Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is the first novel on the syllabus
of the apocalypse class I am auditing. It focuses on a teenage girl living in a walled
community outside of Los Angeles in what is apparently a post-apocalyptic America.
Potable water is a precious commodity, the streets are choked with the poor and the
dying, murder is an everyday event, any house that isn't defended by an armed community
surrounded by strong walls is subject to being burned down by gangs of thugs hopped up
on drugs, and when the police intervene it is merely to demand bribes and then do
nothing. There is an official government, but it's a joke; there is a semblance of
an economy, with a few heavily fortified stores and trucks rumbling up and down the
ruined roads to supply them, but only a few relatively wealthy people really participate
in the economy. The masses support themselves through subsistence farming at best,
marauding at worst.
So I read this scenario and wondered what sort of disaster might lead to these
conditions, when suddenly I realized — who needs a disaster? This isn't some
postnuclear nightmare. This is merely a geographical transposition. Because what
Butler is describing is Africa. Parable of the Sower is about an
America whose institutions have devolved to the point that it has become a Fourth
World nation, another vast continent with no lights at night, Somalia on the Pacific.
I mean, run through that checklist above and compare it against Liberia or The Country
Formerly Known As Zaire: little potable water, check; streets choked with the poor
and dying, check; commonplace murder, check; corruption, check... How did Sower's
America get that way? The book doesn't say. How did Africa get that way? Actually,
that reminds me — someone mentioned a few days ago watching a movie about Tanzania's
plight (it's suffering from a famine even though it exports enough food to feed its own
population). A New York Post writer grumbled, "The documentary tries to pin
Africa's suffering on capitalism, but dances around the real problem." That problem:
"corrupt governments." I have no small amount of loathing for corrupt governments my
own self, but this seems to me like saying, "No, silly, your problem isn't cancer
— it's all these tumors!" Corrupt governments don't fall from the sky.
Our own corrupt government owes its existence to the "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" thread
in our culture: politicians get elected by appealing to people's greed with promises
of tax cuts, and then we pretend to be surprised when it turns out that they've been
cooking up shady schemes to finance a little greed of their own. Meanwhile, cultures
based on low-risk organized freedom have the least corrupt governments on Earth. (How
Scandinavian of them!) The problem is that you can't just up and change a culture...
though, hey, I guess that's what the main character is trying to do with her Earthseed
business, eh? Anyway, we're reading the sequel at the end of the semester, so more
then. Y'know, barring apocalypse.
Return to the Calendar page!