Monday, November 27, 2006

Review: Parable of the Sower

by Octavia Butler

Don't you hate reviews that tell you nothing about what the reader thought of the novel, and just gives you a precis of the novel itself? Well, I'm not going to do that. If you want a precis, here it is.

If you want to know what happens at the end, you can google "Parable of the Talents", which is the sequel to "Parable of the Sower". I've not read that yet. But vague information you glean on Talents, well tell you the conclusion of Sower.


It's been a long time since I've read much new (to me) science fiction. I think at some stage there was a glut of science fiction in my life and the only way to move on from that was to cease reading it altogether. Like fantasy, there is too much rubbish out there. I get disheartened when I pick up a novel, read a few paragraphs to discover appalling writing style or bland story or fetishism of gadgets (sci-fi) / medievalism (fantasy) / magical worlds (also fantasy). Nothing is wrong with each of those things of themselves, they just don't speak to me. And yes, I am using a broad brush to tar sci fi & fantasy with accusations of appalling writing and bland story-telling. Other genres are equally culpable.

Nowadays, I read science fiction only on well-trusted recommendations. Recommendations from people who know my reading proclivities. So when my partner borrowed a novel by Octavia Butler and, after reading it, duly declared that I would enjoy it, I happily picked it up. I found myself a couple of days later reading the last chapter while I was walking home, dodging fellow walkers, cyclists, park benches and the occassional overgrown plant.

This is excellent science fiction writing. Octavia Butler has a dystopic vision of a world, that could easily be our world in 20 years. It is unexplained why the world has descended into anarchy; the sense of an ordered society is within living memory and there are remnants of governed civilisation: presidents and grocery stores. Good science fiction, to me, reveals flaws in our current society. This is a novel about civilisation. Many things that are wrong in our current society are depicted: racism, self-interset and greed, environmental damage, sexism. This dystopia is complex and comprehensive: it is not one thing that has gone wrong, but many. Octavia Butler depicts a violent and raw society; one in which the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is attempting to build a new world. I really enjoyed the focus on the minutiae of self-sufficient survival: water, food, clothing, agricultural skills.

Lauren creates a religion - Lauren would say that she is articulating the truth as she discovers it - and views the world around her with an incisive and pragmatic eye. The stragglers who form Lauren's travelling companions are a mixture of the different races that comprise American society: African-American (Lauren herself), white, Latino, Asian. The explorations of how each of these individuals have survived are fascinating, if somewhat simplistically presented. Their individual stories are related in one hit, rather than revealed. Only one character is given the joy of unravelling his past throughout the novel.

Lauren is also a character created from an idea of Octavia Butler's about how society could be improved. In an essay on NPR about the UN Racism Conference, Octavia Butler raises the notion of empathy and whether this would enable society to be more tolerant, whether fewer wars would start if everyone experienced the pain that they inflicted upon another person.

"The point was to create, in fiction at least, a tolerant, peaceful civilization -- a world in which people were inclined either to accept one another's differences or at least to behave as though they accepted them since any act of resentment they commit would be punished immediately, personally, inevitably."

It is a concept more immediate than karma. Instead of the civilization, Octavia Butler creates just one character: Lauren, who is a 'sharer' - she feels other people's pains and pleasures.

It's an interesting idea, but one that Octavia Butler was ultimately pessimistic about.
She says:
"[I]n real life, what would make us more tolerant, more peaceful, less likely to need a UN Conference on Racism?


Nothing at all."

Octavia Butler cites contact sports and schoolyard bullying as examples for why sharing pain isn't the solution. We're a hierarchical civilisation and "[t]here is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people."

I think that it is not only our baser instincts that mean we are willing to inflict pain, and Octavia Butler explores this aspect in her novel. Even if we felt the pain that we inflicted on another person, there would nevertheless be situations in which we would continue to inflict that pain. Pain is part of living. And there are things that are, in the end, more important to us than not experiencing pain. In the novel, for example, Lauren herself is willing, and quite able, to inflict significant pain on other people, sometimes to avoid further pain to herself, sometimes to prevent pain happening to other people.

The theme of shared pain makes for a very interesting exploration of the dystopia that Octavia Butler creates: in a society in which pain, suffering and human's baser instincts prevail, what, exactly, assists us to transcend it? I am taken with this idea, and I would like to see how Octavia Butler explores it in the sequel.

Here's something else Octavia Butler says that resonates with me:-
"Tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and, if we're as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned."


Hoa said...

I loved this book and the sequel! She also wrote a decent book on vampires her last released book before she died (Fledgling). It's so great to see science fiction taking on the big issues and in her case in such a feminist enlightened way...

sume said...

Thanks for the reminder, Oanh. Someone recommended a couple of Octavia Butler's books to me several months ago but I'd forgotten.

Certified Sci-fi or if you will, speculative literature nut here. Tell me you've read the Dune Series!

OTT said...

Hoa - I am now a fan of Ms Butler's, so shall be definitely adding Fledgling to me "to be read" list!

Sume - yes, I am aware of your certifiable status! *hanging my head in shame* I have not read Dune (but I've seen both David Lynch's movie and some other, significantly less good version, and I think there's an animated version floating out there as well, of which I've seen bits and pieces). Dune's there on my "to be read" list ... if that will redeem me?

honglien123 said...

I too don't read a book unless it comes with some huge recommendation. There's just no time to waste on taking chances. Will definitely check out this one, sounds fascinating. Thanks! =)

Tseen said...

I LOVE Octavia Butler - my first exposure to her work were her Xenogenesis novels (aka "Lilith's Brood" series) and I've been hooked ever since. Her work was a revelation to me and the prose was so beautifully done.

Rave, rave. :)

Kaz said...

I guess I'll be the first here to say that I didn't like it. Giving Lauren hyper-empathy was a really cool idea, but she didn't do much with it. Most of the time it was just mentioned in passing. The rest of the time when it was more significant, she was saying that she was sharing other people having sex. I felt uninvolved in the book too. A few people told me they couldn't put it down. I, however, found myself struggling to get through certain chapters, because the foreshadowing left little question to what was going to happen next. Most of the time I felt like I had already read what was on the page.

I did like the character development and how she painted the world slowly coming apart. Very realistic. It's scary in the thought of how easily it could happen.

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