When Octavia E. Butler published her dystopian novel Parable of the Sower in 1993, the year in which it begins—2024—must have felt far away. Still, Butler was able to predict, with eerie prescience, many of the problems we face today. “I was trying not to prophesize,” she would later say. “Matter of fact, I was trying to give warning.”
Parable of the Sower follows Lauren Oya Olamina, the teenage daughter of a Baptist minister and college professor who lives in a walled-in city outside of Los Angeles with her family. Lauren writes in her journal that global warming, corporate greed, racism, and disease have ravaged the United States, but the residents in Lauren’s town believe that they’ll make it through until things improve for the rest of the country. Lauren, however, thinks something worse is coming. She was born with a condition known as hyperempathy—which causes her to feel what others she sees are feeling—and has started preparing for the future by keeping a bag of supplies handy and making plans to leave the community. She also rejects her father’s religion for a belief system that she created called “Earthseed,” based on the concept that “God is Change.” When the wall is breeched by outsiders jealous of the relative prosperity of the residents, Lauren heads north with other survivors.
Here's what you should know about the novel that led author John Green to declare, “I have never read a dystopia that feels more possible, or more terrifying.”
1. Octavia Butler looked at religions, geography, and current events when researching Parable of the Sower.
Parable of the Sower is a work of science fiction, but Butler did a lot of real-world research when writing her book. To capture what it’s like to walk the length of California like her heroine does, Butler read accounts of people who had done just that, as well as books about people who traveled the state by bicycle and on horseback; she also kept detailed maps of the state tacked to her walls to make sure Lauren’s travels were accurate. Since Lauren gardens, Butler asked her own mom questions about gardening, and put her to work in her garden to get some real life experience.
Butler also studied religions, particularly Buddhism, when developing the Earthseed religion, because change is important in Buddhism and is the main tenet of Earthseed. Lauren’s middle name, Oya, came from the deity associated with the Niger River, which flows through West Africa.
Other influences include news of growing economic inequality, an increased prison population, the effects of drugs on the children of addicts, and the destruction of the environment. Butler told an audience at MIT in 1998, “My rule for writing the novel was that I couldn't write about anything that couldn't actually happen.”
2. Butler had trouble starting Parable of the Sower.
In a 1999 interview included in later editions of Sower, Butler explained that she had “a great deal of trouble” beginning the novel. One thing in particular that helped her was writing out Lauren’s beliefs in verse, which she hadn’t done since she was in school. “Trying to do it was a good challenge,” she said. “I had to focus on learning a little about this different kind of writing, and I had to learn how to use it to do the job I wanted to do.” She used the Taoist text Tao Te Ching as a model: “I didn’t want to copy any of the Taoist verses, but I liked the form.”
3. The novel is considered an important Afrofuturist text.
The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by Mark Dery, who described it as “speculative fiction that treats African American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture—and more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” Afrofuturism has expanded to include music, film, and many other art forms that combine the African diaspora with technology. In recent years, it has been embraced by musicians like Janelle Monáe, filmmakers like Black Panther director Ryan Cooglar, and influencers on sites like TikTok and Instagram, and the Parable of the Sower, with its combination of social commentary and science fiction, is cited as of the subgenre’s most important texts.
4. The title of the book comes from the Bible.
The Parable of the Sower (also called the Parable of the Soils) is a fable told by Jesus. It’s the story of a farmer who scatters seeds that fall on four different grounds. One is a hard ground where seed cannot grow at all, so it becomes bird seed. Another is stony, but has enough soil for the seeds to germinate; unfortunately, the lack of depth of the earth prevents them from taking root and the plants wither in the sun. The seed that was scattered on thorny ground took root, but the thorns choke the life out of the plants that grow before they fully bloom. The good ground receives the seed and produces much fruit. This parallels Lauren’s journey: Like the seeds, she is thrown in different directions, but once she is settled, she builds the first Earthseed community, Acorn.
5. Butler called Lauren’s hyperempathy “a delusion.”
In Sower, Lauren’s ability to feel what she sees other people feeling puts her at great risk—but according to Butler, the condition is all in her head. “Usually in science fiction ‘empathic’ means that you really are suffering, that you are actively interacting telepathically with another person, and she is not,” Butler told the journal Science Fiction Studies in 1996. “She has this delusion that she cannot shake. It’s kind of biologically programmed into her. … I have been really annoyed with people who claim Lauren is a telepath, who insist that she has this power. What she has is a rather crippling delusion.”
6. Parable of the Sower was the first book in a series that was never completed known as Earthseed.
A sequel to Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, was released in 1998. It begins five years after the end of Sower, when the country has devolved further into dystopia. Lauren lives in the Acorn community that she began at the end of Sower; Acorn, like the town she grew up in, is breached by an attack from outsiders.
Butler started to write a third book in the series titled Parable of the Trickster, which would have depicted a group of Earthseed’s followers who had left Earth and were attempting to survive on another planet. Despite multiple attempts, though, Butler never got very far, and the novel wasn’t finished when she died in 2006 at the age of 58. Her drafts are held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
Butler intended to publish more books in the series, including Parable of the Teacher, Parable of Chaos, and Parable of Clay. As Gerry Canavan writes in the LA Review of Books, “The titles suggest a shift from a Christian idiom (Sower, Talents, and Trickster all reference Biblical parables) to an Earthseed one (Teacher, Chaos, and Clay seem likely to be parables drawn from Olamina’s life, not Christ’s).”
7. The novel’s protagonist wants to go to space—and NASA later honored Butler.
In Parable of the Sower, Lauren expresses a fascination with space, particularly Mars, and a support for space exploration—despite many others (including her father) dismissing the space program as a waste of money and other resources. “As far as I'm concerned, space exploration and colonization are among the few things left over from the last century that can help us more than they hurt us,” Lauren says. “It's hard to get anyone to see that, though, when there's so much suffering going on just outside our walls.”
In 2021, when the Perseverance rover touched down in the Jezero Crater on Mars, NASA informally named the spot “Octavia E. Butler Landing” after the novelist. Kathryn Stack Morgan, a Perseverance deputy project scientist, said, “Butler’s protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges. Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields.”
8. There’s an opera and a graphic novel based on Parable of the Sower.
Mother and daughter musicians and activists Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon— both fans of Butler—turned Parable of the Sower into an opera. Toshi told NPR that the story’s themes lent themselves well to the format: “Singing this story evokes all of us in the space to be in a vibrational relationship, so that we can really feel like we're not alone, like we are not by ourselves. We are breathing, we are alive, we are together. We have the opportunity to shift and change in the ways that we can in our lives.”
In 2020, Damian Duffy and John Jennings (who previously adapted Butler’s vampire novel Kindred into a comic), released their version of The Parable of the Sower to great acclaim. It won the 2021 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.
9. The novel has been cited as an influence on Netflix’s The OA.
Brit Marling co-created (with Zal Batmanlij) and starred in the Netflix science fiction series The OA, which was influenced by Butler’s novel. “In 2014 I went back to the library and encountered Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a sci-fi novel written in 1993 imagining a 2020 where society has largely collapsed from climate change and growing wealth inequality,” Marling wrote in a 2020 piece for The New York Times. “Butler felt to me like a lighthouse blinking from an island of understanding way out at sea. I had no idea how to get there, but I knew she had found something life saving. She had found a form of resistance.” Authors like Butler, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood “used the tenets of genre to reveal the injustices of the present and imagine our evolution,” Marling wrote. “With these ideas in mind, Zal Batmanglij and I wrote and created The OA.”
Like Lauren, The OA’s protagonist, Prairie, possesses great empathy, and like Lauren, she collects a band of followers. On the second episode of the second season, a character even purchases the book to give as a gift.
10. Parable of the Sower inspired the Terasem and Solseed movements.
It’s not surprising that a book centered on forming a new religion would inspire others to do just that. Terasem, which is described as a “transreligion” that members can practice in conjunction with other religions, focuses on science and technology in combination with spirituality, mirroring the Earthseed belief system in The Parable of the Sower. (The name is the Greek word for “Earthseed.”)
Solseed, whose official website describes it as “a real-life Earthseed community,” declares that it is “an Earth-centered wisdom tradition inspired by Earthseed as found in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents books.”
11. Parable of the Sower became a New York Times bestseller 27 years after it came out.
While The Parable of the Sower was released to critical praise and was even cited by The New York Times as a “Notable Book” in 1994, it took readers more time to embrace it. The Parable of the Sower finally hit the New York Times bestseller list (an ambition that Butler had expressed in her journal decades earlier) in 2020. Many attributed this success to the increased relevance of the book’s themes of inequality, social unrest, and deadly pandemics. Others, like Ibi Zoboi, who wrote a biography of Butler for kids called Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler, cited it as evidence that Butler was “ahead of her time” adding, “when you’re ahead of your time, it takes a while for people to catch onto what you’re saying.”