Octavia Butler merges character seamlessly with conceptual vision. Review by Violet Kane

Book Cover
I have been meaning to read Octavia Butler for years, now. A variety of factors, including, I admit, my natural inclination to pick fantasy or historical novels over science fiction got in the way. When my friends over at Science Fiction suggested Parable of the Sower as their March group read, I was glad to seize the opportunity. By reading this book, I discovered that it was not particularly science fiction—or any other genre—but rather a stunning example of true alternative reality literature.

The premise, certainly, is constructed out of science fiction sensibilities. Main character Lauren is a young woman in a frightening but familiar near future (2020's). Global warming has made water an expensive commodity in Lauren's Southern California home. The rising prices of basic necessities have forced most people below a middle class income onto the streets, fueling a rising drug market and the creation of new, more dangerous illegal substances—including a drug that inspires ecstasy at the sight of fire, spurning an epidemic in arson. The rise in crime has prompted middle class communities like Lauren's to enclose their neighborhoods within concrete walls, to train their citizens to use guns, to create largely self-supporting enclaves where neighbors are school teachers and backyard gardens are major sources of food. Some members of Lauren's community, like her father—a university professor and preacher—still leave the neighborhood to go to work, and return with tales of the dangers outside the city gates. As Lauren gets into her teens, she refuses to deny the danger, like some in her community. The realization that one day the community walls will not be able to protect them prompts Lauren to take action. The changing reality of her world also leaves Lauren feeling that her father's Baptist faith is inadequate, and she searches for a new philosophy with which to apprehend reality and give her a better chance for survival.

While this book does offer a grim vision of future possibilities, the heart of this story is not the conception of dangers to come—though Butler does paint an affecting vision. This novel is, rather, a classic example of how speculative concepts can—and should—be used to explore a character. Lauren's experiences are most interesting because of the ways she reacts to them and seeks to affect them. The exploration of the characters in this book is a believably real balancing of cause and effect, of how environment can affect a character and how that character can affect her environment. This marriage of character and concept makes Parable of the Sower one of the most engaging and challenging alternative reality stories I have read in recent years.

In many ways, this novel is classic science fiction, but the nuanced characterization ensures that its appeal extends much beyond the typical science fiction audience. Readers of all alternative reality genres should enjoy this book, but truly it is a book for any reader, mainstream or genre, who enjoys an excellent character story.


Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.