People throw around words like “dystopia” and “post-apocalyptic” a lot when they talk about modern science fiction novels. I wonder, have those people read Parable of the Sower? Dystopia. Dissed Topia. Apocalytpic and Apocryphal-ictic.
Parable of the Sower takes place in a dramatically fucked-up Southern California in 2024. The state’s traditional problems — water shortages, racial tension, economic disparity, botched government, fuel costs, gang violence — are all extrapolated to the nth degree. L.A. is an “oozing sore” of inconceivably terrible violence, cannibalism, contemporary slavery, drug addiction, and perpetual rape. There’s a new drug called “pyro” that turns people into addicts who set fire to entire neighborhoods (and people) just to watch them burn. The freeways are flooded with people fleeing North on foot. Private armies of security guards protect the estates, enclaves, and businesses of the super-rich, while everyone else is left to fend for themselves, or else form decrepit, self-sustaining micro-communities shut off from the outside world.
There’s a Hanns Eisler quote about Los Angeles that I’ve always really liked, which I found in Mike Davis‘ City of Quartz: “If one stopped the flow of water here for three days the jackals would reappear and the sand of the desert.” Octavia Butler‘s Los Angeles is one where all the artificial resources that sustain the city have been exhausted; the jackals have indeed reappeared. It’s a wholly dystopic interpretation of modernity (what if everything got worse?), but at the same time it’s so nightmarishly plausible that it shocks with familiarity, not estrangement.
In this situation, the ordinary concerns of science fiction — which is to say, questions of Utopia — are made urgent. There is no room or time for fantasy, nor are issues of causality relevant. In fact, Parable of the Sower never discusses the reasons why the world went this direction: only a faint hope that things might one day return to the “good old days,” before kids had to learn to use firearms as soon as they can walk. The novel isn’t about causality, it’s about change; Change as a force which molds and shapes our lives impartially, a God that we have the power to shape back.
The main character, Lauren Olamina, suffers from a hyperempathy disorder in which she feels the physical pain of others. No small issue in her barbarous world; she is practically incapacitated by violence, and yet she is often forced to inflict it on the maniacs which brutalize her neighborhood and eventually destroy it. Lauren, however, is concerned with more than just survival: she attempts Utopianism, even after the end of Utopia. Her empathy problem is the root of her worldview, and she tries to start a new agrarian community of fellow disenfranchised people somewhere in Northern California, which would seem cliché if it weren’t for the fact that it takes place a post-cliché universe entirely. Utopianism after Utopia. Will it work? We never find out; although the tone is hopeful, Parable of the Sower promises nothing. Despite essentially being a novel about having hope on a shoestring, it does not inspire confidence, only the dread of fulfilled prophecy.
The only inspiring thing in the pile of festering murk of Butler’s 2024 Los Angeles is Lauren Olamina’s valiant mutiny against entropy, which I suppose isn’t heroism — just what you do. Olamina refuses to accept what has been laid out for her (fear, death) and instead attempts to shape Change rather than be overrun by it.
It is, definitely, weirdly affecting. I’m in Los Angeles right now; I had this nightmare last night that I had to cover the windows of my survivalist bunker with black garbage bags so that maniacs from “outside” wouldn’t be able to see in and ravage my precious stores of food and water. This morning, during a conversation this morning about the state’s current political and financial situation (miserable), I bleakly contributed only that when it came to Los Angeles and that sharp precicipe before apocalypse, it has all already been written.
NEXT BOOK: ROBERT A HEINLEIN’S THE PUPPET MASTERS