This week Edan Lepucki’s California, a dystopic near-future narrative about a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, debuted on the New York Times Bestsellers List at number 3, allegedly with the aid of the infamous “Colbert-Bump.” But before you take up this timely future-cast, I recommend you pick up the ever prescient and entertaining Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which in my mind defined the whole near-future dystopia in LA genre. I recently re-read Parable in Spring/Summer course I taught on “environmental futures” and forgot to write up a review until reading a review of Lepucki’s book.
Parable takes the form of the diary of Laura Olamina, the daughter of a Baptist preacher who lives with her family in a middle-class community called Robledo, outside of Los Angeles in 2024. Anthropogenic Climate Change, neoliberal economic policies (like NAFTA, Reaganomics, etc.), and rising crime/drug addiction have rendered Southern California a veritable Golgotha, or some other hellish slumlandia one can scavenge from one’s lifetime exposure to modern day Dickensian poverty imagery (think Biafra starvation picks plus Escape from New York and Road Warrior). Many residents in areas like Robledo hide behind walls, hoping to keep out the rising scourge of violence and poverty, while others take to the desolate US route 101 or I-5 corridor to travel north to Oregon and Washington, where water (and jobs) are rumored to be more plentiful.
Laura dreams of a life where she doesn’t have to live in fear of the outside violence or the suffocating closeness of hiding behind the walls. She also begins to imagine a religion of her own, called Earhseed, which helps people find a meaningful life on Earth while looking towards humanity’s destiny: to take root among the stars.
At the University of Oregon, where roughly half the students hail from California, The Parable of the Sower was a devilishly fun book to teach. Butler’s narrative of forced migration and armed lifeboats amidst a sea of social/ecological disaster remind readers (but especially my Californian students-turned-temporary-Oregonians) of the privileges of high consumption, free/rapid movement, and reliable access to social services like medical care, police protection, that some of us enjoy more than others. Butler’s novel stands as a stark reminder of the injustices present in society today, and a warning that in a world of “starved economies and tortured ecology” inequalities and social violence are often exacerbated by the relentless consumption that fuels our lives. Butler’s often grotesque narrative remains “realistic” in the sense that the web of oppression she weaves for her characters to struggle within is made of the same strands (individual and institutional racism, economic exploitation, and environmental injustice) that shoot through the fabric of American society today.
Written in 1994, it was eerily reading Parable in 2014. Laura records in her diary an outbreak of measles (see the Midwest today), abundant, devastating hurricanes and tornadoes (see decade) and massive wildfires rolling over a parched West (see Washington south to Baja). But the elevated social violence and depleted social safety nets envisioned in the novel are far and away worse than current conditions. Indeed, if there is a major misstep in this book, I think it is in Butler’s reliance on what some scholars of food aid call “poverty porn” to underscore to social decay her novel cautions against. It is hard to think of an American society so degraded that little children would gnaw on the leg of a junkie shot dead on a street and left to rot. I know the Reagan and Bush years where tough, but come on! Still, we are talking about a sci-fi book, not a documentary of things to come.
Rating: Some reads fall on the path, and are trodden upon or kicked to the wayside, some reads are cast among thorns (like True Detective) and choked out due to superior competition, and other reads fall on the good shelf, the one you’ll go to and find a great summer read. This book’s the latter.
Availability: USMAI and COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended