Parable of the Sower shows an America that in many ways is similar to our own. Many of its struggles are linked to ours, if greater by far in degree.
In Parable of the Sower, very few people care about politics at all, and politicians campaign based on sound bites over substance. The general populace’s attitude is mostly one of exhausted indifference. In Lauren’s words, “[Lauren’s father is] the only person I know who’s going to vote at all. Most people have given up on politicians. After all, politicians have been promising to return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century ever since I can remember.” The modern US has very low voter participation for a modern democracy, and many of the politicians currently in office ran on promises to reduce corruption.
Why might the US’s voter participation be so low, and what can be done about it? What happens if we do nothing?
An increasingly common talking point in modern politics is income inequality. The bottom 50% of earners in America have approximately the same income today that they did in 1980: an average of $16,000. In the same time frame, the 50th to 90th percentile of earners have seen an income jump of 40%, and the top 1 percent of earners earn 300% more than they did in 1980. This difference is much more pronounced in Parable of the Sower; Lauren’s family is lucky because they have a house in a walled community but no money to relocate anywhere safer. The only people who do have the money for that are the super-rich, and they have the money to make their houses safe on their own. People who are that rich live in what Lauren calls walled estates: “one big house and lots of shacky little dependencies where the servants [live].” The poor, on the other hand, have nothing. They live outside any walls, and tend to die painfully and young like Lauren’s brother Curtis did shortly before her neighborhood burns.
This wealth disparity is drawn upon heavily in Toshi Reagon’s adaptation of the text, especially in the sections where she communicates with the audience directly. She links it with the company town of Olivar, where a multinational corporation works its employees to death through effective debt slavery. Despite all the exaggeration, there are many similarities to current issues with debt and overwork, and to income inequality.
Why might Butler have chosen not to directly include anyone rich in the text?
What is the narrative purpose of Lauren’s two very different lifestyles?
Another common issue across the globe is struggling with the aftermath of natural disasters, especially hurricanes. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and the federal government fumbled in its aid response. Many more people are dead than there could have been. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and surpassed Katrina as the most economically damaging hurricane ever. Wildfires consumed swaths of California, leaving hundreds of people missing. Parable of the Sower disasters are even more devastating, as the globe warms and catastrophic weather intensifies; a hurricane somewhere in the Gulf Coast left seven hundred dead, mostly the homeless poor who had nowhere to go and no one to help them. The central turning point of the book (and Reagon’s adaptation) is uncontrolled fire in California, as Lauren’s home and thus her entire life burns down around her.
Is it more feasible for us to try to prevent the conditions that lead to disasters, for us to try to mitigate the damage they can do through building codes and shelters, or for us to try to rebuild as quickly and efficiently as possible after they hit?
Why is fire so ubiquitous in the book, and why was it not so prevalent in the opera?
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1995. Print.
DeSilver, Drew. “U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout.” Pew Research. 15 May 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/15/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/.
Hicks, Michael, and Mark Burton. “Hurricane Harvey: Preliminary Estimates of Commercial and Public Sector Damages on the Houston Metropolitan Area.” Ball State University. 8 September 2017. http://projects.cberdata.org/reports/HurricaneHarvey2017.pdf.
Piketty, Thomas, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. “Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States.” National Bureau of Economic Research. https://www.nber.org/papers/w22945.