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This book is an almost prescient sci-fi imagining of what American society would look like in the midst of structural and societal collapse - one the Hot Earth publishing team thoroughly enjoyed.
Octavia Butler's experiences as a bookish African American woman growing up in pre- and post-segregation California shine through the text in strange ways. You might expect her to focus on the strengthening of racial divisions in a dying America, but instead she celebrates racial diversity and interracial collaboration as a tool for survival: hinting that it's our ability to work across racial divides and unite in diverse communities that will ultimately enable us to overcome the life-and-death struggles of a dangerous world. Unity and collaboration between races and genders is an evolutionary advantage in the world of Earthseed, and we loved the optimism with which Butler wrote unity into Lauren's harrowing journey.
We also found ourselves struggling to believe this book was written way back in 1996. Sitting here in Trump's America in January 2018 - with massive wildfires racing across the increasingly desertified Californian landscape, and income inequality reaching all-time highs - some of Butler's visions of a future America seem to be startlingly accurate. The book highlights the almost imperceptible, and yet steady, pace of societal decline and how individual people struggle to acknowledge and cope with that decline. Her characters cling to their understanding of "normalcy" and their walled village as long as they can - even though those characters know that, inevitably, their small enclave will fall to the unstoppable destructive forces on the other side of the wall.
There's an important message in this for contemporary Americans. We thought about the story of the toad that immediately jumps out when thrown into a pot of boiling water - but if that toad is already in the pot when the water temperature is slowly increased to boiling, it stays there, allowing itself to be gradually boiled alive. To what extent are we as Americans sitting in that water that is inevitably on its way to boiling, clinging to what we know is an imperfect society with deep-seated problems even as we see evidence of its decay around us?
Butler has a directive for us all within Parable of the Sower and within the message of Lauren's nascent Earthseed philosophy/religion - the moment we feel the water temperature increasing, we must be ready to jump out, to be proactive, to "shape" reality rather than letting it shape us in the language of Earthseed. Passivity is death. In Trump's America - as the degradation of the environment and our natural resources increases, as the distribution of wealth becomes more and more unequal, as forces celebrating racial and social division are empowered - we readers must find ways to be proactive in negating these forces. We can't simply wait within our walled village ignoring the signs. We must prepare - and act.
Five stars for this amazing work of science fiction from a truly unique American voice. There's a little post-apocalyptic sex in there too, for those of you who like a bit of romance and sensuality in your literature. We certainly do.
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