Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is another canonical work of sf / dystopia / climate fiction which I’d never got round to reading. It was interesting to go through it with the LUCSUS Masters students, because they picked out things I might not have noticed, or would otherwise have passed over as a given thanks to my specialist knowledges.
For example, the cause of the escalating price and scarcity of water is (as far as I can recall) never remarked upon in the text. And of course there’s no reason the characters would think to discuss it: even for those of them who might have known the cause of Californian drought (i.e. basically decades and decades of over-abstraction), by the point they’ve reached in the process of collapse, there’d be little point (other than making yourself more angry, scared or frustrated) that you’d mention it; better to focus on where the next drink is coming from than why it’s hard to find. It’s not entirely clear from the text itself whether Butler was thinking of a drought specifically caused by agricultural practices, rather than one caused simply by a more general environmental decline due to increased temperatures; one might argue this is a missed opportunity for making a didactic point, but given the overwhelming moral content of Sower, even were you to add such material I doubt anyone would come away from the book thinking “well, we’d best get busy on water rights and agricultural reform!” It’s not that sort of sf, and Butler not that sort of writer.
Still, it was notable that the students questioned the cause of the high water prices, not as something that spoiled the story, but as something that nagged at them throughout—and perhaps, if we’re dabbling with the intentional fallacy, we might imagine that may have been one of the results Butler was hoping for. (Given the premium she places on self-directed curiosity and learning in the book, it doesn’t seem an unreasonable guess.) The cause was obvious to me, in part because I spent six years surrounded by people who live and breath water infrastructure, in part because some good friends have explored and discussed California’s water infrastructures in detail for exactly this reason, and also because I’d read and reviewed Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (Interzone #260) when it was published. TWK was another of the books in the “club”, and they make an interesting pairing in the context of climate change pedagogy for exactly this reason; they’d also make an interesting pairing for sf-literary reasons, too. (Another essay to add to the ideas list, I guess.)
The students were also curious about the broader causes of the “boiled frog” collapse that forms the setting for Sower; they couldn’t understand how things could have gotten so bad without something having been done about it. With no criticism or malice intended, I think this can be put down in part to their comparative youth and European perspective: not to put too fine a point on it, but the actual USA right now is providing a grim demonstration of exactly how things could be allowed to get so bad, which is less a case of everyone ignoring the problem, and more a case of a slight majority being susceptible to the message that the problem is Someone Else’s Problem, and/or a market opportunity for good ol’ fashioned American entrepreneurship. These are also students for whom climate change is more than just a given, it’s the thing that’s driven them to do the course they’re on—and as such I’m going to infer that they’ve probably been raised in households where “doing something” is a daily occurrence. However, they’re also young enough to perhaps not fully understand that sorting the recycling and turning off the tap while you brush your teeth is not really enough to make a dent in the systemic extractive/emissive paradigm; hell, it’s really only in the last ~10 years that I’ve come to understand that myself. The problem is still addressable for them, in a way that gives me hope even as it makes me sad; if anything is going to “be done about it”, it’s their generation that’ll (have to) do it.
(And as such, us X-ers and Millennials had best make a good show of trying to get the Boomers out of the driver’s seat before it’s too late, because the kids have got more than enough reason to lament our generational futzings already.)
What was exciting for me was how easily they latched onto the characterisation and POV. I had primed them a little on this narratological stuff in a lecture the week before we discussed it, but they weren’t just parroting ideas back at me, they’d actually thought it through. They observed that Lauren is cagey and judgmental, even a bit conceited at times (which is all implication, given the first-person modality), and they also identified the paradox of her hyperempathy: yes, she feels the pain of others, and that encourages her to be cautious about surrounding herself with pain and conflict, but it also makes her cold and distant, an outsider even within the group she ends up leading. Perhaps that would change in a context where hyperempaths were in the majority, but then again, perhaps not… and reading Sower has reinforced the feeling I had when reviewing the Ecotopian Lexicon (for the SFRA, due out summer 2021) that Rebecca Evans had taken a rather too optimistic read on hyperempathy, partly because she treated it more as a phenomenon whose existence might make the world a better place than as a concept whose introduction into the lexicon would help advance the climate discourse (though, to be fair, this conflation of concept and term kind of haunts that whole book, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness); all the evidence in Sower, to me at least, suggests that quite the opposite. Sure, a a culture in which empathy was not considered as correlative with (female-coded) weakness would be a fine thing… but unless hyperempathy were effectively universalised instantly, it would make community clusters of hyperempaths incredibly vulnerable to explotation by the less- (or indeed non-)empathic majority, just as hyperempathic individuals already are in the story.
From my own perspective as a writer/reader, I was struck most forcefully by the incredibly direct and simple style of Butler’s prose—there’s a staggering mastery of the epistolary/diaristic first person mode on display here, which goes a long way to explaining how easily the students parsed Lauren’s complexities. But it’s also Lauren’s nigh-clinical detachment that strips the story of any sense of spectacle, with the arguable exception of the fire-by-the-highway scene that acts as the transition into the final stage of the book, which is all the more striking for its vividness on the page after so many pages of seemingly normalised and dispassionately-described dystopian events and scenery. As with Oryx & Crake, there’s a hint of the biblical about the last part of Sower, but it’s dome very differently to Atwood’s structural satire. Of course, Butler is herein playing a much straighter game with the question of faith than Atwood—straighter, and more subtle. Butler has more compassion for the necessity/inevitability of faith, particularly among oppressed communities, as well as a more nuanced eye on the way it eventually twists into dogma (and makes dogmatists of its adherents); I’m given to believe this comes out a lot more clearly in the sequel Talents.
But damn, the bleakness of this book—more than once I found myself wondering how a book so grim in its inevitabilities could be so readable, even compulsive. (It’s not quite up to the same level as, say, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, but it’s in a comparable league.) This can’t be put down to any thriller/horror dynamic, either: there’s no titillation, no spectacle. You also know immediately that Lauren is going to survive. As Clute has noted, the first person mode implies that the narrator survives the plot in order to tell the tale (though the epistolary/diaristic form can break that rubric easily enough), but even that aside, you just know: right from the get-go, her status as a stubborn, capable survivor is never in doubt, and presents an interesting blackening and feminising of the Competent Man trope so common to sf and dystopian thrillers alike. But it’s made more complex by her categorical inability to play the “kick-ass heroine” archetype: she can’t just Mad-Max it out due to her hyperempathy, so she has to be survivor, strategist, orator, leader. She quite literally inherits the loquacity of her preacher/teacher father, the skill for framing familiar stories and ideas as homilies, parables… and so it’s ironic that her anti-religion is destined (in Talents) to become a religion much like all the others, but that dynamic is dealt with far more carefully and insightfully by Butler than it might have been by someone from a more secular or outright atheistic background (viz. Atwood).
Also notable for me was the paucity of white characters—not, to be clear, in a “hey, what’s up with all these minorities?” way, but rather in the way that the very unshowy but direct foregrounding of the ethnicities of the cast made me realise (much to my discredit) how rarely I read anything in which the whiteness of a white character is remarkable from the purview of the others. The (almost-all-white, almost-all-Euro) students didn’t remark on this, though they literally cannot have missed it—and they definitely picked up on the slavery theme, and understood where that concern came from for the characters and the author alike. They’ve grow up with a somewhat more diverse media landscape than I did; I’m tempted to take this as en encouraging sign that such things really can make a difference, but again I probably need to correct for the intersectional aspects of the group. (If you wanted a caricature of trainee SJWs, these kids are probably it—and amen to that.) For me, it was probably that threat of (corporatised/company-town) slavery that made the thing feel most relevant to present events, quite beyond the eerie alignment of the dates in the storyline.
It’s a sad thing that this book should (still) be so timely, but that’s where we are. In a telling and somewhat tragic synchronicity, it was announced while I was halfway through the book that Sower had just given Butler her first appearance on the NYT Bestseller list. I strongly suspect that’s down to it having been placed on a very large number of college and university reading lists for the fall semester, by teachers who figured that—under circumstances featuring water shortages, massive fires, vigilantism, mob violence, and the seeming evacuation of even the pretense of democracy from the USian experiment in favour of naked commerce and white supremacy—forewarned might be somewhat forearmed. It’s hard to conclude that they weren’t right to do so.