Octavia E. Butler is well known for some of her short stories, garnering two Hugo's and a Nebula. Renowned for her magnificently wrought characters, her stories often feature a black female protagonist, and her work has often been hailed as some of the best of black literature.
The thing that really springs to mind during the reading of her novels is the fact that it's not black literature. Don't be scared off by thinking her writing has strong overtones of racial discovery of sexual bias, in the end, what her novels come down to is wonderful fiction, in which some characters just happen to be black. 'Parable of the Sower' is a perfect example of this, a leviathan of science fiction, expertly weaved around the human condition.
The story begins in the near future of America. American civilization has degenerated quickly over the last few generations, and now crime is rampant, food is scarce, and inflation is out of control. Now, suburbia exists in walled communities, protected by families banding together for survival. Lauren Olamina lives in one such community, where her father is the local preacher, and a strong man. Lauren is also an empath, meaning she is closely tied to the pain and pleasure of others. Yet, in her current world, this means more often than not, it's pain she has to share.
The community is a close one, with most, but not all of the families being of black or hispanic descent. Tightly knit together by necessity, adolescents are trained in the use of firearms, and manage to live in relative peace. The outside world however, is disintegrating quicker every day. Government authority is weakening, and rampant drug use is sweeping California. Soon, violence will sweep over her community, and Lauren will be forced to abandon it.
The story traces Laruen's journey through America, along with companions she meets along the way. They are headed for Canada, or even the North, in search of work and safety. In the meanwhile, they must be constantly aware of the violent world they are traveling through, and keep a close eye on finances, and perhaps more importantly, weapons. Civilization has degraded, and although authority remains in some places, it is often times more brutal than not. Time and time again Lauren and her friends must fight for the lives, or run for them.
An integral piece of the story is religion. Laruen has begun to create her own views on God and man's place in the world. She eventually calls her new outlook 'Earthseed', with the essential ideal that 'God is Change'. Throughout the novel we come across short explanations of the basic tenets, or religious discussions between characters concerning the new religions. Each chapter and section is opened with a short, and often puzzling, quote from Earthseed. Throughout her journey, Lauren becomes something of a messiah, a prophet of Earthseed. She draws people to her, essentially disciples, and soon forms the beginning of a new religion.
Although enlightening, the religious messages are sometimes overbearing, and cast the book in a religiously metaphorically light. Of course, there is fair warning, as the title of the book is 'Parable of the Sower'. Though a little burdened by religious overtones, they do nothing to take away from the fictional essence of the book, and do manage to add some to it with intriguing insights. True to Butler's style, the characters are wonderfully created and maintained. Lauren is one of the most thoroughly explored characters in recent fictional history, and Butler has left no rock unturned in providing motivation and explanation for all events and actions. Happily enough, her attention on Lauren does not make for a cast of shallow characters. Although none are developed as strongly as her, each supporting character is carefully fleshed out to provide a solid backdrop for an amazing protagonist.
Finally, the novel itself is laid out in what's becoming a more and more unusual form. It's comprised simply of Lauren's journal entries. It's not something we see often in contemporary fiction, but I'm sure some of you remember 'Z for Zachariah', another wonderful book of post-apocalyptic America. Books based on the Journal method are only appropriate for strong, singular characters, and both of these qualify. Especially in 'Parable of the Sower' the format allows for excellent foreshadowing, and more thorough development of the principal character. This allows for a wonderful sense of realism, creating a stunningly believable picture of a not so distant future.