Skip to Main Content

On Parable of the Sower: Octavia Butler's Genres


This page identifies several genres that critics have identified with Parable, and includes short extracts that describe the genre and/or shows how the genre connects with Parable or Butler's work more generally.  The Bibliographer has not tried to define genre, and is not all that concerned with whether or not each genre identified is truly a genre, although that could be a fun game to play.  For a breezy introduction to what genre is, try this.

This is a work in progress.


Brooks, Lonny J. Avi. 2018. “Cruelty and Afrofuturism.” Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies 15 (1): 101–7. .

Afrofuturism combines science fiction and fantasy to reexamine how the future is currently imagined, and to reconstruct futures thinking with a deeper insight into the black experience, especially as slavery forced Africans to confront an alien world surrounded by colonial technologies.[ 1] Afrofuturism is born out of cruelty, and that cruelty of the white imagination was a necessary condition out of which the African diaspora had to reimagine its future. Rhetorically, Afrofuturism aims to reclaim and transform the trauma of past atrocities against the black and Afro-queer diaspora. Think of the Middle Passage as a science fiction horror where black people were transported from western Africa, the home planet of the black diaspora, and where previously unseen technologies of transportation and bondage were used to dislocate, kidnap large numbers of people to a new world.[ 2] In this world, they had to innovate, adapt, capitulate, succumb, and rebuild their former lives and traditions. The Black Panther comics, for example, reflect an Afrofuturist reimagining of African futures through its superhero T’Challa and the technologically advanced and secret nation of Wakanda.[ 3] The white cruelty ironically served as the pathway to Afrofuturism and the imagining of more powerful futures for the black diaspora

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

Afrofuturism takes as its main force a temporal propulsion. The term recognizes the ways African diasporans have long understood the sense of fracturing, disorientation, and alienation associated with modernity and holds an epistemology of the future that challenges a linear Western model of progress. Improvised uses of science and technology, coupled with references to arcane and ancient African and Asian forms of knowledge and culture, refuse Western historical time, based in Greco-Roman origins and the idea that the most advanced civilizations are European. I am interested in this disruption, for instance, in the way Sun Ra’s music troubles time. As Kodwo Eshun puts it, Afrofuturism is a “program for recovering the histories of counter-futures.”38 Afrofuturism’s evocation of the future is a powerful way to estrange us from the present and trouble linearity. The concept of Afrofuturism is most notable for resisting disciplinary boundaries and remaining an amorphous category that refers to a wide and eclectic range of collective black artistic practices. It can, however, in some cases, desiccate into a shallow term of surface and style rather than remaining an inquiring concept.

Disability Literature

Cheyne, Ria. 2019. Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction. Liverpool: University Press.

. . . Where there is no conflict between the reader’s conceptualisation of disability and the way it features within a particular genre text— including the way it makes them feel—the reflective process comes to an end. Often, though, there is a misfit, where the representation of disability in the text does not harmonise with the reader’s understanding of disability or of genre. Garland-Thomson proposes the misfit as a new critical keyword for disability studies: a misfit ‘describes an incongruent relationship between two things’, but the problem ‘inheres not in either of the two things but rather in their juxtaposition’ (‘Misfits’ 592–93, 593). . . .

. . . Genre fiction is therefore particularly suited to producing what I term reflexive representations of disability: representations which encourage the reader to reflect upon what they understand about disability and potentially to rethink it. Because dominant perceptions of disability in contemporary western culture are still generally framed in terms of loss, lack, and tragedy, such reflection has transformative potentials at both individual and social levels.

Hinton, Anna. 2018. “Making Do with What You Don’t Have: Disabled Black Motherhood in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 12 (4): 441–57.

The article analyzes themes of black motherhood through the lens of disability in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). It positions the series’ protagonist, Lauren Olamina, as a maternal figure with a disability, and argues that her experiences reveal how ableism is used to devalue motherhood in the text. The article connects with larger discourse on controlling images about black mothers such as the “crack mother,” a contemporary image with roots in US slavery. It then argues that because
of her complex embodiment, Lauren emerges as a strong, black mother figure who births a religion, Earthseed, and carves a space, Acorn, that resists this dominant narrative. Reading Lauren’s character in this manner allows scholars to see the connection between, and
address issues concerning, the stereotypes of the strong black woman and the supercrip. The article ends by saying that Butler’s text suggests a way to grapple with the thorny relationship between black studies theory and disability theory.

Schalk, Sami. 2018. “The Future of Bodyminds, Bodyminds of the Future.” In Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Duke University Press.

Throughout the novels hyperempathy is experienced as disabling and understood as a disability by those characters who have it. Hyperempathy is also mostly understood as a disability by medical professionals and most other characters without hyperempathy. As a result, throughout this chapter I refer to Lauren’s hyperempathy as her disability even while discussing how other scholars have interpreted hyperempathy in the novels. Most of the scholars I cite here, however, do not use the term disability at all. Instead, they tend to refer to hyperempathy as an affliction, condition, or disease—language that resides in the medical model of disability and is counter to the work of the disability rights movement to understand disability as simultaneously social, relational, and material . . .

. . . The representation of hyperempathy in the Parable novels theorizes the possibilities and meanings of bodyminds, especially disabled bodyminds, in a number of important ways which require a change in how we read and analyze these texts and their implications. The series resists preconceived notions about disability, emphasizes the importance of context to understanding a person’s experience of disability, and, finally, challenges the assumed inherently progressive value of a technologically created, disability-free future. As a result, this series demonstrates another way that black women’s speculative fiction imagines (dis)ability differently—indeed makes us interpret (dis)ability differently—and the benefit of such reimagining to not only theories of (dis)ability, but also theories of race and gender.

Cli Fi (Climate Fiction)

Ramuglia, River. 2018. “Cli-Fi, Petroculture, and the Environmental Humanities: An Interview with Stephanie LeMenager.” Studies in the Novel 50 (1): 154–64.


In your essay “The Humanities after the Anthropocene,” you attribute the rise of cli-fi as a popular genre to the sociological phenomenon of “genre trouble,” whereby a genre emerges because “the affective expectations we hold for how things unfold, in art and life, do not make sense anymore” (476). It seems that, in your view, cli-fi is a useful way of getting environmental topics into the news, but might also risk simplification or evasion of the climate crisis. How are writers navigating—or perhaps breaking out of—the boundaries of this genre? 


Cli-fi is more interesting to me than simply as a way of getting climate change into the news—and under the “safe house” of fiction, although it does that, and I see that as a social good. Primarily I find cli-fi fascinating as a sociological phenomenon because the excitement about it, the fact that it has spawned such a fervent fan community and media interest, suggests to me that, on some level, the mainstream media and perhaps a broader public than the arts faculty believe that fiction is a survival strategy. As in: cli-fi might pattern for us a new way of being human and living in a world without the benefits of Holocene climate. As a person who has taught literature for over twenty years, I was shocked to see the press pick up cli-fi to the extent that the New York Times would appear in my class at the University of Oregon on the pretext (more or less) that a new kind of novel might save the world. In part, cli-fi draws upon the charismatic subcultural lifestyles spawned by science fiction, one of its parent genres. If we consider that science fiction acts more as a way of life than as a genre per se, that sci-fi communities have grown up around book clubs, workshops, fan fiction, festivals, multiplayer games, and environmental causes like Peak Oil—as my colleague Matthew Schneider Mayerson has written about—then the relationship of cli-fi to social action is easier to see. However, not all cli-fi novels are clearly related to science fiction, not all are futuristic, not all are dystopian or utopian. Novels like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Saci Lloyd’s YA Carbon Diaries series, or even Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and Light—which is about fracking—give us complex realism for the Anthropocene, making clear that critics have exaggerated how problems of scale make it impossible to write a realist novel about either climate change or petroculture. Moreover, realist cli-fi with dystopian or futurist elements—such as Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle, George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, and Karl Taro Greenfeld’s satiric novel The Subprimes—makes crucial contributions to our understanding of the interrelationships of colonialism, racism, neoliberalism, and climate...



. . .  a maternal critique of Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Talents overshadows the more positive portrayal of her independence and leadership in Parable of the Sower. Despite the potential of a speculative society and her feminist interests, Octavia Butler is unwilling or unable to visualize the full fruition of gender equality.

Shahnavaz, Delia. 2017. “Earthseed Planted: Ecofeminist Teachings in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal 9 (2): 40–46. .

Butler shapes her story around the rejection of patriarchy, using language and metaphor to further develop her idea of a planet in desperate need of the feminine. Viewed through an ecofeminist lens, the world of Parable of the Sower becomes all the more visceral as readers assess the horror of what a white capitalist patriarchy has done to humankind and the Earth.

Daniel J. Evans Library - MS: LIB2300 - 2700 Evergreen Parkway, NE. Olympia, WA 98501 - 360-867-6250