Reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents in Pandemic Times
3 April 2020
Apparently what is happening now and will happen after this time are utopian / dystopian stories that have already been drawn by our imagination. Every day we see the news of this tragedy playing out differently in different parts of the world. The poor will suffer more than the rich. People commonly think viruses move indiscriminately across borders, bodies and class. Instead, the virus was moved around by privileged bodies who have the freedom to travel across borders. This crisis is actually environment friendly, and gets us closer to the utopian idea of universal basic income, an idea that trusts human beings as inherently good. We don’t know yet what effect the current pandemic will have on our economic, political and sociological system. But the crisis reveals that the current system won’t last in the way we knew before. Change.
“I won’t be able to afford college. I won’t be able to get a job or move out of my parents’ house because no job I could get would support me and there are no safe places to move. Hell, my parents are still living with their parents.” (Sower, 47)
“Help us to make America great again.” (Talents, 18)
Octavia Butler’s dystopia is surprisingly close to the reality of our time, in terms of growing precarity, inequality, the onset of the climate crisis and the radical right. In Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (1993, 1998), no story about specific catastrophic events is told but a story about amoral human behavior under the failure of central government is drawn. Marlene D. Allen makes the point that Butler’s parables are unique because the devastation of the Earth and human beings is a result of our own denial. As Allen quotes from the book, “We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into cries” (Allen, 2009, 1355).
Parable of the Sower is a written diary of a girl, Lauren, who suffers from hyperempathy inherited from her mother’s side. She grows up in a walled community in the town of Robledo where she lives together with her father, stepmother and three brothers. She inherited her curiosity for knowledge from her father, a trait eventually leading to her successes in Parable of the Talents. Lauren is an almost mythical protagonist who figures as the main character in both of the parables.
Lauren is a sharer, she feels other people’s pain and pleasure. She grew up in a self-protective community that was under an ongoing threat of being attacked by drug addicts and scavengers from outside. At the age of eighteen, Lauren loses her family and friends during a raid on the neighborhood. Then she heads up North with Harry and Zhara, who also survived the raid, to find a better life. Even though it is dangerous to trust each other, the group steadily grows. Lauren observes, “We help each other. A group is strong. One or two people are easier to rob and kill”(Butler, 1993, 281). At the end of the book, Lauren and her group settle and make a community called Acorn, based on her own religion of Earthseed. Early in Parable of the Talents, Acorn is ruined by a group of Christian fundamentalists who are in support of a new president elect. Lauren is forced to roam the West coast in search of her daughter Larkin, who was taken away from her during the raid on Acorn. In both books, Lauren shows an immense determination to develop and spread Earthseed. On a few occasions, other characters in the book ask Lauren why she created Earthseed but she answers that she found the religion: “All the truths of Earthseed existed somewhere before I found them and put them together. They were in the patterns of history, in science, philosophy, religion, or literature. I didn’t make any of them up” (Butler, 1998, 122). During her life, Lauren keeps questioning and shaping the idea of God according to her belief system or world view. Central to Earthseed, and in part to the founding of Acorn, is the destiny of human kind “to take root among the stars” (Butler, 1993, 70), something Lauren wishes her daughter to witness. “God is change”, Lauren writes in her diary on multiple occasions. From this point of view Earthseed is able to capture the chaotic times surprisingly well. But as Lauren’s daughter writes “The problem with Earthseed has always been that it isn’t a very comforting belief system” (Butler, 1998, 245). So if not comfort, or a promise of salvation, what does Earthseed’s god of change stand for? Peter G. Stillman argues,
Butler tries to place the reader, via Earthseed, into a world of post-identity politics, or at least into understandings that are post-identity—because we human beings are not only our identities, we are always forming ourselves, developing our potentials, changing ourselves, as we act. (Stillman, 2003, 28)
The idea of change, in Earthseed, has something in common with Donna Haraway’s concept of sympoiesis, “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change” (Haraway, 2016 ,61). Both Earthseed and sympoiesis intervene in the evolutionary chain and embrace human beings to embody symbiosis and hybridisation. That is ‘Change’ and Change is unpredictable and deals ‘with ongoing reality’(Butler, 1993, 201). Change lets us imagine a body full of will, a will of their own. Lauren tells her friend Joanne, “We can all learn more. Then we can teach one another. We can stop denying reality or hoping it will go away by magic” (Butler, 1993, 52). From that moment on, we can take root and live among the stars.
I contend that Lauren’s hyperempathy is limited to physical pain and pleasure and excludes the sharing of other senses. People with hyperempathy are often abused in slavery markets as sharers won’t physically hurt their masters. Sharers receive all the pain they inflict. I wonder what the significance really is of being a sharer. Are they saviors or anti-saviors? Allen argues the following:
Even though Lauren questions why some people might think of hyperempathy syndrome as a gift or a power, in Butler’s aesthetic it truly is, for the condition represents the ultimate power associated with sharing and empathy, which heretofore have often been regarded as weaknesses. (Allen, 2009, 1363)
Butler shows that empathy and sharing is not a feminine hysteria. But she also doesn’t mystify its value, instead she shows its practical and brutal side. Sharing happens on the level of lived experience. It is not contemplative, reasonable, spiritual or ideological. It happens. “No one can stop Change, but we all shape Change whether we mean to or not” (Butler, 1993, 241). I find it interesting to read the parables’ realism in parallel to the current pandemic. It is time to Change.
“Did you ever read about bubonic plague in medieval Europe?” I asked.
She nodded. She reads a lot the way I do, reads all kinds of things. “A lot of the continent was depopulated,” she said. “Some survivors thought the world was coming to an end.”
“Yes, but once they realized it wasn’t, they also realized there was a lot of vacant land available for the taking, and if they had a trade, they realized they could demand better pay for their work. A lot of things changed for the survivors.”
“What’s your point?”
“The changes.” I thought for a moment. “They were slow changes compared to anything that might happen here, but it took a plague to make some of the people realize that things could change.” (Butler, 1993, 50)
Allen, Marlene D. “Octavia Butler’s “Parable” Novels and the “Boomerang” of African American History”, Callaloo, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2009, pp. 1353-1365.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Open Road Integrated Media. 1993.
Parable of the Talents. Open Road Integrated Media. 1998.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. 2016
Stillman, Peter G. “Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler’s Parables”, Utopian Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2003, pp. 15-35.
Hyeisoo Kim studies in the Research Master Programme in Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. This piece was written for a Masterclass on Speculative and Utopian Writing and the Transcultural offered at Utrecht University by Barnita Bagchi in the Research Master Programme in Comparative Literary Studies.