiii). Butler addresses moral, religious, social, and political themes. One lesson she teaches is that there is a continuum from personal to political, from religious to social and communal. As Mosley revises categories of the personal and collective, so does Butler. The second revision of genre is evident in Butler's use of positive and negative examples for instruction. She presents both utopia and dystopia, encouraging readers to imitate the actions of some and refrain from imitating the actions of others. Butler's heroine, Lauren, also defies classification. Hume distinguishes between "stories which center on a hero" and "stories which use a superhuman saint or messiah" (104). Lauren combines characteristics of both. Like the folk hero, she has imperfections and personal idiosyncrasies that make her human. Like the messiah, she espouses "new interpretations of the cosmos" and "assigns new meanings to life" (105). Through the introduction of a new religion, Lauren fits Northrop Frye's definition of a hero in the "high mimetic mode" (she is superior to other people but not to her environment), but the plot in which she appears is that of a romance. It commences with her living with her family as a member of a walled community. The dissolution of that society at the hands of villains who live outside the walls begins her journey and entry into a nonrational world governed by violence. She undergoes tests and trials, survives, and emerges a triumphant new leader (Hume 152). The story also fits the pattern of a tale of initiation. The novel traces Lauren's development from a fifteen-year-old girl living under the watchful eye of an overprotective father to an independent eighteen-year-old woman who is beginning her life's work and a mature relationship. The novel employs a variety of archetypes for the purpose of demonstrating that romances tell the story of the ego gaining control over the id. In Butler's novel, the unconsciousness is the world beyond the wall, outside the community, and the people residing on either side of the road that Lauren travels. The Satan worshipers in Butler's tale are cannibals, scavengers, thieves, and drug users whose survival depends on the destruction of others. Arrival at Bankole's farm represents a return to order, a celebration of community values and hope for future generations, and, of course, a subsuming of the id to the control of ego and superego.

Freedom is the subject of this, Butler's tenth science fiction novel. Like her earlier novels, it integrates historic elements to introduce this subject. There are references to slavery and to the African Diaspora. The novel can be read as an allegory of the slave narrative. In this apocalyptic tale, Lauren Oya Olamina, the daughter of a Baptist minister, leads a diverse group north to establish Earthseed. The story Lauren records in her diary begins in 2024 and describes the destruction of the walled community in Robledo, California. It describes the three-year journey north on Route 101 toward the freedom represented by the land owned by Taylor Franklin Bankole on the coastal hills of Humbolt County. Lauren describes her group as the "crew of the modern underground railroad." She figures as a Sojourner Truth leading the way north, persevering because of her own stubborn refusal to live "as some kind of twenty-first century slave" (155).

Bankole's observation that the "country has slipped back 200 years" is validated by the histories of those who join the group. Emery's sons have been taken from her and sold for payment of debts owed to the company store. Allison and Jillian Gilchrist run away from a father who is trying to sell his daughters. Grayson Mora and Doe Mora are runaway slaves, as are Travis, Gloria, and Dominic Douglas, whose flight to Canada is assisted by the wife of the slavemaster who knows of her husband's desire for Gloria.

In her discussion of Wild Seed and Kindred, Butler's previous novels, Sandra Y. Govan observes that the writer "links science fiction to the Black American slavery experiences via the slave narrative." In an interview, Butler explains how history affects her writing. She begins by recalling a visit to Mount Vernon, where she listened to the presentations of tour guides whose memorized speeches obscured the historical truth by referring to "slaves" as "servants." As preparation for writing science fiction, Butler read slave narratives but realized that she "was not going to come anywhere near presenting slavery as it was. [She] was going to have to do a somewhat cleaned-up version of slavery, or no one would be willing to read on." Although she may refrain from portraying the African American experience of slavery as history, her cleaned-up science fiction version provides a frightening degree of verisimilitude. Govan describes Butler's references as follows: "Butler treats the reoccurring themes of casual brutality, forcible separation of families, the quest for knowledge, the desire to escape, the tremendous work loads expected of slaves as effectively as any of the narratives or documentary histories discussing the slavery experience." Butler rescues the past from the obscurity that results from identifying "slaves" as "servants."

When Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner assumes the office of president in 2024, he dismantles the space program, suspends "overly restrictive worker protection laws," and encourages foreign investments in company towns such as Olivar. This former middle-class suburb of Los Angeles has been purchased by Kagimoto, Stamm, Frampton, and Company, a Japanese-German-Canadian enterprise, which has taken control of municipal utilities such as the desalination plant that provides the town's water and corporate-owned power and agriculture industries. Because most people are unemployed, the company is able to staff its operations with highly qualified workers who soon become in debt to the company. This is what happens to the Solis family. Emery's husband, Jorge Francisco Solis, becomes ill with appendicitis and dies as a result of inadequate medical care. Emery must work to pay off the debt that her husband, a company-town employee, has incurred. Because she is unable to do so, her two sons are taken from her and sold into slavery. Afraid that her daughter will also be taken, she flees.

When Cory, Lauren's stepmother, urges her father to consider applying to Olivar, her father echoes the words of the Bible and the ex-coloured man who said he had sold his birthright for a mess of pottage when he crossed the color line: "This business sounds half antebellum and half science fiction. I don't trust it. Freedom is dangerous, Cory, but it's precious, too. You can't just throw it away or let it slip away. You can't sell it for bread and pottage."

Unlike the ex-coloured man, Lauren's father, a dean, professor, and Baptist minister, knows the cost of freedom and is unwilling to relinquish it for the safety and security that company towns represent. This is Butler's special blend of fact and fiction, the historical past and the imagined future. Addressing this issue of fact and fiction in the creation of Olivar, Lauren says:

Maybe Olivar is the future—one face of it. Cities controlled by big companies are old hat in science fiction. My grandmother left a whole bookcase of old science fiction novels. The company-city subgenre always seemed to star a hero who outsmarted, overthrew, or escaped "the company." I've never seen one where the hero fought like hell to get taken in and underpaid by the company. In real life, that's the way it will be. That's the way it is.

Lauren distinguishes between science fiction and reality. Reference to the "company-city subgenre" sets the fictional world apart from the real world. Her plot summary develops a set of oppositions between "real" and "fictive" worlds. Fiction features a hero who outsmarts or escapes the company town. "Real" heroes succeed in gaining admittance to these towns. Cory, Lauren's step-mother, debuts for this role of hero when she urges her husband to apply to Olivar. Her daughter, Lauren, will fulfill the destiny of the fictional hero. Parable of the Sower sets up this dichotomy between real and fictive world, leading the reader to expect that once the definitions of "real" and "fiction" have been established, the novel will attempt to traverse the boundaries. Contrary to these expectations, the novel follows the plot outline of the subgenre. Lauren, the hero, establishes the first Earthseed community. This community, aptly named Acorn, is a cooperative rather than a corporate venture. The novel announces its "fictionality" and meets all the necessary criteria of the subgenre.

These definitions of fiction and reality are complicated by Lauren's own discussions of them. This hero-character, a writer and reader, defends the belief that imaginary and real worlds intersect. As an initial effort to convert others to Earthseed, Lauren asks her followers to read and think about how what they read can assist them in improving their lives. Lauren agrees that the good old days that their parents discuss will never return, but she feels that the future is not devoid of hopeful possibilities. The past cannot occur again, but the future can be good. Joanne asks what can be done to prepare for the future. As if eagerly awaiting an opportunity to address this question, Lauren answers by instructing her to read all the books she can. Joanne scoffs, "Books aren't going to save us," and Lauren responds:

"Nothing is going to save us. If we don't save ourselves, we're dead. Now use your imagination. Is there anything on your family bookshelves that might help you if you were stuck outside?"


"You answer too fast. Go home and look again. And like I said, use your imagination. Any kind of survival information from encyclopedias, biographies, anything that helps you learn to live off the land and defend ourselves. Even some fiction might be useful."

Lauren reconciles fictive and real worlds by stressing the importance of imagination to survival: "Use your imagination," she tells Joanne. "Even some fiction might be useful" (italics for emphasis). Of course, fiction, as the previous passage suggests, is exactly what Lauren is engaged in, and it has already assisted her by providing her with important information about the character she is playing. Lauren defends her author and the genre of science fiction against the argument that it has no bearing on "reality." Even though we may know the story before we finish or even begin the book, because fiction engages our imaginations, it is useful to our individual and collective survival. Keith, Lauren's stepbrother, leaves the walled community to enter the real world outside. Before he is killed, he returns home several times with such valuable commodities as chocolate candy bars and currency. When Lauren inquires into his procuring of these items, he confides that he lives in an old, deserted building with thieves, prostitutes, and drug addicts and that he is valued by this group because he can read and write: "They stole all this great stuff and they couldn't even use it. Before I got there they even broke some of it because they couldn't read the instructions." So, as Lauren correctly surmises, Keith reads for a living, helping his friends learn to use their stolen equipment. This would seem to suggest that reading—in and of itself—will not help us to survive. To be an effective tool in our salvation, reading must be accompanied by imaginative thought. The evidence that suggests this is Keith's brutal murder. Lauren teaches her traveling companions to read by way of the exercise book she created to explain Earthseed. This book—which we shall look at shortly—requires imagination to assist with survival.

After disclosing the meaning of Earthseed, Lauren says, "I've never felt I was making any of this up.... I've never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation. All I do is observe and take notes, trying to put things down in ways that are as powerful, as simple, and as direct as I feel them." By referring to her discovery of something that already exists, Lauren advances the platonic descriptions of artistic invention. Earthseed is a component of Lauren's religion, and the title of a book she is writing on the subject. In this passage, she embellishes her ideas concerning the interplay of real and imaginary worlds:

"You believe in all this Earthseed stuff, don't you?"

"Every word," I answered.

"But . . . you made it up."

I reached down, picked up a small stone, and put it on the table between us. "If I could analyze this and tell you all that it was made of, would that mean I'd made up its contents?"

Elsewhere she explains that she is discovering or imagining something that already exists. She says: "I never felt that I was making any of this up—not the name, Earthseed, not any of it. I mean I've never felt it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation."

Imagination is a gateway to truth. And Lauren's book, Earthseed: The Book of the Living, exemplifies this idea. She contrasts it with the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead by saying that there may already be a book of the living, but she doesn't care. As a collection of verse, it explores the nature of God and the role of humankind. It is her own book of Psalms. Thirty-one excerpts are interspersed in the diary that serves as the frame.

According to Hume, literature is the product of two impulses: fantasy and mimesis. Although the mimetic has been celebrated and studied, while fantasy has been regarded with suspicion or trivialized (she reminds us that Plato banned it from the Republic)—Hume believes it is an equal component in the creation of literature and "an impulse native to literature and manifest in innumerable variations from monster to metaphor." Butler's novel investigates these ideas about literature by transforming them into fiction.

Lauren never told her father that she was not a Baptist. He was a minister, and she didn't want to hurt his feelings, especially since the family jeopardized their lives by practicing their religion. When the novel opens, a group is traveling to a church outside the city wall in order to be baptized in a church rather than at home with bath-water. Although Lauren finds comfort and consolation in her religion, especially the community it fosters, she also takes issue with its portraiture of God. Rather than believe in "a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God, . . . a kind of super-person," she sees God as change. "From the second law of thermodynamics to Darwin evolution, from Buddhism's insistence that nothing is permanent and all of Ecclesiastes, change is a part of life." Lauren believes that "God is change" and that humans can affect the changes that occur. She compares her beliefs to those of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the Deists. She says they believed God was something "that made us then left us on our own." Lauren disagrees with this image of God as "a big kid, playing with toys." Instead, she believes that people have control over their lives and that "God exists to be shaped." She calls this "godshaping," and when things don't go well she admonishes herself, "Poor Godshaping. Lack of Forethought." Lauren's religion celebrates the role of the individual in shaping his or her destiny. In this context, prayer becomes a way of imagining things into occurrence:

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 to 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 forethought, with or without our intent.

The supreme will of the individual is set against a backdrop of Agamemnon. As the reader travels with Lauren along Route 101, he or she sees the destruction of civilization: scavengers profit from the demise of others, children and women are victims of the lawless activities of men, three-year-olds and seventy-three-year-olds are raped to death by outlaws. The biggest threat are the paints, men and women who shave their heads and paint their faces blue, green, or yellow. Paints take a drug—pyro (also known as blaze, fuego, flash, and sun-fire), which affects their neurochemistry and makes watching the "leaping changing patterns of fire a better, more intense longer-lasting high than sex." Lauren says, "It's like they [the paints] were f—g the fire, and like it was the best f—k they ever had." At the close of the novel, Lauren's tribe of converts cover their bodies with wet rags to protect themselves from the "orgy of burning" that is consuming "dry-as-straw Southern California."

Cory compares the discord to Babylon, while Joanne compares the devastation to Jericho, but Lauren consoles herself with the parable of the widow and the story of Noah, focusing on the "two-part nature of this situation": "God decides to destroy everything except Noah, his family, and some animals. But if Noah is going to be saved, he has plenty of hard work to do." This fictional world ends as the Bible predicts, and the salvation of humankind takes place with the birth of the Earthseed community and the resurrection of Bankole's farm.

Unlike the old world, where race was a barrier and interracial relationships were condemned, the world that Lauren creates welcomes people of all races and ethnicities. The children of Earthseed are part white, Mexican, Japanese, Black, and Black Latino. When Lauren looks at them she sees the future of humankind. Thelma Shinn discusses the role of race in Butler's utopian future. She says, "By combining Afro-American, female, and science fiction patterns, she can reveal the past, the present, and a probable future in which differences can be seen as challenging and enriching rather than threatening and denigrating and in which power can be seen as an interdependence between leader and those accepting that leadership, each accepting those limits on freedom that still allow for survival of the self."

The title of the novel announces its fictionality: it is a parable, a story with a religious or moral slant, but unlike the original biblical tale, it suggests hope for the future. The sower's seed doesn't bear harvest, but Lauren's Earthseed "falls on good ground," bearing "fruit a hundredfold."

Source: Madelyn Jablon, "Metafiction as Genre," in Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature, University of Iowa Press, 1997, pp. 156–65.


Johnson, Rebecca O., "African-American, Feminist Science Fiction," in Sojourner: The Women's Forum, Vol. 19, No. 6, February 1994, pp. 12–14.

Jonas, Gerald, Review of Parable of the Sower, in New York Times Book Review, January 2, 1994, p. 22.

Miller, Faren, Review of Parable of the Sower, in Locus, December 1993, pp. 17, 19.

See, Lisa, "An Interview with Octavia Butler," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 50, December 13, 1993, pp. 50–51.

Zaki, Hoda, Review of Parable of the Sower, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, Nos. 10 and 11, July 1994, pp. 37–38.

Further Reading

Butler, Octavia, and Stephen W. Potts, "'We Keep Playing the Same Record': A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler," in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 23, No. 70, November 1996, pp. 331–38.

Butler discusses the science-fiction genre, responses to her work, and themes her work addresses.

Fry, Joan, "An Interview with Octavia Butler," in Poets & Writers Magazine, Vol. 25, March/April 1997, pp. 58–69.

Butler discusses a range of topics, including her favorite writers and where the philosophical ideas in Parable of the Sower come from.

Wiloch, Thomas, Review of Parable of the Sower, in Bloomsbury Review, May/June 1994, p. 24.

Wiloch applauds Butler for not following the pattern of most science fiction. She is not content to tell a standard adventure story but instead turns it into a character study of a young woman.