The Devil is in the Details

For me, it feels early yet to say much of substance about Parable of the Sower. It’s dystopian. It seems prescient, as Paul has noted. I think it’s not so far from our current reality, perhaps, as Paul suggests, though certainly it’s not quite our reality. I thought for example about “the talk” that Black children are given and wondered if the story didn’t offer a way into trying to understand what it might feel like if all kids (all people) had to live with that pervasive fear. That is, maybe the world does feel this dangerous, or nearly this dangerous, to Black people who are doing things as audacious as driving while Black, walking while Black, etc. The book was published in 1993; Rodney King was beaten by police in 1991. The police in Parable of the Sower seem little more inclined to administer justice than the L.A. police of 1991, or the Minneapolis police of 2020.

But I feel a little uneasy about presuming to say much more than that about the topic. It just feels a little weird for a reason I’m having trouble sussing out for myself, much less writing about coherently for you.

So, as is my way, I’m going to zoom in on a weird little detail and make much out of nothing.

I came to this detail by way of thinking about the epigraphs, which I sort of hate. Lots of sci-fi and fantasy books have these sorts of epigraphs — things that give little slices of the world that don’t exist precisely within the story. They add texture and a sense of sort of deep time and weight to the books when done well. But here they seem to me like so much nonsense — perhaps like the “deep thoughts” of a child trying to articulate a tolerable worldview in bleak times. I’ve wondered if Lauren is indeed some sort of philosopher or sage or whether she’s just a kid making up nonsense and calling it poetry. She expresses some doubts about this herself, and her father characterizes her as arrogant. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve taken a liking to Lauren. But the epigraphs really aren’t working for me so far.

Noodling on this brought me around to thinking about form or genre in general, which is one of my tics. This is a parable. So what is a parable exactly? It’s a simple story told to teach a lesson. Butler’s parable happens to build on and be named after the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13, which I won’t here attempt to interpret (though perhaps there’s some self-reflection I could do based on the parable given my thorny reception of Lauren’s verses). No, I’ll leave the hermeneutics here to fitter minds and turn my attention to word origins.

Parable. It’s a weird little word, short in length for its three lovely syllables. Sometimes I can pretty confidently figure out the approximate origin of a word based on its roots, but this one I wasn’t sure about. The words “parabola” and “palaver” came to mind, and as it turns out, the three are related. In geometry, a parabola is a comparison of a line relative to a fixed point, resulting in the familiar curve (I wonder, suddenly, how many parables we might find in Gravity’s Rainbow?). In story-telling, I suppose we’re looking at the comparison between the essentially straight line of the surface story relative to the fixed point of the lesson it aims to purvey. Maybe that’s too fanciful.

Going back a little farther in the origin of the word, we get to the Greek parabállein — meaning “to cast before” — of which the bállein part means “to reach by throwing, let fly, strike, put, place.” Ok, neat enough. Thinking of both math and story-telling put me in mind too of the hyperbola and of hyperbole, which seemed similarly fashioned. And it turns out that the bol part of all of these words comes from that same Greek root bállein. Given that a sower is one who casts seeds, then, the parable of the sower is, in a way, a casting before one who casts, which is not significant but is oddly satisfying.

The final word connection I’ll make here is one that surprised me — these words are all tangentially related to the word “devil.” It makes more sense when you think of the Spanish “diablo” or of “diabolical.” See that “bol” root again? The word comes ultimately from the same bállein plus dia, meaning “across.” The devil is the one who tries to sort of throw some obstacle across your path. This sidebar has nothing at all to do with the book but was a fun thing to discover.

I will, at last, make one observation about the book itself, which is that the Biblical parable of the sower is much more about the reaper than the sower. Where the sower’s seeds fall has an impact on how the seeds will grow, but Jesus connects the growth of the seeds to the recipient of scripture, so that the sower has little to do with the story at all. Butler seems so far to be doing something rather different, as the story is very much about Lauren as the sower of Earthseed. Of course in the end, it may turn out to be about the recipients of Lauren’s (and Butler’s?) scripture after all. We don’t yet know what will come of Lauren’s world, but as Paul points out, we’re already seeing how some of Butler’s warnings about our recent past and near future seem to be coming at least partially true. Maybe Butler’s book is ultimately about the recipient too.

8 thoughts on “The Devil is in the Details

  1. Jeff Anderson March 27, 2021 / 5:02 pm

    Well you know I’m here for talk about epigraphs. 🙂

    And I agree with you that these just…aren’t very good. (Your description of how they should work has me itching to reread Dune, though. Offhand, I don’t know of any book, sf or otherwise, that does them better.) The formatting makes them look like they’re supposed to be poetry, although the capitalization and line breaks seem pretty much random. And if paper is as much a commodity as it seems, I can’t imagine practical Lauren going with this columnar layout.

    As for the content… I mean, this is messianic fiction, right? My sense is that this book is probably the origin story of the prophet of Earthseed. It’s a hard enough sell for actual real-life “messiahs” to enthrall me; I’m generally pretty thorny ground for messianic fiction. (And yes, here’s Dune again, except Dune is a critique-in-action of messiahs and those who follow them, so…) I suppose Lauren hasn’t had any real exposure to Buddhism or Daoism, given the religious situation in her neighborhood (and family) and the contraction of educational/information networks. Hell, she’s notable for just being literate. But there is that “high schooler who’s just discovered intellectual autonomy” whiff to it, yeah?

    • Paul Debraski March 31, 2021 / 9:32 pm

      I don’t know enough about Butler–there’s an article about her in the March 15 New Yorker, which I’m putting off reading because it talks about Sower. I assume she’s big into pointing about hypocrisies in contemporary society–and that she’s using the future to point out our own flaws. But now I wonder if she is preaching/being messianic–is she offering a solution or just pointing out the problems. I have less trouble with the latter, although it does seem just like pointing out the obvious, I suppose.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston March 27, 2021 / 7:03 pm

    Dune was very much on my mind as I thought about the epigraphs here, and I agree that they’re marvelous.

    I agree with everything you’ve said here, but thinking this makes me uneasy. Like, am I just being sort of a snob? Is Butler maybe doing this on purpose? Perhaps in the follow-up book, we’ll see Lauren grow into maturity and write with more depth. Or does Butler just sort of have a tin ear? Or will this too turn out to be some sort of critique of the messianic gesture? I’ll be eager to see where this all heads.

  3. Paul Debraski March 31, 2021 / 9:28 pm

    Daryl, I think I’m with you on Epigraphs in general, although possibly I’m worse about them. I always read them, go hmmm, then immediately forget them. It makes me feel bad to think people have spent time finding the perfect one and I just blow it off.

    So in that respect, these didn’t bother me, because I didn’t think too much about them. Although I assumed they were Lauren’s way of puzzling out her ideas about earthseed. I didn’t think they were the finished product. Even less so with the second week’s read because so much of it still needs to be teased further out in her head.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston April 4, 2021 / 6:03 pm

      They bother me because they’re bad. I think that for good epigraphs, I do much as you do — read them and then sort of forget about them. But these are so bad that their badness sticks with me.

  4. Paul Debraski March 31, 2021 / 9:30 pm

    By the way, I loved the deep dive into “parable.” That was neat. Thanks.

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