A More Diverse Universe – Octavia Butler

September 25, 2012 Book Reviews, Books 13

“There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.”

When Aarti announced her A More Diverse Universe Event, I instantly knew two things. One, that I was going to participate and two, I was going to read Octavia Butler. I first encountered Ms. Butler in 2009, when I listened to her novel Fledgling. While I was not crazy about the reader, I was crazy about the book. It felt like it had been ages since I read an original vampire novel, and Fledgling came out the same year as Twilight. I just found this out, because I just looked it up and I am flabbergasted. Of course, it IS silly of me to think the better book should have had all the success, isn’t it? *sigh* Somehow the book felt older to me; perhaps like a classic?

Needless to say, after reading Fledgling, I had to read more Butler. Aarti gave me the perfect excuse. Yet, which book to read? I had Kindred and Parable of the Sower, both of which I have heard great things about, so I did that time honored test of, which one can I not put down?

Parable of the Sower won, but only just barely.

Parable of the Sower is about Lauren Olamina, a young 18-year-old black woman growing up in what is basically a dystopian landscape. The year is 2025. Global warming, pollution, political machinations, all kinds of stuff have come together to basically cause a worldwide decline. The area of Los Angeles Lauren lives in is one of the safer ones, thanks to high walls that surround her community. Still, adults and children are killed with little retaliation from the police, drugs run rampant, the homeless line the streets, and water and food are precious. Lauren has what Butler termed “hyperempathy” a genetic condition that cause her to experience the pain of others as true as her own. When she has to kill a wild dog to protect herself and her companions, she feels that dogs’ death has almost a physical blow to herself. As you can imagine, this “gift” is not the best thing to have while living in such a violent and cruel society.

Lauren is well educated, thanks to her father, the pastor, and her step-mother, who is a teacher. Perhaps thanks to her hyperempathy, she recognizes that her little community doesn’t have a lot of time. She wants to prepare for the worst; their leaving the compound and their home. She convinces her father, but it’s too little, too late. Their compound is invaded by the Paints, drug crazed people who love to burn things down. Lauren and a few other refugees join together to try to find somewhere safe to live. Already, Lauren has been developing a ‘philosophy’ of seeing God as change, and along her travels, she further develops her ideas.

From the start, this book felt more..real…than some dystopian novels I’ve read. Having our downfall as ourselves, not aliens, not some government accident unleashing a virus that turns humanity into zombies/dead/vampires/whatever, immediately makes the novel more powerful. Butler’s world is violent, dirty, and yet hopefully at the same time. And she’s a master of diversity. In Lauren’s little enclave, it felt like every race was accounted for and, what’s more, they all worked together. Sure, they fell to the crazies, but they worked together up until the end, sharing food, time, skills, and more.  Butler’s voice is full of warmth and kindness, despite her gritty subject. Throughout the story, you can feel her hope that humanity can turn things around, even has she’s writing their downfall. It’s beautiful.

My old TINY problem was Lauren’s religion. She calls it Earthseed and, as I said, it’s key tenet is “God is change.” I didn’t have a problem with the religion, per say, my main problem was feeling preached too. Lauren gets a little heavy handed, which to me made her religion come off feeling more like a cult. Part of me recognizes that in that situation (you know, life or death) I’d probably get a little crazy about my beliefs too, yet it still got under my skin a little bit. Just a minor quibble. Here is a poem from the text that shows what Lauren means by saying God is change pretty well, I think. Plus, it’s rather lovely, isn’t it?

The child in each of us
Knows paradise.
Paradise is home.
Home as it was
Or home as it should have been.

Paradise is one’s own place,
One’s own people,
One’s own world,
Knowing and known,
Perhaps even
Loving and loved.

Yet every child
Is cast from paradise-
Into growth and new community,
Into vast, ongoing
Change.

Parable of the Sower is the first part of the Earthseed series, the second is Parable of the Talents. In reading about the book, I found that Butler had intended to write a third, called Parable of the Trickster, but writer’s block prevented her from finishing it. I am sad the world lost Butler too early, but at least I have a few more books of hers to explore.

Check out more books on the More Diverse Universe event over at Aarti’s blog. Here is the entire schedule.

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13 Responses to “A More Diverse Universe – Octavia Butler”

  1. Aarti

    I have not even HEARD about this book by Butler! I think it sounds fascinating, but like you, I think I’d be turned off by the religion thing and the preaching. How interesting that Butler was kind of preaching about a religion that doesn’t really exist.

  2. Charlie

    Interesting that the book is preaching a religion that isn’t. I suppose some of the values would translate in our world? Otherwise it does sound good. I’m trying to think of the dystopians I’ve read recently, and whilst they have a bit of the world going bad due to the regular people, the emphasis is indeed on the government, so this one is intriguing.

  3. sakura

    One of my friends recommended this this book to me when I mentioned I had never read anything by Butler. Subsequently she gave me a copy of Wild Seeds which I’m looking forward to reading. But this is already on my wishlist and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to trying it one day!

  4. Jessica

    This is one of the few Butler’s I haven’t read. I feel like I have to stretch my reading of her books out since there aren’t going to be anymore. :(

  5. Tanya Patrice

    I read this book too because of this event and loved it. It’s definitely complex, and like you said, the World felt so real – like it’s a very possible future. The fake religion thing – I probably could have done without, although I really didn’t mind it too much, but yes, it did get a bit preachy.

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