Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents were originally intended by Octavia Butler to be the first volumes in a longer series of novels, but the series was cut short when Butler first began to lose enthusiasm of the project and then died an untimely death in 2006. These two volumes, though, convey a perfectly self-contained story that actually comes to a rather effective ending even without the later volumes. Meanwhile, these volumes, which tell a future history of the United States, beginning in 2024, have gained new popularity and relevance as we approach that date. In particular, Butler’s vision of a U.S. descending into dystopia thanks to the combined effects of capitalism, climate change, and a collapsing democracy now appears to have been uncannily prescient. At the same time, Butler also offers an alternative vision of hope, though the dystopian aspects of these novels have gained more attention than have the utopian ones.
Perhaps because the series was never completed, the existing Parable novels are primarily dystopian in nature, though they do put in place certain utopian ideas that presumably would have been developed further in the later volumes. Indeed, the existing Parable novels are effective primarily because of the visceral power of their descriptions of a collapsing American democracy and of the effects of that collapse on key individual characters, descriptions that are especially effective because it is so easy to believe that such things might have in the near future in America, where developments have already taken us far beyond the “it can’t happen here” mentality that reigned for so long. At the same time, these novels are distinctive because of their ability to maintain a hopeful outlook and to point toward the possibility of a better future.
Peter Stillman sums up some of the characteristics that make the Parable books distinctive as dystopias: “Weaving together the imagined future development of contemporary tendencies such as increasing social divisions, economic inequality, global warming, and the political fantasies of the anti-government right (in Sower) and the religious right (in Talents), Butler generates detailed depictions of “social totalities” that contextualize the tendencies into concrete institutions, practices, and personal experiences. She sketches individuals’ lives and relationships at the local, state, and (to some extent) international levels. Butler links dreams and nightmares, showing how future dystopias result from current utopian dreams (and political power) of certain segments of American society; and she then shows how the dystopias limit the lives and twist the dreams of the many: their everyday life is tenuous and insecure, their possibilities for a better way of life are constricted, and their alternatives in dystopia are grim, doomed, or self-destructive” (15).
While the Parable novels address a number of important issues, including racism, religious bigotry, and capitalist exploitation, the novels are particularly useful for the way in which they demonstrate the interrelationship between these issues and the problem of climate change, which exacerbates all of the others. Shelley Streeby has argued that Butler is “a major climate change intellectual” (72). Indeed, Streeby dedicates an entire chapter of her book on climate change and African Americans in science fiction to the work of Butler, especially these two novels. Other critics have focused on this aspect of Butler’s work as well, as when Modestino locates that work within a long tradition of African American literature that is highly concerned with the natural environment.
Parable of the Sower is narrated via the journal entries of Lauren Oya Olamina, an African American girl who reaches her fifteenth birthday on July 20, 2024, the date of the first journal entry in the novel. Olamina (she is generally referred to that way in the novel) is an especially appropriate narrator because she is intelligent, observant, and articulate, but also because she suffers from “hyperempathy,” a delusional syndrome in which she experiences the pain and pleasure of anyone she sees. This syndrome complicated Olamina’s life considerably, but it also gives her a deeper understanding of how the conditions she is describing effect people. In addition, we learn that she had acquired this syndrome in the womb because her mother (who died in childbirth with her) had abused the drug Paracetco while pregnant. This drug, which supposedly endows users with high intelligence, is itself a marker of the desperation of people in this society to find solutions to the many problems that face them—and drug abuse in general is a key problem in the society described in the novel.
The novel essentially consists of two parts, one of which describes the difficult lives of Olamina and her family in a walled community in the suburbs of a dystopian Los Angeles, and one of which describes Olamina’s dangerous journey northward after her life is shattered and she must make her way in search of a new home. As the novel begins, Olamina lives with her father, a professor at a nearby college and Baptist preacher, and her Hispanic stepmother, who teaches parttime at the college and also teaches the children of their walled community, with the help of Olamina. Life within the walled community is hard, but is much preferable to that outside the walls, where civil society has almost entirely collapsed, leaving a world of lawlessness and poverty that has only been made worse by the election of the right-wing President Donner, whose anti-government policies consist mostly of loosening restrictions on corporate exploitation of workers and trashing of the environment. Butler’s depiction of the grim world outside the walled community is somewhat indirect because Olamina has relatively little contact with that world, but it is nevertheless extremely effective, making clear the horrors that inhabit this world.
For a while, at least, Olamina’s community still has access to televised reports of events in the outside world, events that are grim indeed. Technological progress marches on, despite social and economic collapse, but even a mission to Mars ends badly:
“Tonight the last big Window Wall television in the neighborhood went dark for good. We saw the dead astronaut with all of red, rocky Mars around her. We saw a dust-dry reservoir and three dead water peddlers with their dirty-blue armbands and their heads cut halfway off. And we saw whole blocks of boarded up buildings burning in Los Angeles. Of course, no one would waste water trying to put such fires out” (18).
Olamina also makes it clear that climate change is a key contributor to the collapse of American society depicted in the novel. Thus, weather events are among the key disasters reported in the book: “Tornadoes are smashing hell out of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and two or three other states. Three hundred people dead so far. And there’s a blizzard freezing the northern midwest, killing even more people” (54). As Olamina explains to her friend Joanne, “People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.” Joanne, however, points out that “your father says he doesn’t believe people changed the climate in spite of what scientists say. He says only God could change the world in such an important way” (57). “My father has his blind spots,” replies Olamina, and it is clear that she views the denial of climate change as a key reason why the U.S. is dealing so badly with the various crises it faces.
Capitalism, though, is also a key target of critique in both of the Parable novels. Not only has capitalism significantly contributed to climate change and to an uneven distribution of wealth that has plunged most American citizens into desperation and poverty, but corporations, far from making an effort to improve the situation, simply seek to exploit it for greater profit. One of the most telling motifs in Parable of the Sower involves a company called Kagimoto, Stamm, Frampton, and Company (KSF) which purchases the entire California town of Olivar, a beach town that has been especially hard-hit by climate change. KSF then refurbishes much of the town and installs professional security systems (including armed patrols) so that the inhabitants of the town are protected from the outside world. Those inhabitants, of course, are now all low-wage employees of KSF (plus their families), who have guaranteed jobs, houses, food, and professional help with battling the ongoing effects of climate change. But their contractual arrangements with KSF essentially ensure that they will never be able to leave, thus providing a permanent captive low-wage labor force for the company, which essentially amounts to a form of slavery. As Olamina notes in her narration, “There are still people in Olivar who are uncomfortable with the change. They know about early American company towns in which the companies cheated and abused people” (119–20).
Company towns are one aspect of America’s past that seems to be resurfacing in the world of this novel. In addition, one important motif that runs throughout the Parable novels is that the collapse of American civil society has provided an opening through which unscrupulous actors, corporate or otherwise, have re-established what amounts to various forms of slavery, reminding us that a tendency toward the ruthless exploitation of others has always been an aspect of the American way that needs to be guarded against. By the end of Parable of the Sower, we are told of employees who become indebted to the companies they work for and then get arrested and made into “debt slaves” who “could be forced to work longer hours for less pay, could be ‘disciplined’ if they failed to meet their quotas, could be traded and sold with or without their consent, with or without their families, to distant employers who had temporary or permanent need of them. Worse, children could be forced to work off the debt of their parents if the parents died, became disabled, or escaped” (288).
One of the most powerful aspects of the conditions described in Parable of the Sower is the fact that we know that similar things have actually happened in America in the past. What is even more powerful, though, is that Butler has carefully depicted this society as one to which we could easily be headed in the future, because many of its aspects—the racism, the gender discrimination, the exploitation of workers, the destruction of the natural environment—are all natural consequences of conditions that already exist. Butler has simply redrawn our own world in a modified form, thus employing the classic science fictional strategy of cognitive estrangement, which allows us better to see and understand conditions in our world by looking at them from a slightly different perspective than the one to which we are accustomed.
One important aspect of the novel that might not be immediately obvious has to do with the lack of imagination shown by the older generation that lives in Olamina’s community. They are old enough to remember quite well when things were much better, and so they are in a position to know very well that things don’t have to be the way they are in this dystopian present. Unfortunately, though, they seem sadly lacking in the ability to imagine ways toward a better future. Instead, they nostalgically fall back on their memories of the past as a preferable alternative to the fallen present, forgetting that it was this past that led to the present in the first place. The book does, however, propose a genuinely forward-looking utopian vision in the form of Olamina’s conception of an alternative secular religion called “Earthseed” that contains no supernatural components but is based on a fundamental faith in the centrality of change to human existence. And, importantly, she clearly envisions this change as a movement forward to something new, not simply as a restoration of the past. Further, in a science fictional twist, Olamina imagines that the followers of this religion will eventually leave earth to colonize the stars, taking this new religion with them.
Midway through Parable of the Sower, when Olamina is eighteen, she is thrust into the lawless outside world when marauders attack and destroy her home and her entire community, presumably killing the other surviving members of her family. So she begins to travel north to seek a location where she might found a utopian enclave to serve as the birthplace of Earthseed. She joins up with two other survivors of her community and with an aging African American physician known as Bankole, gradually adding additional members to their groups as they fight their way northward. Bankole owns a large piece of land in northern California where his sister has been living, and they all decide to settle there, even though Bankole’s sister and her family, who had been living on the land, have been murdered by one of the roving gangs that terrorize this future America.
Bankole and Olamina fall in love and are married, despite their age difference and despite the fact that he is a committed secularist who has his doubts about the usefulness of Earthseed as a guide toward building a better future. They found a utopian community, Acorn, which begins to grow and thrive as an enclave devoted to the principles of Earthseed. The community is heavily armed and fortified, but is nevertheless eventually invaded and destroyed by a vicious Christian militia made up of supporters of the newly elected President Andrew Steele Jarret, a former U.S. senator who ran on a right-wing platform of Christianization of America. Emboldened by Jarret and his policies, right-wing Christian groups all over the country are beginning to assert their power, well beyond what the actual law allows.
President Donner of Sower bears many similarities to Donald Trump, but Jarret and his unruly supporters bear even more similarities to Trump and his supporters among evangelicals. Indeed, the Parable novels have seen a resurgence in popularity since Trump’s election, largely due to these similarities. For one thing, Jarret is elected via a campaign in which he promises to “make America great again,” thus anticipating Trump’s man campaign slogan by nearly twenty years. And, though Jarret seems to have been modeled in many ways on Ronald Reagan, still no doubt fresh at that time in Butler’s mind, his tendency to endorse violence among his supporters is decidedly Trumplike, even if Jarret leans less on White Nationalism and more on religion (via the heavily politicized “Christian America” church) to stir up his supporters.
The Jarret supporters who attack Acorn are “Crusaders,” an extra-legal group with no official government support (something like “Proud Boys”). However, the Jarret regime tends to look the other way when such groups commit violence in the name of Christ—or Jarret. In this case, the adult members of the Acorn community who aren’t killed in the original attack are rounded up and imprisoned, supposedly so that they can be re-educated in Christian ways but mostly so that they can be used as slave labor, including the use of captive women as sexual slaves, a practice that had been common in the antebellum South as well. Men and women among the slaves are strictly segregated, so that Olamina is not initially aware of Bankole’s fate, but we eventually learn that he died of a heart attack soon after being captured. Meanwhile, the children of the community are taken away to be raised by Christian families, including Larkin, the infant daughter of Olamina and Bankole, who is given to an abusive Christian America family and renamed “Asha,” though she is eventually taken in as an adult by Marcos Duran, Olamina’s brother who turns out still to be alive after all and has become a Christian America minister, causing understandable tensions with his sister.
The most striking parts of Parable of the Talents involve the brutality suffered by Olamina and others while held captive as slaves in the Christian America camp where they have been imprisoned, which resonates with both slavery in the antebellum South and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. A horrifying science fictional motif is added via the electronic collars that all of the slaves are forced to wear, which can be used by their captors to inflict intense pain at the least sign of disobedience—or even simply for sadistic purposes. The women of the camp are also routinely raped, making their captivity especially nightmarish. Ultimately, the erratic weather caused by climate change actually has at least one positive effect: in the year 2035, a freak storm disables the system that controls the collars and Olamina and the other slaves successfully rebel. Jarret is also defeated in his bid for re-election (oddly, he doesn’t seem to try to overthrow the results of the election), and the entire country begins to turn away from his policies, allowing the novel to move toward a hopeful ending.
Larkin ultimately becomes a historian and records the story of Jarret’s rise and fall in terms that again many have seen as foreshadowing the story of Trump and his followers: “Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide, and bully people, first into electing him President, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers” (243). Meanwhile, Olamina’s ideas are popularized by the publication of her book describing Earthseed. By the end of Parable of the Talents, an old and frail Olamina is unable to attend the launch of the first ship to take her ideas into outer space, but she is proud to know that her vision is beginning to come true before she dies. The ship, over her objections, is called the Christopher Columbus, but we are assured that this name does not imply a repetition of the kind of voyage of conquest undertaken by Columbus. “This ship,” she assures us, “is not about a shortcut to riches and empire. It’s not about snatching up slaves and gold and presenting them to some European monarch” (394). Instead, the colonists aboard the ship, frozen in suspended animation due to the length of the journey ahead of them, intend to found a new world based on the principles of Earthseed.
The God of Earthseed and the History of Marx
As the example of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology shows, there is some precedent for science fiction writers founding new religions. And, while Hubbard was something of a hack, Butler is one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, so one would think that she might be able to do even better—though there is no evidence that Butler ever intended for Earthseed to become a literal religion in the real world. Still, she provides us with considerable details concerning this new religion, largely through excerpts from Earthseed: The Books of the Living, which Olamina composes in parallel with her journal entries.
Olamina, incidentally, insists that she has not invented this new religion but has simply discovered it through close observation of the world around her: “Every one knows that change is inevitable. From the second law of thermodynamics to Darwinian evolution, from Buddhism’s insistence that nothing is permanent and all suffering results from our delusions of permanence to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season”), change is part of life, of existence, of the common wisdom. But I don’t believe we’re dealing with all that that means. We haven’t even begun to deal with it” (26).
In additional to her fundamental tenet that “God is change,” Olamina also insists that, while God shapes the lives of individuals, it is also the responsibility of individuals to shape God. After all, if God is change, then God must be infinitely malleable, in stark contrast to the never-changing, fully formed gods of the monotheistic traditions. Indeed, the perfected gods of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition bear somewhat the same relationship to the ever-changing god of Earthseed that the notion of a fixed, perfected utopia bears to the fluid, dynamic Marxist utopia described by Fredric Jameson, drawing on the theoretical foundation laid by Ernst Bloch. Bloch insisted that “utopia” was not a completed perfect society but simply a society that facilitated the quest for an ever-improving society, one that encouraged creativity and the thinking of the “not-yet” in a mode of hope for a better future. In this sense, utopia is not a final destination but a historical process of moving forward, or even the ability to imagine that a better world is possible through concrete action. For Bloch, then, utopian thought is not about imagining ideal societies but about attempting to stretch one’s mind truly to grasp the notion that history is an ongoing process and that the “not-yet” can be fundamentally different from the “now.”
Jameson directly adapts this Blochian idea in all of his thinking about utopia, much of which has been done through the reading of science fiction. Jameson’s recent work has emphasized that, especially in the modern moment of capitalist decadence, the notion that failure itself can have a strong utopian component is central to any properly Marxist theorization of utopianism. For Jameson, a fully achieved utopia (such as socialism) would be so different from our current conditions that it would literally be unthinkable, given that our imaginations are made up of “bits and pieces of the here and now” (Archaeologies xiii). This means, says Jameson, that “our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production (and perhaps to whatever remnants of past ones it has preserved)” (xiii). It makes no sense, then, to try to outline such a utopia as a specific target.
What we can imagine, though, is positive change that moves us toward a better society by simply thinking historically. Of course, certain modes of production also enable certain kinds of thought (utopian or otherwise), and one could argue that genuine utopianism is always historicist in the sense of requiring the ability to imagine fundamental systemic change over time. But that ability varies greater depending on the context of the thinker. Thus, for example, Jameson has noted that Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), generally identified as the founding text of the utopian genre per se, was limited by its pre-capitalist position and by More’s subsequent inability to imagine “capitalism and the market.” Thus, Jameson concludes that More—unlike later utopian thinkers such as Fourier, Bellamy, and Wells (writing after capitalism had become hegemonic)—lacks the vision of historical change provided by capitalism; moreover, More, for Jameson consequently also lacks the analytical tools provided by Marx in response to capitalism.
A central premise of Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future is that,at best, any vision of utopia can “serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment.” Thus, for Jameson “the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively” (Archaeologies xiii). Such failed utopias provide a powerful critique of the intellectual and imaginative limitations thrust upon us by the ideological entrapment of our present moment. But they also remind us of the need continually to strive for utopia rather than hoping literally to reach it. Here, Jameson draws directly upon Bloch’s central work, the massive The Principle of Hope (reinforced by its initial working title, “Dreams of a Better Life”), which was published in three volumes in German from 1954 to 1959 but did not appear in a full English translation until 1985, perhaps because there was little market for Bloch’s ideas in a United States where utopianism, virtually equated with Marxism, was decidedly out of fashion. Jameson has described Bloch’s energetic and rambunctious text as a “vast and disorderly exploration of the manifestations of hope on all levels of reality,” and it is certainly the case that The Principle of Hope is an unsystematic, visionary, and even poetic work that is consistently able to find powerful utopian energies in even the most seemingly debased of cultural works (Marxism 120). Bloch has even been accused by some of being a mystic, but his conception of utopia is largely a practical and scientific one. By definition, Bloch’s version of utopia need not be reached, indeed cannot be reached, but it can be worked toward and sought after. A goal reached is no longer a utopian goal at all unless it includes a mechanism for moving forward toward still more goals. Utopian thought is always thought that reaches beyond the real conditions of the present world, but for Bloch, genuine utopian thought is shot through with concrete possibility, and any genuinely utopian vision is one that can be worked toward in reality, even if it can never quite be achieved, partly because the fluid nature of utopian thought will mean that the goal is constantly changing. Bloch’s utopian vision thus focuses not on any specific revolutionary change, but on what Jameson calls the “irrepressible revolutionary wish” (Marxism 159).
Utopia, in short, is change, to adopt Olamina’s emphasis. Moreover, it is change that human beings must work to make happen in the real world, very much in the way that Olamina insists that individuals must work to “shape God,” that is, to make change work in the positive directions they desire. Indeed, to an extent, the central principles of Earthseed are already embedded in the classic Marxist notion, stated by Marx himself in “The Eighteenth Brumaire,” that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx and Engels 595). Indeed, rather than equating Earthseed with utopia, it might be more to the point to equate it with history itself.
One can only speculate about the details of the society that Butler might have ultimately envisioned in subsequent volumes of the Parables series, but what we see in the two existing novels is certainly consistent with a Marxist vision, though Marx might have objected to Olamina’s insistence on packaging the terms of her philosophy as a religion based on the notion that this format would make it easier for converts to understand and follow the tenets of her philosophy. In any case, the two existing Parable novels are probably most interesting for their dystopian view of America’s future and for their understanding that a collapsing natural environment is likely to cause, or at least accelerate, a social collapse as well. The power and vividness of Butler’s descriptions of the experiences of Olamina and the other characters make these two volumes an extremely effective cautionary tale.
Barba Guerrero, Paula. “Post-Apocalyptic Memory Sites: Damaged Space, Nostalgia, and Refuge in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, 2021, pp. 29–45.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. 1954–1959. 3 vols. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knigh, first published 1986, MIT Press, 1996.
Butler, Octavia W. Parable of the Sower. First published 1993. Grand Central Publishing, 2019.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Talents. First published 1998. Grand Central Publishing, 2019.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2005.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton University Press, 1971.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed, Edited by Robert C. Tucker, W. W. Norton, 1978.
Modestino, Kevin. “Octavia Butler’s Parable Novels and Genealogies of African American Environmental Literature.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 9, no. 1, Winter 2021, pp. 56-79
Streeby, Shelley. Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism. University of California Press, 2018.
Stillman, Peter. “Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler’s Parables.” Utopian Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 2003, pp. 15–35.
 One might also compare here Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, which features a company called “WorryFree” that offers workers the promise of job and housing security in what amounts to little more than a thinly disguised return to slavery.
 For a slightly different vision of the role of nostalgia and the emphasis on looking forward in the novel, see Barba Guerrero.
 One of Butler’s earliest and most popular novels, Kindred (1979), is a time-travel narrative whose black female protagonist journeys back to the antebellum South and observes the horrors of slavery first-hand. The historical precedent of American slavery is echoed in Talents in a number of ways.