Parable of the Torso?

Paul asks a great question: How would you read Parable of the Sower if you didn’t know there was a sequel? And I hate to have to say it, but I think I would read it as incomplete.

On the level of just plot (what Paul describes in a comment as the day-to-day stuff)—well, let’s say incident—I think the story’s actually pretty neatly laid out. This is Lauren; this is Lauren’s family; this is Lauren’s home; family and home are taken from Lauren and she has to find new ones; Lauren makes a new family and a new home. Ta-da. On those terms, I don’t need a sequel!

But everywhere along the way, this book is striving toward a farther future than 2027. Paul’s had his eye on that Mars mission we heard so tantalizingly little about, and Lauren’s explicitly trying to found a religion (which is a legacy kind of project, obviously), and the group she gathers does found a community (another legacy kind of project). Lauren’s been planning for a significant portion of her life for how to live after her neighborhood inevitably falls, not just how to get to someplace else that’s safe.

I’m not saying that I don’t want a book to have a sense of in some way continuing past the back cover (I’d have a biiiiiig problem with Infinite Jest if that were the case). It’s good when the characters and situations live vibrantly enough in me that I can imagine what I’m not shown! But I want that feeling to come from the coherence and vividness of the characterization and writing, not from an obligation to pick up a bunch of dropped threads. That’s where I don’t think Parable of the Sower stands alone very well.

I asked a couple weeks ago whether this is messianic fiction, and I still do think that it casts Lauren as a messiah—she sets out to become one on purpose. Frankly, I was surprised when Gray and Doe joined her band; with Emery and Tori, they were up to a count of Lauren plus eleven, so I fully expected just a single follower, to total them up to an even dozen disciples. (Then Jill died, and I was all, “A-ha! Here’s our twelve, and clearly Grayson will be the Judas.”) That’s a me problem, not a Butler problem, of course, but it’s a sign of how loudly I felt that bell was being rung—and then they find a place to settle and the book’s over. Lauren has her intentions, but not a sect yet. For any reasonable exposition of how Earthseed develops, after she’s spent so much energy consolidating it, there had to be another book.

It sure seems like some of that development needs to happen on Mars, doesn’t it? There’s a Mars mission! (I don’t mean to keep poking you about this, Paul; I’m genuinely tickled that it put a burr under your saddle and I forgot all about it except for your curiosity. I guess this is what my gratitude looks like?) And Earthseed’s Destiny—with a capital D, even—is “to take root among the stars,” explicitly to spread Earthlife to other worlds. That’s a great big Chekhov’s Spaceship…that never launches.

Now’s the time when I want to reiterate that I’m talking about how I would read this book, in the counterfactual case that I didn’t know it has a sequel. Because it sure sounds like I’m dumping on it, when I actually enjoyed reading it. It’s just that I’m reading it as “book one.” And as book one, it’s got me excited for book two!

Sculptor and Clay

Having finished Parable of the Sower, I still have no idea how to receive the character and the teachings of Lauren Olamina. Looking back at the foreword by N.K. Jemisin after finishing the book, I was a little heartened to read this:

Lauren Olamina no longer felt anachronistically know-it-all to me, as she had when I’d first sampled the novel. (She always read to me as an older woman’s idea of what a smart teenager should be, rather than a realistic rendering of what smart teenagers are actually like.)

This doesn’t precisely capture my feelings about Lauren, though it comes close to capturing what bugs me about the epigraphs, which is that they feel kind of half-baked or faux-prophetic, so that I don’t know whether to receive them as if they’re a sort of scripture to revere or whether to receive them as if they’re a kid’s attempt to write a scripture to be revered. That is, I’m not clear on whether the crummy writing is Lauren’s or Butler’s. I’ve had similar thoughts about other books before — “is this a case of an unreliable narrator or does the author just not know how to write consistently from the speaker’s point of view?”

Jemisin writes in the foreword about reading Butler’s parable books at different times in her life and getting different things from them at each time. She certainly values Butler’s work, and her foreword makes me want to revisit the books a decade or two in my future. Meanwhile, I think I’ll content myself with putting aside further attempts to puzzle out intent vs. effect of the epigraphs.

I’ll go one step further and identify something positive I gained from the epigraphs. There is a quote from the epigraph at the top of chapter 22 that stood out to me in this week’s reading:

God
Is both creative and destructive,
Demanding and yielding,
Sculptor and clay.

Reading this was sort of a record-scratch moment for me, as it brought to mind two lines of poetry I’ve tumbled around together in my mind in association with one another for twenty-some years. The first is the closing line of Yeats’s “Among School Children“:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The other is a line from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?

This notion of art and artist inseparable, articulated beautifully in these rhythmic questions, has always stuck with me, and I must’ve repeated these lines to myself a few hundred times over the years if only for the comfort of pronouncing the syllables.

I have no great revelation to share about these quotes. Butler’s phrase just stood out to me and made satisfying connections to some other things I had read.

As for the book as a whole? I liked it. It’s grim, but I like grim. And there’s hope, but I don’t think it’s wide-eyed, unbridled hope. There’s also a lot left on the table. What more might we learn about sharers in Parable of the Talents? Will Acorn turn into an oasis and counterpoint to Olivar or will it be scavenged and burned again? Will more be made of Olivar? Will Earthseed take hold? Will Lauren wind up among the stars? I haven’t read Parable of the Talents and am eager to begin.

A High-Five for Travis

I was so gratified to see Travis testing Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy. (Religion? I mean, yes, but is it yet?) I’d had some similar questions myself, and it was pretty clear that Lauren wasn’t going to just engage them in her journal. She’s got better things to do with her time. But it should have occurred to me that someone she met would do the asking for me. Plato gave Butler the dialogic tools for it a couple thousand years ago.

That conversation between Lauren and Travis got me thinking more about Earthseed itself, though, and what we know of it. Principally, that’s the epigraphs—which we’ve talked a little about already. But looking back on the disappointment we expressed there, I see that mine is pretty firmly rooted in reading them as literature. That’s certainly a legitimate way to read parts of a novel! (He says, understating the case.) But they’re not part of the narrative here, they’re sort of in-world apparatus to the text. So they’re susceptible to a reading for that function too, their Watsonian value as scripture. So I guess I’m doing exegesis this week! Or at the very least, taxonomy.

Chapter 1 starts with actually a pretty strong couple verses: “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God Is Change.” That’s actually just pretty straightforwardly good Buddhist philosophy, and focuses on the interconnectedness of everything. A pretty good summary of Earthseed, I expect. Except then suddenly the word “God” shows up, and I agree with Travis: Why? Lauren’s answer is essentially a matter of durability and social engineering (shades of the Bene Gesserit), but I’m not convinced. I mean, personally I’m not convinced by any argument about God; but the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is good and enduring, and it doesn’t couch its exhortations in terms of a god. Compare the Ten Commandments to the Eightfold Path: one is an authority telling you how to circumscribe your behavior, the other is guidelines for measuring yourself against yourself and striving to improve. It’s not clear to me that the introduction of the concept of God strengthens Earthseed.

It strikes me that for a book named after one of Jesus’s parables, we don’t get any parables from the Book of the Living. We get close a couple times, with Chapter 6 (“Drowning people / Sometimes die / Fighting their rescuers.”) and Chapter 14 (“In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / First / Must / Burn.”), but notice that neither of them uses a definite article. A parable, as Daryl said, is a simple story, but it’s also a specific story. Take the Chapter 6 epigraph, for instance. In the form of a parable, it would be a simple little story about a person who was drowning and thrashed so hard that their would-be rescuers were unable to hold onto them and pull them back to shore. Not some nebulous drowning people, whom it’s difficult to identify with, but a specific person. (Notice that it’s the Parable of the Sower, not a Sower.) The more elliptical statements in Lauren’s Book of the Living are more distant, more abstractly philosophical. They seem to invite an either/or kind of understanding—”I get it!” or “I don’t”—rather than the experiential sort of process that a parable, with its conscription of narrative, takes devotees through.

More effective, I think, are the more direct verses, by which I mean Chapters 2 (“A gift of God / May sear unready fingers.”), 5 (“Belief / Initiates and guides action— / Or it does nothing.”), 8 (“To get along with God, / Consider the consequences of your behavior.”), and 15 (“Kindness eases Change”). They’re not trying to gussy up any of their meaning, and they’re not meant as koans or contemplative prompts; they’re telling the faithful of Earthseed how to be. Be ready, be active, be thoughtful, be kind. This is the moral philosophy of Earthseed, where the scripture tells readers how to be good according to their beliefs.

Chapter 13 (“There is no end / To what a living world / Will demand of you.”) isn’t quite the same type, to me, but it’s one of my favorites, and there is some relationship. It’s more about a mindset than any specific practice or trait to cultivate, which is also the case with Chapters 3 (“We do not worship God. / We perceive and attend God. / We learn from God. / With forethought and work, / We shape God. / In the end, we yield to God. / We adapt and endure, / For we are Earthseed / And God is Change.”), 4 (“A victim of God may, / Through learning adaptation, / Become a partner of God, / A victim of God may, / Through forethought and planning, / Become a shaper of God. / Or a victim of God may, / Through shortsightedness and fear, / Remain God’s victim, / God’s plaything, / God’s prey.”), and 11 (“Any Change may bear seeds of benefit. / Seek them out. / Any Change may bear seeds of harm. / Beware. / God is infinitely malleable. / God is Change.”). These verses are emphasizing the way to understand the world around you, the wisdom counterpart to the previous category’s praxis.

There’s a sort of cosmological/sociological strain too, which seems to me the weakest of all of the epigraphs: Chapters 7 (“We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe, Godseed is all there is—all that Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads Earthlife to new earths. The universe is Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”), 9 (“All struggles / Are essentially / power struggles. / Who will rule, / Who will lead, / Who will define, / refine, / confine, / design, / Who will dominate. / All struggles / Are essentially power struggles, / And most are no more intellectual / than two rams / knocking their heads together.”), 10 (“When apparent stability disintegrates, / As it must— / God is Change— / People tend to give in / To fear and depression, / To need and greed. / When no influence is strong enough / To unify people / They divide. / They struggle, / One against one, / Group against group, / For survival, position, power. / They remember old hates and generate new ones, / They create chaos and nurture it. / They kill and kill and kill, / Until they are exhausted and destroyed, / Until they are conquered by outside forces, / Or until one of them becomes / A leader / Most will follow, / Or a tyrant / Most fear.”), and 17 (“Embrace diversity. / Unite— / Or be divided, / robbed, / ruled, / killed / By those who see you as prey. / Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”). These are the ones, honestly, where I wish we had parables instead. They’re just so…diagnostic. “This is the way the world is.” Well that’s a lot of cases to try to cover. They would be rhetorically stronger, I think, and more scripturally effective, if they were told as stories that exemplified the themes but showed the counterexamples as well, for followers to identify with. It’s easy enough to think of how it could be done; hell, off the top of my head, Chapter 17 could be about two farmers, one practicing monoculture and one crop diversification, or two villages, one insular and disproportionately affected by a genetic disease and another constantly welcoming newcomers and making the whole genetic pool more robust. Better than “Embrace diversity or be destroyed.”

Lauren’s building a mindfulness component into her doctrine, too. Chapters 12 (“We are Earthseed / The life that perceives itself / Changing.”) and 16 (“Earthseed / Cast on new ground / Must first perceive / That it knows nothing”) both have a real humility and depth to them in terms of rooting the practice of Earthseed—whatever it is—in the center of your being. Who you are, what you’re experiencing, what you know, what you don’t. It keeps you in communication with yourself and challenges you to be connected and honest. Clearly Earthseed is going to be cast on new ground—there’s a Destiny—and so some of this is about preparing those travelers for success. But all of life is a journey, it says; anywhere is new ground.

And then there’s the one that truly made me scoff when I read it: Chapter 18 (“Once or twice / each week / A Gathering of Earthseed / is a good and necessary thing. / It vents emotion, then / quiets the mind. / It focuses attention, / strengthens purpose, and / unifies people.”). (It is, of course, also the chapter in which Lauren gets her first convert. This is not a coincidence.) It seems so…paltry. It’s not “here’s how to be a good person,” it’s not “here’s how societies are structured but shouldn’t be,” it’s not “know thyself”—it’s “have church a couple times a week, for these specific reasons.” But then I realized something that I think is actually really neat about this one, more than any of the others. This particular set of verses is about how to establish an Earthseed community. It’s the rules of the early church, not doctrine but management. More than any of the other epigraphs, it gives a vision into the process of Earthseed turning from one girl’s ideas into a community and presumably then a movement and a religion. There are things like this in the Christian New Testament too, what seem like finicky little details on how to run services or to operate a church. They’re not really instructions on how to worship; “once or twice” is entertainingly vague for scripture. But what Lauren needs if Earthseed is going to grow is for it to spread. She needs Earthseed communities to sprout in more places than just wherever she is, and for them to have a shared identity. Now that I’m reading this epigraph as community consolidation rather than scheduling, I can’t help feeling like it would be such an interesting one for future historians of Earthseed to use in re-creating the early communities of their faith, and that just tickles me.

Intersectionality

Probably you’ve heard of intersectionality. But maybe you haven’t. I hadn’t until the past few years. It’s a metaphor coined by law professor and anti-racist activist Kimberlé Crenshaw that helps describe compounded disadvantages. You could find far worse ways to spend 7 minutes than to listen to her explain the metaphor and its origin here. Go watch it if you haven’t run across the term before. I’ll wait. (I started trying to briefly explain it, but Crenshaw is so eloquent on it that my ham-fisted attempt to render it in my own words seemed folly.)

Photo by Joey Lu from Pexels

We see lots of compounded disadvantage in The Parable of the Sower. There’s sexism, classism, racism, and other bigotry on display. People who can’t read are further disadvantaged. Lauren is especially interesting, as she is a Black woman (there’s a familiar intersection there), but she’s also a sharer. This compounds her disadvantage by making it very difficult for her to even defend herself effectively, since if she does so, she’ll knock herself down with empathetic pain when she knocks down any assailant. It’s a particularly nasty disadvantage that reminded me of Dana’s double bind in Kindred; if Dana didn’t rescue Rufus, she would be undoing herself, recall.

We see some other little glimpses of intersectionality when Lauren and Zahra and Harry leave their neighborhood. Lauren disguises herself as a man to rid herself of the disadvantage of clearly being a woman. They joke about Harry getting a tan so that he can rid himself of the disadvantage of being a member of a mixed-race party.

There are of course actual paved intersections in the book. On page 197 in my edition (early in chapter 17), Lauren and company move from the 118 to the 23 freeway. There’s a big fire nearby, and there’s also the danger of a water station as they transition, approximately through this intersection. These dangers are in play all along their route, but it struck me that Butler brought these two elemental opposite dangers together as these freeways converged.

Just a few pages later (same section, page 203 in my edition), the party comes to the beach and has moved from the 23 to the 101, which runs all the way through California heading north and which they’ll follow as far as they can. It’s at approximately this intersection that they team up with the small family — a Black man, a Latina, and their child who have their own disadvantages. And it’s at about the time these groups come together in spite of their shared caution that things really start clicking with Lauren’s Earthseed ideas. She gets, she thinks, her first convert in Travis Charles Douglas, the father in their group of new companions. It was at the one intersection that Lauren helped the family and after banding together at about the time of the second freeway intersection that sharing their struggle made the whole group stronger.

My impression is that Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality was mostly limited to legal circles in its first few years, which would have coincided with Butler’s work on Parable of the Sower. So I don’t mean to suggest that Butler is picking up what Crenshaw was putting down and dramatizing it. Intersections have been symbols going way back before Crenshaw and Butler ever put pen to paper. Still, it’s a neat convergence, especially in a chapter whose epigraph reads, in part, “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”

There’s a lot more going on in this section than this tenuous connection to critical race theory. We’re learning more about Lauren’s belief system. The stuff about entropy was pretty neat to run across. Lauren acknowledges that it’s weird to personify a belief system as a deity and explains why she chose to do so (it’s pragmatic, basically). I had been wondering, so I’m glad she answered. We see a budding romance and some attendant tension, and we see Harry betray Lauren’s pronouns (is this a sort of thoughtless microaggression, I wonder?), and I sure wonder how that’s going to come back later. And we learn more about Lauren’s vision for Earthseed, which is, somehow, “to take root among the stars,” which connects back to the Mars mission she thinks about early in the book. So we’re seeing, perhaps, a turn away from apocalypse fiction and toward science fiction, which is beginning to whet my appetite for Parable of the Talents.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Seems like we’re sort of all in the same boat responding to this first chunk of reading in The Parable of the Sower: It’s only Act I, so we’ve got both too much and too little to work with. But I’m also about to give y’all whiplash, going from my rah-rah explorations with Kindred to holding my nose on the way into this book (but looking forward to it anyway, because Butler is a great read). And yet.

Here’s my question, underlain by my personal tastes, but it’s an honest question: What is the purpose of apocalypse fiction?

I’m specifically making a distinction between apocalypse fiction and postapocalyptic fiction, because I totally get the point—and the appeal (which is a different thing)—of the conjectures and experiments that postapocalyptic fiction allows. How might human societies be reorganized after a sea change in certain structures or resources or conditions? Good question, with so many knobs and parameters to fiddle with! It’s one of the versions of the question “What if?” that I mentioned at the beginning of this IZ go-round, which sf as a literary approach is made for answering.

I suspect that’s where we’re going with these Earthseed books, but it’s not where we are. Right now we’re in the slow-motion apocalypse itself. And sure, the details may differ from example to example, but this story always goes the same way, right? It’s an inevitable descent, at one speed or another, into a Hobbesian nightmare of warring clans under the law of the jungle.

So: Why? Given the formula, and the straight-up misery and panic that always accompany the apocalypse, I’m skeptical of an argument for aesthetic pleasure. (Although I’m open to hearing one!) Does it have an instrumental function, then? Is it a pessimistic prediction? An Old Testament–style prophecy? Or is there even truly such a thing as apocalypse fiction as distinct from just the incipit of a postapocalyptic story? Is it just an extended buildup to the postapocalyptic part, giving us time with the characters on their way to the real meat of the story?

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.