Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has been topping bestseller lists again, over three decades after it was first published, and I can't say I'm surprised. Between the beautiful television adaptation and attempts to role back reproductive rights in modern day America, The Handmaid's Tale is feeling decidedly relevant at this moment in time.
But now you've read The Handmaid's Tale (and if you haven't, go read it—I'll wait). You've thought long and hard about the chilling possibility of a right-wing, theocratic, fascist government on the East Coast, and what that would mean for women like Offred. You're looking for your next feminist sci-fi classic: something gripping and timeless, that nonetheless feels like it was written explicitly for the year 2018.
The time has come for Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler.
The fact that Parable of the Sower doesn't have its own high-production value Hulu adaptation is nothing short of a crime—although Ava DuVernay will be bringing Butler's Dawn to TV, and it's about time. Octavia Butler is one of the undisputed greats of science fiction, and yet this is the first time her work is being adapted for any screen, big or small.
Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, but it could just have easily been written today. The novels opens in America of the 2020's, with wildfires ravaging the West Coast, mass casualties from gun violence, climate change destroying communities, income inequality leading to widespread homelessness, and a Republican demagogue President who has gutted funding for scientific research.
Butler's fictional, apocalyptic America does not feel all that removed from our reality. In the midst of this all is young Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl with a strange ability. Due to her mother's drug use, Lauren was born with crippling hyperempathy: if she sees someone in pain, she feels that pain too, just as acutely.
And unfortunately for Lauren, there's a lot of pain to go around these days.
The Olaminas live in one of the few remaining "middle class" communities—a walled neighborhood where huge families are crammed into tiny rooms, and a few people have clung onto their paying jobs. Her father is a minister, her stepmother a school teacher. Beyond the walls of her home is sheer chaos; a wilderness of fire, guns, and the desperate poor.
Lauren is restless, living behind walls. She doesn't believe politicians' promises that the "good old days" are coming back, and she doesn't believe in her father's God anymore. She believes in Earthseed, a new religion that she's discovered. She believes that humanity is destined for the stars. But when a deadly fire destroys the only life she's ever known, she's forced to put all her scheming and dreaming to the test in the dangerous outside world.
Parable of the Sower delivers on all the harrowing action you could want out of a dystopia novel. There are cannibals and murderers and drugged out, bright green gangs of roving pyromaniacs. It's a genuine warning and a wake up call. But, in true Butler fashion, it's also a story of hope, of love, and of building diverse communities to stand against injustice. It's a novel that doesn't just want to lament our dark and dangerous future, but find a way to survive it. Perhaps even to shape it into something new.
Readers sometimes forget, I think, that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale takes place in an explicitly white supremacist society. In the TV show, it's that all the Commanders are white, straight, and male. In the book, it goes much further: everyone who doesn't fit the Gilead definition of white and Christian is massacred or forcibly relocated. The Handmaid's Tale is an important read when we consider where our country is heading, but it is also exclusively about white women, mostly middle class, living in the suburbs of Boston.
Parable of the Sower, on the other hand, is about predominantly Black, Hispanic, and mixed race communities, of various economic backgrounds, struggling together to build something new. As a dystopia novel, it fills in the blanks that Atwood's book never quite addresses, the horrors that might befall everyone else in society if America were to collapse. But it's not strictly a dystopia novel, either.
As speculative novel, Parable of the Sower shows us that as long as there are people willing to help each other, as long as we can find a way to embrace change instead of clinging to the past, there is always, always a glimmer of hope for some sort of brighter future, out there in the stars.