The Parable of the Sower: Crash Course Literature #406

Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature and I have some bad news. Disease is devastating the planet. Soon the global food supply will be compromised,
clean water will become scarce, violence will grow epidemic, dangerous new street drugs
will circulate, the income gap will increase, corporate slavery will return and a strongman
president will be more interested in issuing tough-guy slogans than actually improving
the lives of the people. Of course none of that’s happened yet. What’s that? Oh, Stan informs me that some of it has happened. But the only place it’s all happening, so
far, is in “Parable of the Sower,” Octavia Butler’s 1993 science fiction novel. It’s just made up. Thankfully. But jeez, I have never read a dystopia that
feels more possible, or more terrifying. And yet, it’s also one of my favorite books,
and a genuinely hopeful one. The kind of hard-won, uneasy hope that actually
means something. INTRO
Let’s start with a brief introduction to the author, Octavia Butler. She was an African-American science fiction
writer who won the Hugo and the Nebula Awards and a MacArthur genius grant. She died in 2006 at the age of 58. Growing up as a shy only child in Pasadena,
California, Butler spent a lot of time reading at her local library and telling herself her
own stories. And then, when she was nine, she saw a movie
and thought, I could write a better story than that. So she did. Her aunt told her that an African-American
girl couldn’t be a writer, but she kept going. And as a young adult, she would get up at
two in the morning so that she’d have time to write before working jobs like dishwasher
and potato chip inspector. It wasn’t until her early thirties that
she was able to support herself entirely as a writer. Her works deal with race, class and power,
and most of her books also include fantastic elements like time travel, and alien life
forms and telekinesis. She described herself as “A pessimist if
I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition,
laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive." “Parable of the Sower” is a coming-of-age
story-one of the best of the past several decades. It’s also a story about being black in America,
and a feminist story and a theological story and a dystopian story and in some ways maybe
a bit of a utopian story. It takes its name from a Bible parable. In which Jesus describes someone who goes
out to distribute seed. Some of the seed falls on the path and is
eaten up by birds, some falls in a rocky place and can’t grow, some falls near thorns so
that’s no good, but some of it falls on fertile ground and grows beautifully. So before we talk about genre and theme, let’s
briefly look at the story of “Parable of the Sower.” in the Thoughtbubble:
When the book begins, Lauren Oya Olamina is a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in a small
community outside of Los Angeles, in 2024. She lives with her father, a professor and
a Baptist minister, her stepmother and her four half-brothers. Climate change and disease outbreaks have
increased social disorder so much that Lauren’s community has built a wall all around it. When people leave the community, they leave
armed. Both Lauren and her father become more and
more worried about how long the community can survive, and they prepare stashes of money
and supplies so that they can run away if they have to. And Lauren has other secrets. Because of drugs that her mother abused during
pregnancy, Lauren has “hyperempathy”—she feels what other people feel, which makes
it hard for her to hurt anyone. Also, Lauren has begun to develop her own
belief system, one that is different from her father’s. It locates god in chaos, and change and uncertainty. Throughout the book, we read pieces of a new
kind of scripture. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only last truth is change.” Lauren comes to call this religion Earthseed
and believes that its purpose is to prepare humankind to “take root among the stars.” Eventually, her walled community is overrun,
and unlike most of her family and friends, she manages to escape and then Lauren meets
up with other survivors. For a time, she disguises herself as a man,
and eventually begins walking north with a growing community–the first members of the
Earthseed movement. Thanks Thoughtbubble. There’s a lot of death in this book, and
like the Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative voice is so strong that it all feels terrifyingly
real. And yet, it IS science fiction. It’s set in the future–albeit barely. And there’s speculation from 1993 about
how climate change and wealth inequality and walls will shape the world of the future. Part of what makes Parable of the Sower, and
its sequel Parable of the Talents, so powerful is how prophetic they seem. Another term for this kind of science fiction,
which is set on earth and uses contemporary technology is “mundane science fiction,”
although this is one of the less mundane books you’ll ever read. In 1998, Butler told an audience that she
liked to think of science fiction in terms of categories established by the writer, Robert
A. Heinlein, “the what-if category; the if-only category; and the if-this-goes-on
category,” She described “Parable of the Sower” as
“definitely an if-this-goes-on story. And if it’s true, if it’s anywhere near
true, we’re all in trouble.” Oh it’s time for the open letter? An Open Letter to my future self. But first, let’s see what’s in the secret
compartment today. Oh look! It’s the sky express rocketship that I’m
going to use to travel around the solar system in the future. Dear future me, Parable of the Sower is set
in 2024, it’s currently 2017, you’re watching this in 2024—how we doin’? Was Octavia Butler right that we were all
in trouble? Because I’m concerned. So it’s seven years in the future, how are
things going? I think you guys recently had an election
hopefully? Did climate change turn out to be a hoax? Are we still doing Crash Course? Did the Looking For Alaska movie every get
made? Does Diet Dr. Pepper turn out to be bad for
me? Has Liverpool won the Champions League? I have so many questions! But mostly, I just hope you’re around to
answer them. Best wishes, current John. So “Parable of the Sower” is obviously
an exploration of if-this-goes-on, but it’s also lots of other things. I want to look at two of the book’s other
genres—the book as a bildungsroman and also as a sacred text. So you might remember bildungsroman is a long
and fun to say German word that means a novel of education, a story in which a young person
grows up and becomes more or less independent. At the beginning of the book Lauren is a teenage
girl who does what her family expects of her. She agrees to be baptized in a religion she
doesn’t believe, because her father wants her to, she helps out in the school her stepmother
runs, teaching the set curriculum. But as the book goes on, she starts thinking
for herself more and more. She establishes her own belief system and
begins to study how to survive in case her community breaks down. After talking things over with her father,
she also starts conveying some of that information to the children at the school even though
survival skills are definitely not in the curriculum. And then, when her neighborhood is overrun,
Lauren learns her capacity for leadership. She protects others in her group even though
her hyperempathy makes violent action nearly impossible. And she keeps them going until they find a
safe place in Northern California. And we should mention here that Lauren’s
suffering and her escape, as well as her journey north, have led some critics to draw comparisons
between Lauren’s story and narratives of escape from slavery. And Lauren is an escapee and a leader, but
she’s also something else. In an interview, Butler explained that she
wanted to tell the story of someone who, “sometime after her death – after people have had
time to forget how human she was – might easily be considered a god.” Now Lauren is human, but she does have this
god-like capacity for empathy, and “Parable of the Sower” is in many ways a sacred text. It’s structured as a series of journal entries,
but also features many these passages from what Lauren calls, “The Book of the Living,”
a devotional text that people in the future might read and interpret. And we learn a lot about the belief system
of Earthseed in these beautiful little passages from The Book of the Living:
Earthseed is focused on the inevitability of change–several times, in fact, it says
that God is change. Lauren says that she has based these religion
on “everything I could read, hear, see. All the history I could learn.” And Butler seems to draw on elements of Buddhism,
Taoism, matriarchal religions, even a little bit of the Yoruba religion. It’s probably not coincidental that Lauren’s
middle name, Oya, is the name of the goddess of the Niger river. But Lauren doesn’t really believe in goddesses,
as she says, “Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not supernatural authority figures.” And as a person she isn’t perfect or puritanical. She gets angry. She steals when she has to. She has sex when she wants to. “I mean to survive,” she says. She also isn’t always certain about the
moral choices she’s making, some of which are influenced by her hyperempathy, which
she calls “a biological conscience.” But that’s all part of what makes this portrait
of a prophet so fascinating. Butler shows us how her actions and her beliefs
might influence future generations. According to the verses Lauren writes, Earthseed
understands that: “God is Power—
Infinite, Irresistible,
Inexorable, And yet, God is Pliable—
Trickster, Teacher,
Chaos, Clay. God exists to be shaped. God is Change.” Change is the one inevitability in “Parable
of the Sower”, it’s the only constant in Lauren’s trauma-filled life. In an essay on the book, the professor Philip
H. Jos writes that those who practice Earthseed must learn to respond positively to change. He writes: “‘God is Change” is an invitation
to respond to fear with creativity, productivity, and compassion. [Practitioners must] fully acknowledge and
accept suffering and struggle as an inevitable companion to love and happiness.’” And I want to pause here and acknowledge that
for a lot of hardcore fans, “Parable of the Sower” is a sacred text. Another way to look at “Parable of the Sower”
is as a dystopian novel, exploring a world gone very, very wrong. And if we read the novel this way, Lauren
and her community’s journey toward a safer place can make the end of the book seem a
little utopian, or at least as utopian as a book can be where political instability
and environmental degradation mean that almost everyone dies horribly. I’d argue though, that Butler takes care
not to make the Earthseed community, or its leader, seem ideal. She once said, “Personally, I find utopias
ridiculous. We're not going to have a perfect human society
until we get a few perfect humans, and that seems unlikely.” For Lauren–and for Butler–the past, with
legal racism and misogyny, wasn’t ideal. And what’s fascinating to me about Parable
of the Sower is Lauren’s struggle to imagine a better world that is not based on past models,
that isn’t trying to go back in time or return to some imaginary golden age. The hope is less that Lauren’s followers
will create a utopia, on earth or elsewhere, and more that they’ll learn new and better
forms of relating to each other and to the world around them, and that they will find
something to unite them. Instead of a search for a paradise where nothing
ever changes, they have to learn to embrace change and use that change to move forward
and seek life among the stars. Whereas so many utopian and dystopian novels
seem to argue for dismantling technology, Lauren sees this interstellar travel as a
goal that can unite humanity. As we come to the end of our miniseries on
dystopias–although I suppose Macbeth is also fairly critical of traditional power structures–I
think it’s worth pausing to consider the if-this-goes-on-ness of Parable of the Sower. What forces or goals can unite and pacify
us? We know how will humans of the past have responded
to resource pressures and deprivations—is there a way that we can somehow avoid their
mistakes, when responding to the pressures and deprivations of a changing climate? And can we reconcile ourselves to change,
and live with it, as The Book of the Living calls us to do? “Parable of the Sower” is so page-turningly,
compulsively readable that it’s easy to miss the moments where Lauren, and Butler,
speak directly to us and to our times. So I want to leave you with a quote from one
such moment in the novel. Lauren writes, “Embrace diversity. Unite— Or be divided, robbed, ruled, killed
By those who see you as prey.” Good advice. I’ll see you next time.

45 thoughts on “The Parable of the Sower: Crash Course Literature #406

  1. I read this book in high school, I thought it was a mess tbh, but thanks John for explaining it and giving me a new appreciation.

  2. Sounds similar (in some respects) to The Power by Naomi Alderman. I'd love to see a crash course on that as well.

  3. "Of course none of that's happened yet. What's that? Oh, Stan informs me that some of it has happened."
    Oh, John, it's happening right now as we speak. Oh so help us, God.

  4. So basically in 2018 people are struggling to keep faith in public institutions, a buffon is the president of the United States of America, antibiotic resisting germs are on the rise, almost every country in the world is in political turmoil. Everybody feels miserable, a thing reflected in our art which has become bleaker, less colourful and less hopeful. The cultural zeitgeist is confused at the moment and most people don't identify with any strong ideologies, although it feels like they do, on the surface.

  5. Considering that we were living inside Laurens head for most of the book, it really lacked deep thought…. It was a world where everyone was incredibly ignorant and she was just normal and level headed…. Lauren wasn't a deep thinker whose struggles made the reader contemplate deep issues, no….. she was a sane head in a world of lunatics……. To me, it was a book about a crappy world and Butler hit us over the head with exaggerated social issues… and every character in the book lacked depth, even Lauren.

  6. Interesting that Robert A. Heinlein was mentioned. One of his novels, Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961, also created a minor cult following, the "Church of All Worlds", treating the novel as a holy text. Also, he invented an early version of the waterbed and described it in that novel.

  7. I'm not big on books that are so overtly political… Climate change has ruined the planet, Christianity is a failure, society has reverted back to embracing racism…. and of course… the corporations are to blame (how original)… Lauren was the only character in the story that had a personality except for her boyfriend that's 3x her age… but he only comes in at the end… Maybe in Talents the characters can get developed a little better… or not killed off… Not a bad book but I don't like overt political bias… I enjoyed the Fledgling more

  8. Well, this book sounds very interesting!

    Unfortunately I have to disagree with the whole "god is change thing"….


  9. Having read this book and parable of the talents, I preferred the sequel. I hated the first one and the second one I only read because spoiler alert

    I heard the POV was on Lauren’s daughter and I wanted to see how that was

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