Bleakness

I found Kindred to be an enjoyable (not exactly the right word, I know) novel.  I thought the premise was really cool and I thought the content was impactful and was conveyed really well.  It was a powerful story that did not shy away from brutality.

But it in no way prepared me for Parable of the Sower.

I didn’t know anything about this book at all before starting.  At first I thought it was neat that it was set in 2024 (hey that’s so close!)  And that, coincidentally, myself and my daughters are almost the same ages as the main character and her father (will this be our future?).

But then, holy crap, Butler doesn’t hold back.

The brutality of Kindred was based on reality.  It was horrible and, in retrospect, hard to believe that people could do such things.  The brutality of Sower, however, is all based on the future projection.  The book was written in 1993. Basically, she posits that in 30 years, America has become a rotting hellscape.  And while we haven’t reached quite the levels that she imagines, there are some pretty eerie accuracies.  I have to assume, given the natural of the elected politicians, that some things are going to get very very spookily prescient.

The book opens in 2024 with a quote from Earthseed.  We don’t know what that is yet, but by the end of this week’s read we’ll learn that Earthseed is a sort of manifesto written by the main character, Lauren Oya Olamina–I didn’t realize her name was given after the first quote from Earthseed until looking back on it.  Each chapter has another quote from Earthseed and then the story unfolds as a series of diary entries.

There is a lot in these chapters about Lauren’s feelings about God and how she starts to develop her beliefs and theories that she wants to write up under the name Earthseed.  It’s still underdeveloped in these first two chapters, and I imagine someone else will talk about it more than I’m willing to at this point.

The first entry in her diary is Saturday July 20, 2024 which is Lauren’s fifteenth birthday and her father’s fifty-fifth.  It opens talking about Lauren’s dreams, and I found the story a little unfocused–I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy the book.

But the next day’s entry brings things into focus and while I enjoyed the writing more, the content quickly becomes horrific. 

Lauren says that three years earlier, her father’s God ceased to be her own.  Yet on this day, she and some others in their neighborhood were going to be baptized.   She tells us that things are bad in their neighborhood–kids don’t go to school anymore, and in fact, parents are nervous about their kids going outside at all.

Sounds like overprotective parents have gone too far (this was written in the 90s, after all, the start of the helicopter parent).

Then she starts giving details–churches burned, there’s no water, thieves are everywhere and their neighborhood is surrounded by a wall that they really never go past.  They live 20 miles from to L.A. (in Robledo), and although her father says “the city is one big carcass covered in maggots” (9), Lauren tells us the maggots are in her town too.

The people involved in the baptism–the children and their parents, rode their bicycles (“gas was pretty much only used for torching things these days”) to the one church still standing. And that’s when the details get really gruesome.

There are people lying all over the roads.  “I saw at least three people who weren’t goin to wake up again, ever.  One of them was headless” (9). Then she sees a young woman, walking, naked, down the street. She was dazed or drunk or something: “maybe she had been raped so much that she was crazy.   I’d heard stories of that happening.  Or maybe she was just high on drugs.” (9). The boys were pretty amazed to see a naked woman, no matter her condition.

Why did no one help her?  “My stepmother says she and my father stopped to help an injured woman once, and the guys who injured her jumped out from behind the wall and almost killed them” (10).

This book is science fiction, but at first it just seemed like a purely dystopian novel.  Then we learn that Lauren has a particularly science-fictiony condition.  One that makes it especially difficult for her to live in this world.  She suffers from hyperempathy.  Whenever she witnesses pain, she experiences it herself.  Her father believes it is something she can get over, but that doesn’t seem to be true.  Butler really likes to explore this kind of aspect interpersonal connection and i look forward to what she’s going to do with it.

Her brother Keith would fight her and when she hit back, she would feel the same pain.  Then she’d get punished for hitting her brother and feel more pain.  She has this “organic delusional syndrome” because her mother took too many Paracetco, the Einstein powder, which killed her.

The syndrome is supposed to make her share pleasure and pain, but there’s not much pleasure to be seen.  The good news is that once she got her period, she stopped actively bleeding in response to others’ blood.

Moving forward a few days, Lauren tells us that one of the astronauts on the latest Mars mission has been killed.  This is an interesting sci-fi component that i assume will be explored more later.

Poor folks in Robledo think the space program is a waste of money since they have so little on Earth. But for Lauren (and others) it is a source of hope.  Hope of getting the hell out of this.

The politicians are introduced soon after.  Christopher Morpeth Donner is against the space program and promises to abolish it if he’s elected.  Lauren’s father plans to vote for this man (although on election night, he doesn’t bother voting at all).   When Donner is elected, his first plan is to put people back to work –he wants to suspend overly restrictive minimum wage, environmental and worker protection laws for those employers wiling to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.” (27).

She wonders,

Will it be legal to poison, mutilate or infect people–as long as you provide them with food, water and a space to die? (27)

Many characters are introduced in the neighborhood, and it’s a little unclear who is important to hang on to.  Some are killed pretty quickly.  Others seem to cause nothing but trouble.  An old lady kills herself (she was formerly sanctimonious and God-fearing, and yet she chose to kill herself knowing she would not go to heaven).  Her children and grandchildren all died in a house fire a few days earlier.  Clearly she just couldn’t take it anymore,

2025 opens with a February entry.  A fire occurred in their neighborhood.  They wasted precious water putting it out.  It was set by a little girl, Amy.  The girl is the daughter of Tracy, a girl one year older than Lauren.  Tracy was 13 when she had Amy and was 12 when her 27 year-old uncle started raping her.

Problem: Uncle Derek was a big, blond, handsome guy, funny and bright and well-liked. Tracy was, is, dull and homely, sulky and dirty-looking. (33)

There’s another observation about men on page 37:

Some middle class men prove they’re men by having a  lot of wives in temporary or permanent relationships.  Some upper class men prove they’re men by having one wife and a lot of beautiful, disposable young servant girls.  Nasty.

Tracy didn’t have maternal instincts and Amy roamed wherever.  Lauren kind of took her in and decided to look after her and help teach her–her maternal instinct had kicked in.

Back to the woman who committed suicide–her house is inherited by relatives.  They immediately blame the neighborhood for stealing from the abandoned house.  The neighbors did take back things that belonged to them, but any actual thieving was done by actual thieves before she died.  The neighborhood doesn’t care for the accusations though:

“This is a small community.  We all know each other here.  We depend on each other.” (35)

But the new residents (“Payne and Parish, what perfect names they have”) say “we’re not very social.  We mind our own business.”  I wonder how long they will last.

Lauren explains that her father takes all of the children (and adults) for gun handling practice once they reach fifteen.  They usually go out to open fields–unless there are corpses (and there usually are).  Even though he is a man of God, he tells the community they should all have a gun: “The police may be able to avenge you, but they can’t protect you.” (39)

While they are shooting, feral dogs get close.  The people are understandably concerned about feral dogs, although one dog and a dozen people makes for pretty good odds.  But when one gets too close, her father shoots it.  As they walk past the body, it seems to resist death and it’s up to Lauren (who is a crack shot) to finish it off.  She shoots:

I felt the impact of the bullet as a hard solid blow, something beyond pain.  Then I felt the dog die. (45)

March brings a kind of miracle: rain.  It rains so infrequently and water is so scarce, that everyone gets buckets and pots to gather as much as possible.  Most of the kids simply run around in it.  When it ends, Lauren says “I wonder how many years it will be before we see rain again.” (60).

But even in a time of relative pleasure, bad things happen–little Amy was shot by a stray bullet.  The funeral would be tough, especially for Lauren.

At the funeral Lauren confided in her friend Joanne Garfield.  She trusted Joanne and told her about her ideas–about God, about the future, and how maybe those who died were the lucky ones.  She tells Joanne she would love to get out of here.  But Joanne says there’s no where to go

Not is you don’t have money.  Not if all you know how to do is take care of babies and cook. (53)

But where would you go even if you had somewhere to go?  There’s cholera in Mississippi and a measles in New Jersey  Measles!

Surely Butler wasn’t anticipating anti-vaxxers, but in the real world, there was in the U.S. an uptick in cases of measles from 1990-1992.  But I credit her with some prediction:

From January 1 to December 31, 2019, 1,282* individual cases of measles were confirmed in 31 states. This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992. The majority of cases were among people who were not vaccinated against measles. Measles is more likely to spread and cause outbreaks in U.S. communities where groups of people are unvaccinated. 

The problem, according to Lauren is that the adults are waiting for the good old days to come back.  

I know there were climate change deniers back in the early 90s (like one who recently died and cleaned up the radio waves by doing so), but she is certainly on point with

Your father says he doesn’t believe people changed the climate in spite of what scientists say.  He says only God could change the world in such an important way.

The rain is a good example of the practical effects of the climate change though.

Lauren, an early prepper (well, early for 1993, not 2025), proposes making Emergency Packs, “Grab and Run” packs (shame she didn’t think of “go bags” as a phrase).

Then a few days later Lauren finds out that Joanne told Lauren’s father about what Lauren was saying.  What if she had said more than she did?  She can never trust Joanne again.  Her father has a serious talk with her.  He is is angry but mostly because he doesn’t want her to scare the others with her talk.  He’s also concerned that her bug-out bag would be a gift to a burglar–every thing he could want in one handy place.  So there’s no way he’s letting her put a gun in it.

But there’s more important things to worry about–like the thieves that broke into their garden. They have started a Neighborhood Watch program.  Certain families who don’t participate are, of course, under suspicion.

As the summer comes to an end, the biggest crisis comes from Lauren’s brother Keith.  Keith has always been a pain, acting older than he is.  He is also Lauren’s stepmother’s favorite child (he is one of her birth sons after all).  He gets away with a lot, but Lauren’s dad doesn’t give in.  Keith desperately wants to go for gun-handling training with the others but he is not old enough.  Their father knows Keith is not mature enough, as evidenced when Keith makes the pathetic argument that his sister is allowed to go and she’s a girl.  

Then one night he took the key to the gate that surrounds their community and snuck out of the walled in neighborhood.  He came back a few hours later, bloodied and beaten in only his underwear.  Worst of all is that the thieves now had a key.  The neighborhood watch had to keep surveillance until they could put up a new lock and get new keys made.  Their father is furious, as is most of the neighborhood.

But a few days later Keith was gone again.  This time he took a BB gun and was gone for a few days.  He came back with newer, nicer clothes than he went out with.  Their father beat him until he cried.

So he left again.  This time he snuck back in when their father was out.  He had a wad of cash which he gave to his mother.

As the section ends, he leaves again promising to be back and to bring presents (but not for his dad).

The next section is 2026.  This above scene happened in August 2025.  That means quite a lot will have happened for next week’s reading.

3 thoughts on “Bleakness

  1. Jeff Anderson March 27, 2021 / 4:21 pm

    I keep trying to figure out this dystopia, and I’d love to know what you think. How much do you think it boils down (ba-dum-dum) to climate change and how much is it multifactorial? There’s plainly a resource problem—although I’m unclear whether at root the problem is strictly an insufficiency of resources or more a problem of distribution. I mean, water is obviously the big shortage, and it’s pretty clear how that turns into a food issue too. But, like, jobs? Do the hyperinflation and lack of good (and good-paying) jobs ultimately come from the climate-refugee situation, or is it a converging crisis of terminal capitalism?

    I guess these aren’t necessarily even questions that matter, but Butler strikes me as meticulous enough that I’m at least curious about what extrapolations she made to get to this world.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston March 27, 2021 / 7:12 pm

    I’m hesitant to say too much, as I’m a little farther into the book than the current milestone, but I definitely feel like there’s more going on here than merely an insufficiency of resources. It’s not called this in the book, but a little later, we’ll even see a little intersectionality of hardship highlighted. Addiction seems a big problem in the society — rendering Lauren a sharer and leading to pyros who set things on fire. To me, it seems more like the crisis of terminal capitalism, and I think there’ll be some things a little later that’ll underscore that a bit more.

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