Thursday, March 23, 2006

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

I've just finished reading my first Octavia Butler novel, Parable of the Sower. It won't be my last.

I'd been interested in Butler for a little while, decided she was someone I wanted to read when I leafed through a copy of Kindred at a bookstore. Unfortunately, I didn't get to her before her recent untimely death. The other day I saw Parable of the Sower among my fiancée's pile of cheap-and-in-poor-shape mass-market paperbacks (incidentally, I don't care what anybody says, mass-market paperbacks suck). She was afraid I would find it heavy-handed. Happily, I did not. On the contrary, I found it riveting and unexpectedly moving.

The story takes place in an all too plausible near-future, the years 2024 to 2027, when American society has pretty much collapsed into chaos, with walled-in neighborhoods, besieged communities, roving bands of homeless people, slavery, widespread violence, fire. Our narrator is Lauren, a teen-age girl who is a "sharer", who feels the pain of others, and who is developing a new religion of sorts, Earthseed ("God is Change"). The Earthseed stuff, frankly, didn't interest me much, except insofar as it served as a unifying factor, but it wasn't off-putting, either. Anyway, in the form of a journal, in a spare, effective prose, Lauren tells us about her family's life, and life on the run when her neighborhood is destroyed. We don't learn much about how things got this way, but the world she describes is vivid and frightening.

There were a lot of nice tributes to Butler when she died; I am linking to Steven Shaviro's over at The Pinocchio Theory, where he says, in part:
Butler’s novels are downbeat, pessimistic, and utterly gripping. They all deal, in various ways, with issues of otherness, pain, and dependency; as well as, obviously, with race and gender, and racism and misogyny. They are never didactic, however, because they are as deeply concerned with affect as they are with cognition: the two simply can’t be separated in Butler’s world. These novels offer little hope of release, transcendence, or liberation. They sometimes flirt with religio-ethical responses in various ways, but they always also emphasize the fictiveness of such responses.
I link to this because it's interesting, and also because of one of the comments, by one Carl Freedman:
The one point where I somewhat disagree with Steve is the emphasis he puts on Butler’s pessimism. The downbeat elements that Steve locates in Butler’s fiction are certainly there, but are not, perhaps, the whole story. Though I have some quibbles with Tom Moylan’s terminology, I think he is essentially right to see Butler as an author of *critical* dystopias, that is, of works that maintain a rigorously bleak vision without altogether surrendering utopian hope.
I agree with this when it comes to this novel--the landscape is brutal, society unforgiving, violent, bleak. But, Lauren and her band of survivors finally commit themselves to building something, starting somewhere. The book doesn't end on a shiny, happy note, to be sure, but it is hopeful.

I look forward to investigating the rest of Butler's fiction.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Tony Christini said...

"Butler’s novels are...never didactic, however, because they are as deeply concerned with affect as they are with cognition..."

As if didactic novels can not be "deeply concerned with affect" or "cognition". It's comic and sad the knee-jerk responses to didacticism in novels. Often it's thought/assumed that didacticism equals bad art, a common non sequitur. The title of one of Butler's novels is The Parable of the Sower, after all. Parables are both didactic and artistic, after all. Not that Butler's novel of the name is a parable but it clearly has frequent and strong didactic elements, including the numerous prominently placed Earthseed notes, lyrics, and a number of the main character's speeches, or speech like conversations, etc.

"These novels offer little hope of release, transcendence, or liberation. They sometimes flirt with religio-ethical responses in various ways, but they always also emphasize the fictiveness of such responses."

Much of the basis of The Parable of the Sower is the main character's strong sense and understanding of the didactic and open-ended Earthseed philosophy. She bases her life upon it. She survives by it. She preaches it. She looks to it for the future. That's upbeat, that's didactic, and more.

Having said that, I think The Parable of the Sower is also unnecessarily downbeat and mistakenly pessimistic in particular ways.... But the core of this powerful novel is well expressed in the affirmative and didactic (and wonderful) title.

June 05, 2006 3:15 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi, Tony.

I suspect that when people use the word didactic as a pejorative like this (as I have), they are thinking of lectures. People don't want to be lectured to, least of all when reading fiction. Maybe. However, perhaps "didactic" doesn't need to be thought of in this narrow manner. I forget where I read recently (Sontag?), about all art being didactic--in arguing in favor, at least, of the particular manner, the form the writer has chosen. That certainly leaves open the possibility of other arguments being made in fiction, without it being reduced to a lecture.

June 05, 2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger Soren said...

Butler's very rare short stories, collected in one volume (Bloodchild and Other Stories, are uniformly excellent; in fact I think they are her best work: severe, unflinching, very hard to take.

December 10, 2006 10:18 PM  
Blogger Scraps said...

That last comment was me. Blogger is messing around with my identity!

December 10, 2006 10:38 PM  

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