From the Stacks Master Class: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

From the Stacks is a reoccurring feature where PLC reviews less-recently published books that we feel deserve more attention. Today I’m going to be talking about Octavia Butler’s classic novel, Parable of the Sower.

But I don’t want to do a review per se- I want to analyze Butler’s technique, specifically using the opening of the book.

So without further ado, here are the first lines.

I had my recurring dream last night. I guess I should have expected it. It comes to me when I struggle-when I twist on my own personal hook and try to pretend that nothing unusual is happening. It comes to me when I try to be my father’s daughter.

Four lines. They seem simple, but they are packed with information. From these four lines, we know the narrator is troubled, in conflict with the world around her. She tries to be her father’s daughter, but she is trying to be something she is not. That’s a complicated conflict, indicating a desire to please that cannot be fulfilled.

The phrase “try to pretend that nothing unusual is happening” tells us that something unusual is happening, something so unusual that it’s messing with her dreams.

Lastly, the voice of the narrator is that of a realist (I guess I should have expected it.), someone who speaks simply and clearly- even as she talks about a dream.

So in four lines, we get an idea of who the narrator is, and who she is in conflict with (her father, herself, the unusual happenings). Plus, we get a big fat hook- what unusual thing is happening?

Now let’s look at the second paragraph.

Today is our birthday-my fifteenth and my father’s fifty-fifth. Tomorrow, I’ll try to please him- him and the community and God. So last night, I dreamed a reminder that it’s all a lie. I think I need to write about the dream because this particular lie bothers me so much.

Reinforcement, reinforcement, reinforcement. The connection between the narrator and her father is reinforced by the shared birthday. The role of the father as an authority figure is reinforced by his inclusion in a trinity- father, community, God. These are all part of one whole, and that whole is in conflict with the narrator, who tries to please.

So now we also know that the narrator is not just female, but a young teenaged girl. And we know that she’s as proactive as she can be (I need to write) given her relatively limited agency over her own life. And not only do we know all that, but we know she’s that particular breed of teenage girl who has an especially difficult time choking down lies, or what she perceives to be lies. We either knew that girl, or we were that girl. We understand who she is. We can relate.

Phew. What page are we on again? Oh yes. Page ONE.

The first time I read this book, I was unaware of almost everything Butler was setting up. I was simply hooked and along for the ride. Returning to the first page after reading the entire book, I can clearly see everything she’s doing, and I can only hope that someday I write an opening that is as genius as this- an opening that is stuffed to the gills with information, yet reads like velvet.

Because everything set up in those first lines is true. Lauren is a protagonist almost never seen in science fiction, a black teenage girl, an empath, and a practical, pragmatic mystic. Not a fluffy Trelawney type of mystic, but rather the type of mystic who makes a secret cache of food and supplies, planning for the worst case scenario while everyone around her fiddles among the flames. She’s the kind of mystic who learns to shoot a gun, who does shoot a gun even though her unwanted empathic power means she suffers the wounds of others as though they are her own. She’s just that hard, that she’ll shoot anyway, because she wants to survive. And she wants to survive, not just because of natural instinct, but because she believes herself to be the author of a new religion. And the truly original thing is that she’s not the least bit annoying about it.

I am already WAY over my word limit, so let me conclude by saying this:

If you like post-apocalyptic fiction, you should read Parable of the Sower.

If you like edgy YA, you should read Parable of the Sower.

If you like social science fiction (meaning SF that gives more consideration to human relations than hyperdrive), you should read Parable of the Sower.

If you like to ask yourself questions about God and the nature of religion, you should read Parable of the Sower.

If you like absorbing, tightly plotted books, you should read Parable of the Sower.

If you want to be a better writer, you should read Parable of the Sower.

Basically, if you are literate, you should read Parable of the Sower. You can buy it here. And if all my ravings have not yet convinced you, there’s a much more in-depth review, a proper review, up yonder at Coilhouse.