Exclusive preview: Octavia E. Butler's prescient Parable books get gorgeous reissue
One of the most important and groundbreaking science-fiction authors of her time, Octavia E. Butler is headed back to bookstores.
EW can exclusively announce that Butler’s two prescient Parable books are set to be reissued by Grand Central Publishing, beginning with Parable of the Sower. This dystopian classic of terror and hope centers on a teenage girl trying to survive in an all-too-real future, in which unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos and not even gated communities are safe. Originally published in 1993, its themes resonate strongly today; its sequel, Parable of the Talents, will be reissued later in the year.
EW has an exclusive preview of Parable of the Sower, in the form of a gorgeous cover reveal and the debut of a new introduction written by N.K. Jemisin, the award-winning author of the Broken Earth trilogy. Check it out below. The new edition of Parable of the Sower will be published on April 30.
N.K. Jemisin’s Foreword to Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
There’s power in threes. The rule of three, we call it in the writing world: repeat a word or phrase or plot element three times in order to give it meaning. Two repetitions isn’t enough to establish pattern recognition; four repetitions and the mind gets bored. Three is the sweet spot.
It took me three tries to get what Octavia Butler was trying to do with Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I think. I’m still not sure. But I’ve now read these books three times, at three very different points in my life, and each reading has shown me just how powerfully prescient Butler was. The first read took place sometime in my mid-20s, as I struggled through grad school; the second was in my mid-30s, in the early years of my professional writing career; the third was just a few months ago as of this writing, so not long after I turned forty-six.
The mid-20s read would’ve been a few years after Parable of the Sower debuted in 1993. I’d known about the books since they came out, of course, but my earliest attempts to read Sower were bounce-offs. I was used to Butler’s more overtly science-fictional premises: post–nuclear apocalypse aliens (the Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood books), time travel (Kindred), or telepathy and immortality (the Patternist/Seed to Harvest books). In contrast to these, the Parables featured little in the way of scientific or technological advancements or out-of-this-world what-ifs. The books seemed to “merely” be set in the future.
Now, note: I was very much a baby black-power militant in those days. I joined sit-ins to demand that my school divest from apartheid South Africa, went to the Million Man March to help register voters, immersed myself in African American history, all of that. Yet my engagement with the ideas underlying my activism was surface level only; I hadn’t had time to actualize or syncretize much. I also hadn’t yet figured out how limited my own ambitions and expectations really were, largely because I couldn’t visualize a world that was actually better than the one I lived in. I’d spent my life absorbing statistics and societal narratives that predicted a dire future for me—if I even survived young adulthood. This was echoed by the fiction I read. Most of my favorite speculative works, like Star Wars and Star Trek and the “golden age” novels of science fiction, depicted a future that was shiny and exciting . . . for white guys. The rest of us were present only in token form, if we were present at all. Usually, we simply did not exist. There was no future for us, beyond whatever limited use the heroes might find for a few. (We were never the heroes.) And depictions like this were so ubiquitous in the speculative field that for many years I accepted them without question. Just more dire predictions. The radicalism of “merely” envisioning a future—while American, while black, while female—had not yet become a part of my consciousness.
In grad school, however, I became one of three black women in an intensely competitive sixty-person master’s program. As part of my program, I learned about racial identity development theories—that is, the process through which a member of a racist society moves from superficial engagement with race to a place of deeper, personalized understanding. As part of one class, we were asked to read Butler’s Kindred, which I’d already read, so I decided instead to finally tackle Parable of the Sower.
Still wasn’t ready; I know that now. However, I’d grown enough by then that Lauren Olamina no longer felt anachronistically know-it-all to me, as she had when I’d first sampled the novel. (She always read to me like an older woman’s idea of what a smart teenager should be, rather than a realistic rendering of what smart teenagers are actually like. Naturally, I like her better the older I get.) As an examination of racial identity development, the story doesn’t work at all; Lauren is basically born knowing that racism is systemic and that, as someone born at multiple intersections of marginalization (black, disabled, female, poor), she is doomed if she doesn’t work every angle possible. Kindred’s Dana is a much better example of someone whose understanding of herself transforms radically over the course of a story; Lauren starts deep and stays deep. However, Parable of the Sower works beautifully as an examination of how smart resistance functions—and I, growing jaded with respectability politics, black patriarchy, and other shallow solutions to the problem of racism, needed that badly. I needed to know how to bide my time. I needed to understand the difference between good intentions and good outcomes. Understandably, I found a lot to empathize with in Lauren’s struggle between being a “good girl” and being a grown woman with needs beyond what parental guidance can provide.
Still, I didn’t like the books, not back then, nor did I find them particularly prescient. For context, this was the 1990s. The dot-com boom had begun to democratize society in new ways, by giving a blog and a platform to anyone who could yell loudly or market themselves cleverly enough. The Gulf War was over, crack was wack, and the economy was booming so much that taking on thousands of dollars in student loan debt didn’t sound like a terrible idea to me, at the time. Lauren’s world still felt unrealistic to me, even impossible. Roving, uncontested gangs of pedophiles and drug-addicted pyromaniacs? Slavery 2.0? A powerful coalition of white-supremacist, homophobic, Christian zealots taking over the country? Nah, I thought, and hoped Butler would get back to aliens soon.
Yeah. Okay. Look, I was young.
The mid-30s read, in the late 2000s or so, hit me in the middle of a career-specific encounter with institutional racism. I’d decided to become a writer by then, by profession rather than just hobby, and had added my voice to others demanding change within this genre of possibility. Octavia Butler, to our collective horror, died in 2006. Yet here were we, her spiritual children numbering in the thousands, come to claim the future. By this time I’d begun to understand just how rare, and how strange, the mere idea of thinking about the future was, for those of us from marginalized backgrounds. Worse, I’d seen how complicit science fiction and fantasy were in making our futures so hard to imagine. It was time for this to change. We weren’t asking for much from our fellow writers: just more than European myths in our fantasy, and more than token representation in the future, present, and past.
But that fight is when I saw far too many of my once-favorite writers and editors reacting to our demand for a future and our existence in the present as if both were a threat. So we fought them. Of course we did; Butler’s memory demanded no less. But I won’t pretend I wasn’t heartbroken by how hard it was to make presumably intelligent, well-meaning people understand just how much harm they were doing.
That’s when I paid more attention to a thread in the Parables which had frustrated me to no end during that first read-through: the story of Marc, Lauren’s younger brother, thought dead at first and later rescued from horrific sexual slavery. Marc understands pain, in spades—and yet he eventually betrays Lauren, because he cannot acknowledge her pain without also acknowledging the harm that his fellow militant evangelicals have inflicted on others. He isn’t an evil man; throughout the two books, he helps many, though always (and only) within the framework of the Christianity he embraces. Eventually, though, his need for the status quo, for conformity, trumps his basic goodness. “I cannot help you until you suffer the way I want you to suffer, express your pain in a way that pleases my ears—and stop doing both when I’ve heard enough,” is what he seems to say.
This resonated powerfully with me amid the ongoing context of the American social justice movement. For every attempt made by marginalized people to express anguish and seek change for historical (and ongoing) harm, there’s always pushback from those who demand that we suffer only in the expected ways, express that suffering with an acceptable tone, and end both our suffering and our complaints on demand. Marc’s ultimatum was the exact refrain of those SFF figures I once admired, as they proceeded to question why we demanded a better future, how that demand should be framed, and whether we deserved it. After that, I couldn’t help wondering how much of Marc was informed by Butler’s fellow authors. Maybe none. Or maybe Butler’s message is that Marcs aren’t exactly rare in our society—so anyone who wants to understand and guide positive change, like Lauren, must also be prepared to work around them.
Then we come to the mid-40s read. Right now.
All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change Changes you.
What we have touched has changed: the SFF genre has improved slightly, despite its plague of Marcs. Instead of just Butler and a handful of others, now there are dozens of published black writers—and disabled writers, queer writers, indigenous writers, and more. But what we have changed has changed us in turn; I and other marginalized writers must be constantly braced for internet harassment, death threats, and campaigns to Make Science Fiction Racist Again. And as science fiction reflects its present, the same ugliness afflicts our society on the macro scale. In the wake of America’s first black president, we now endure an incompetent crook and bigot. We are more wired than ever, able to enact change through crowdsourcing and callout culture, for good or for ill . . . but most of us are less hopeful, more tired, struggling to keep the future in mind as a handful of powerful figures seem determined to drag us back to Jim Crow. Climate change looms. Human beings are resilient and resourceful; there’s little doubt that as a species we’ll survive. And those of us who want a better world will doubtless prevail, just as Lauren Olamina eventually did… but it may take everything we have.
So this time around, what I find myself resonating with most is Earthseed itself. Butler does not appear to have intended the Parable novels to be a guidebook—and yet they are. That’s true for all of the most powerful science fiction novels: they offer not only accurate visions of the future, but also suggestions for coping with the resulting changes. We can only imagine what that vision might have included if Butler had been able to complete it; she apparently had planned a third novel, Parable of the Trickster. But maybe it’s just as well that she and Lauren were unable to “dis- cover” that third book of Earthseed. Now, like the communities of Earthseed, it’s our job to create change in fiction and in life. Like Lauren, these days I am comforted not by the platitudes I was raised with, but by the idea that change is a tool I can shape to my advantage, if I am clever and lucky. Claiming the future will be an ugly, brutal struggle, but I’m prepared to go the distance in that fight. The future is worth it.
And in ten more years? I’ll check in again, and see what else I can learn from these brilliant books.
—N. K. Jemisin
Foreword copyright © 2019 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.