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Parable of the Sower: The dystopian 2024

“One Book, One Phoenix” is Phoenix’s city-wide summer adult reading program. This year’s book is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. There are various discussion events scheduled around the city for participants. I’ve never participated in a reading program like this, so I thought, why not? The story is set in 2024, but Butler wrote the book in 1993. This is important to keep in mind because the events she describes were, at the time, roughly 30 years into a dystopian future United States. Drugs, violence, poverty, debt slavery, unemployment, and food shortages are rampant, the complex result of the nation’s inability to adapt to a changing climate. The protagonist, a teenager named Lauren Olamina, lives in one of Los Angeles’ last “safe” neighborhoods. She rarely goes “outside” this gated community, and when she does, she is overwhelmed by the desperation and violence that reins. She has a condition called hyperempathy, which means she feels the same pain those around her feel. If someone near her is shot, for example, she is paralyzed in their pain. She contracted this condition in the womb, the result of drugs her mother took. Lauren’s father is a Baptist preacher. He clings to a culture that Lauren sees as increasingly irrelevant to contemporary society. She rejects his faith after regularly hearing her father and other adult community members talk about “how things used to be,” and how "it will all go back to how it was" if they just do X, Y, and Z. They tell stories about the affluence of bygone years – people owning vehicles and dogs, calling the police during emergencies, and having plenty of water. As far as she recalls, extended families have always squeezed into tiny houses, most people are illiterate, and finding a job that pays a salary, other than just room and board, is nearly impossible. She begins educating herself on how to survive “outside.” Looters eventually steal a key to the neighborhood gate, break in, and burn it down. Lauren is the only member of her family to survive. She makes her way north, meeting other refugees along the way. Each day is a fight. It isn’t always clear if the fight is worth it. This was a fantastic book for a program like this because of how ferociously it embodies the concepts of neighbor and community, and how intertwined we are with our neighbor. Lauren’s hyperempathy connects her to everyone, regardless of their color or creed. She reacts to the injustice around her more actively and passionately than her friends and family. And she survives. At the end of the book, she and the other refugees begin building a new community – one that’s far different than the ones any of them have left behind.

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