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On Parable of the Sower: Themes from the Lit


This page draws some of the most interesting short observations and comments on Parable of the Sower from the critical literature (all articles, books, etc cited here are listed in the bibliography on the home page).  This is and always will  be a work in progress.

Just Say No to Utopia

Warfield, Angela. 2005. “Reassessing the Utopian Novel: Octavia Butler, Jacques Derrida, and the Impossible Future of Utopia.” Obsidian III 6/7 (2/1): 61-71,265.

[Quoting Octavia Butler]:  "I don't deal in Utopia. I deal in people. The other is so cartoonish, so unreal, it is not human"

Utopia Never Ends

Melzer, Patricia. 2002. “‘All That You Touch You Change’: Utopian Desire and the Concept of Change in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” Femspec 3 (2): 31.

. . . utopian formulations convey theoretical developments outside the norms of what we define as "theory," and create a window into the realm of the utopian imagination's relationship to politics. They remind us of the importance in feminist theories to develop utopian impulses, bell hooks' concept of yearning is one example of utopian desires articulated in feminist theory:

"[D]epths of longing, [...] a displacement for the longed-for liberation -- the freedom to control one's destiny "found in "folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice. [...] The shared space and feeling of `yearning' opens up the possibility of common ground where all these differences might meet and engage one another." (12-3)

Similarly, so is Audre Lorde's feminist re-definition of difference in Sister Outsider: "The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference" (123). Iris Young's "unoppressive city" of difference, a model that she develops in "The Ideal Community and the Politics of Difference" and that refutes the humanist ideal of sameness that characterizes traditional utopias, serves as an example of a utopian construction within theoretical discourse, and as a strategy for a feminist politics of difference. Its basic element is diversity, with new cultures, potential interests, and social experiences constantly transforming the environment in which people live. The ultimate goal is not to create unity through assimilation, but "openness to unassimilated otherness" . . .

Butler's fiction mirrors these theories' concern with feminist politics in that her utopian communities problematize the possibility of an "ideal community" and its vulnerabilities and problems. . . .

As a literary genre, utopian writings reflect and participate in the critical discourse on ideal communities, often reproducing the inherently dystopian concept of a homogenous enclosed community. 

What's Darwin got to do with it?

Canavan, Gerry. 2016. Octavia E. Butler. Baltimore: University of Illinois Press.

Earthseed is thus constituted by a Darwinian recognition of the eternal flux of life as well as a post -Darwinian attempt to seize control of that flux and apply it toward human ends, first and foremost the long-term longevity of the species as such. God is Change, Earthseed preaches; we must accommodate ourselves to change, adapt ourselves to it, or be burned alive by it.

Brown, Jayna. 2021. Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds. Duke University Press. .

Butler’s works are dominated by a particularly grim version of Darwinism at the same time as they consider biological forms of cooperation, symbiosis, and commensality. Butler’s narrative signature is the way her texts force these divergent forms of survival together. The result is an unrelenting tension between consent and coercion, compulsion, and repulsion

The Backstory: Insights from early drafts, letters, notes, etc.

Streeby, Shelley. Oct/Nov2018. “Radical Reproduction: Octavia E. Butler’s HistoFuturist Archiving as Speculative Theory.” Women’s Studies 47 (7): 719–32..

When Butler invented the figure of the HistoFuturist as an aspirational ideal in late 1981, she was still considering pursuing formal education, specifically to gain expertise in history, although she soon ambivalently abandoned that idea in favor of spending more time immersing herself in writing and self-directed research. . . . In 1989, when she briefly considered making the protagonist of the novel that would become Parable of the Sower an historian, she further reflected in one of her many notebooks that her own interests had been in “the history of science and nonwestern history,” as well as “Africa, the near and far east,” and “the middle east” (OEB 3240). . . Butler’s archiving activity is a kind of knowledge production, an apparatus for producing counter-historical narratives and forms of radical speculation that provide alternatives to dominant histories and ways of knowing. . . .Suddenly in November, at the top of a page, Butler writes the word “Histo-futureist” over a paragraph in which she wonders whether animism, the so-called primitive belief that all things possess souls, should be tried as an “advanced doctrine” for “living as a true part of the environment” rather than trying to “control” it and “pretending to be apart from and above” (OEB 3221).

It is notable that the figure of the HistoFuturist emerges in the context of Butler’s research on and ruminations about the destruction of the environment, an ongoing concern that intensified during the Reagan-Bush years and that was a major shaper of the Parable novels Butler started writing in the late 1980s. At the same time, Butler’s work as a materialist critical historiographer became much more abundant in the 1980s as she constellated and annotated newspaper stories and commented in her notebooks at a much more torrid pace in response to the political, economic, social, ecological, and global dimensions of the hard turn to the privatizing, tax-cutting right in the United States in the Reagan years. . . .She was already thinking about Parable of the Sower (1993), although the story did not really begin to take shape for her until the early 1990s, especially after the Los Angeles uprisings of 1992. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Butler constellated, annotated, and speculated on her extensive research on climate change, privatization, deregulation, the rise of transnational corporations and disposable workers, tax cuts, and the repressive efforts to roll back gains made by the civil rights, women’s, LGBTQ, and antiwar movements, to name a few key research topics.

What's Buffy Got To Do With It?

Badiou, Alain, and François Rabelais. 2009. “We’re Family: Monstrous Kinships, Fidelity, and the Event in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels.” In Life between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties, edited by Philip E. Wegner. Post-Contemporary Interventions.. Duke University Press.

On the one hand, these works are ideally suited for allegorical representations, where social, political, and cultural materials may be confronted in a way that simply would be too traumatic for much of its audience if tackled head-on. It is through these kinds of allegorical structures that much of the more readily acknowledged critical pedagogical agendas of these works unfold. Buffy in particular is exemplary in its use of these kinds of allegorical representations. The first few seasons of the series deployed an allegorical structure to offer a representation, far more effective than most televisual realisms, of the tribulations of high school, adolescence, and youth culture in the fin de siécle United States. . . 

Octavia Butler too has long used allegory as a way of shedding new light on significant social and political concerns. . . . The Parable novels . . . offer social and political allegories aimed directly at the present. . . 

While the allegorical dimension of these two texts offers the means of an effective critical engagement with the present—and again, in this displaced fashion, actually reaches a much wider audience than any straightahead social commentary might—it remains a fundamentally negative gesture, illuminating what might be most intolerable in our world without offering any effective vision of an alternative to it.

A trope is born?

Akinmowo, OlaRonke. 2019. “Octavia Taught Me/12 Things.” Women’s Studies 48 (1): 47–58.

Lauren Olamina is our fierce young Black female hero on a mission to build a better world and/or create pathways to a whole new one (I also believe that this series is instrumental in giving birth to the young badass female hero trope in modern dystopian style cinema and literature à la Hunger Games, Divergent, and so on).

From Sower to Talents

Gamber, John Blair. 2012. “‘Failing Economies and Tortured Ecologies':  Ocatvia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” In Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins, 25–56. Waste and Contamination in Contemporary U.S. Ethnic Literatures. University of Nebraska Press.

I argue that while Sower appears to have a utopian conclusion, Talents irrefutably shows it to be dystopian—a failure of misguided idealism. Specifically, the implicit critique of antiurbanism and flight that comprise the pastoral impulse and aesthetic we see in Sower becomes explicit in Talents. The primary failure of this impulse comes in the protagonist’s inability to recognize her role within a wide-reaching community or her fundamental connection to local and distant structures of power, oppression, and marginalization.

Today Tomorrow (in 1994)

New Internationalist. 1995. “Parable of the Sower,” May 1995.

Parable of the Sower is a disturbing dystopia, made more so by the fact that it's entirely plausible. What Butler has done is to extend and accelerate trends which are evident in the world today. Her harrowing description of a massacre is no more violent than recent events in Rwanda or Bosnia. The social decay she describes can be seen today in Somalia-and in LA. Slavery makes its comeback in the book-as it has in contemporary Northeast Brazil. And the public space is filled with desperately poor, homeless people who can only survive by stealing or killing.

Zaki, Hoda. 1994. “Future Tense.” The Women’s Review of Books 11 (10/11): 37–38.

What makes the book a particularly difficult read is realizing that, in many ways, our own society is not far removed from the one Butler imagines

Left of Parable?

Miller, Gavin. 2010. “Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower: The Third World as Topos for a U.S. Utopia.” In Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World: Essays on Postcolonial Literature and Film, edited by Ericka Hoagland and Reema Sarwal. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co

Butler’s depiction of a future U.S.A. is not so much a challenge to First World complacency as it is a projection of the U.S. imagination upon the geography of a failed state—an imaginary colonization that at once appropriates and renders anodyne the sufferings of the contemporary Third World. . . . Motifs from contemporary African history provide the backdrop and setting for an evolutionary fantasy in which American blood is distilled into a higher form of the human species better suited for eternal conquest of the cosmos. Neither Africa nor the U.S. is well served by this unfortunate combination of science fictional utopianism, contemporary world politics and American exceptionalism.

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