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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

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New Introduction by GLORIA STEINEM 

Parable of the Sower is a classic odyssey from Octavia Butler, telling the story of one woman who is twice as feeling in a world that has become doubly dehumanized. The time is 2025. The place is California, where small walled communities must protect themselves from hordes of desperate scavengers and roaming bands of people addicted to a drug that activates an orgasmic desire to burn, rape, and murder. When one small community is overrun, Lauren Olamina, an 18-year-old black woman with the hereditary trait of "hyperempathy"—which causes her to feel others’ pain as her own—sets off on foot along the dangerous coastal highways, moving north into the unknown.

Don't miss the second book the Parable series, Parable of the Talents!


Octavia Butler Parable of the Sower

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“In her fine new novel, Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler accepts a more difficult challenge: poising her story on the brink of change, she tries to imagine a new social order at its moment of conception... As a novel, ‘The Parable of the Sower’ also succeeds on multiple levels. A gripping tale of survival and a poignant account of growing up sane in a disintegrating world, it is at bottom a subtle and disturbing exposition of the gospel according to Lauren: ‘The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.'”

“Literate ... thoughtful. And a real gut-wrencher.”

“A powerful story of hope and faith in the midst of urban violence and decay ... Excellent science fiction and a parable of modern society.”

“A prophetic odyssey.”

“Simple, direct, and deeply felt.”

“Artfully conceived and elegantly written.”

“There isn't a page in this vivid and frightening story that fails to grip the reader.”

“I’d love to see Octavia E. Butler’s novel PARABLE OF THE SOWER read in more high school English classes. It’s a brilliant, endlessly rich dystopian novel that pairs well with '1984' or 'The Handmaid’s Tale,' and it’s also a fascinating exploration of how crises can fuel new religious and ideological movements.”

“I have found myself returning to Parable of the Sower and Butler's other writings many times over the years to help make sense of things, to find in her stories lessons to guide my own life… The novel offers a dystopian warning that if we, the human race, continue along our current path, then unimaginable horrors await us. But, in truth, such a narrow interpretation is a mistake. It misses the invitation to embrace the essential message of Butler's work, that the only constant life has ever offered us is change.”

“Butler tells her story with unusual warmth, sensitivity, honesty and grace; though science fiction readers will recognize this future Earth, Lauren Olamina and her vision make this novel stand out like a tree amid saplings.”

“The scariest book I’ve ever read is Octavia E. Butler’s near-futuristic ‘Parable of the Sower.’ Much of Butler’s work is frightening because it feels so plausible and true, even when she’s writing about aliens or vampires. But this book’s dystopia of walled-off communities, useless government, unchecked violence and corporate slavery feels like the waiting headlines of tomorrow — and too many of our headlines today… But Butler forced me to grow stronger as I read. Despite the horror of its prescience, the stubborn optimism that burns at the core of ‘Parable of the Sower’ helps me face our true-life horrors. As Butler wrote, ‘The only lasting truth is Change.’”

“In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time… for sheer peculiar prescience, Butler’s novel and its sequel may be unmatched... In the day to day of the Parable books, hyperempathy is a liability that makes moving through the world more complicated and, for tactical reasons, requires those who have it to behave more ruthlessly... In her lifetime, Butler insisted that the Parable series was not intended as an augur. ‘This was not a book about prophecy,’ she said, of 'Talents,' in remarks she delivered at M.I.T. ‘This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is: I certainly hope not.’”

blog — December 06

“She writes her way to hope”: Jesmyn Ward introduces “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler

To celebrate the release our new hardcover edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler, we are proud to share renowned author Jesmyn Ward’s moving introduction to this reissue, in which Ward writes of the hope that Butler’s work affords its readers, offering a ray of light to those enduring tragedy.


INTRODUCTION TO BLOODCHILD

By Jesmyn Ward

I can’t remember when I first read Octavia Butler’s work. It wasn’t in high school. I never encountered her in my coursework, as my required reading looked nothing like the books I found in my personal reading: I read The Last of the MohicansCatch-22, and The Catcher in the Rye and little there resonated with the world I knew. I had grown up in a poor/working-class family in rural Mississippi, where I spent years eating government cheese, red beans, and rice, and drinking powdered milk. I lived in my grandmother’s four-bedroom house with fourteen other relatives and watched my extended family bear the brunt of poverty and racism throughout my childhood and adolescence. I spent those years wandering through my school library stacks, finding books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Richard Wright, Gabriel García Márquez, and Margaret Atwood. I found sustenance in literary writers and in science fiction and fantasy writers, too, needing the escapism of that kind of storytelling, which I had been drawn to since I was a small child and first read Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley—but the only science fiction and fantasy I could find in my school library were by Frank Herbert, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Isaac Asimov.

I didn’t encounter Octavia Butler’s fiction in university, either. I majored in English, and I sought out creative writing classes and literature classes that specialized in the African Diaspora. I read African writers and Black British writers and Black American writers and Black Caribbean writers, but all the work I read was poetry and literary fiction. It was good to study these artists, to seriously consider the kind of work I had been starving for in high school, but even though I attended school in the mid- to late 1990s, when Octavia Butler was a living writer, full in her artistic flowering, I never found her work in the bookstore stacks or on the syllabi of my courses. I never really encountered any sci-fi or speculative fiction: when students submitted science fiction short stories or fantasy in creative writing workshops, my peers shunned them. They said the work was amateur, not serious, wasn’t about real people and therefore, real issues. I sat quietly at my desk, swallowing their critiques whole, quietly ashamed of the pleasure I got from reading sci-fi and fantasy.

I must have read Octavia Butler’s work for the first time in the early 2000s, when I was living in New York City as a young twenty-something, working as a publishing assistant. I had more money, not much, but more than I’d had in college and high school, so I’d take the train to The Strand, where the stacks stretched on and on. My browsing blossomed; I needed that. I was floundering through life. Tragedy had loosed me from my moorings, my understanding of what the world was and how it worked, and it sent me spinning: a drunk driver killed my brother Joshua in October 2000, and his killer was never held accountable for his death. I’d voted in my first presidential election and watched in confused horror as Bush was appointed by Supreme Court ruling. I’d watched smoke billow from the Twin Towers on 9/11 and then spent hours walking from midtown to Brooklyn, peppered in ash. I’d marched through Manhattan to protest Bush’s pre-emptive war with Iraq, foolishly thinking our collective uprising would have some kind of impact, bitterly disappointed when I discovered it did not. I’d visited home and jumped from my car’s window and swum through the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and then lived in shock in the desolation of the aftermath.

I found Parable of the Sower by chance in The Strand’s stacks. I devoured it. Butler’s prose was forthright and rhythmic. Her imagery was stark and startling. Her character development was disturbingly true to what I knew of the world, of poverty, of desperate human beings. It was harrowing and dark, and it seemed to reflect some ineffable terrible truth I found mirrored in the world. It reminded me that worse presents were possible. I sought out more of her books and found Parable of the Talents, the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, and Bloodchild and Other Stories. In Bloodchild, Butler says this about readers: “Actually, I feel that what people bring to my work is at least as important to them as what I put into it.” In my twenties, I found this to be true, sunk in grief, bewildered at the savagery and terror of the 2000s; when I discovered Butler’s work, I discovered myself. I saw myself in her characters, empathized with them as they struggled to live in untenable worlds, in untenable circumstances. I knew they knew the taste of ash, the black scramble of floodwater.

I’m in my mid-forties now. If life revolves in cycles, I find myself in another crucible, another terrible span of time. The COVID-19 pandemic lingers and evolves, leaving weakened immune systems and millions of bodies in its wake. The Supreme Court struck down Roe, and the politicians in power can’t seem to grasp the urgency of the moment, to understand that not only are childbearing people uniquely disenfranchised by this ruling, but that we will die without access to abortion health care. My partner of thirteen years died at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, leaving me with two grieving children and the charge of living in a fractured, unthinkable present. His death tasks me with this: every day I must wake and live. I must choose to move and breathe and speak and believe that there can be good in this world, in humanity, even though this fresh grief invites a drift toward despair, even though, as the ill characters do in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” I have wanted to claw out my own heart in hopelessness.

In multiple allusions in the preface and afterwords in Bloodchild, Butler alludes to the despair and bewilderment she encounters in her own life, and how she wrestles with it in her work. “Amnesty” is about an interpreter, kidnapped and tortured by aliens as a child, who works for and with that same alien race as an adult to improve communication between humans and their visitors. In the afterword to “Amnesty,” Butler writes that the story was inspired by “the things that happened to Doctor Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos—back in the 1990s when I could still be shocked that a person could have his profession and his freedom taken away and his reputation damaged all without proof he’d actually done anything wrong.” “Speech Sounds” follows a pandemic survivor who has witnessed the devolution of humanity after a fast-spreading disease robs those left of speech or the ability to read and write. In the afterword to “Speech Sounds,” Butler writes: “‘Speech Sounds’ was conceived in weariness, depression, and sorrow. I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back. It always seems to do that.” She elaborates on this in the afterword to “Bloodchild,” the title story, with:

When I have to deal with something that disturbs me . . . I write about it. I sort out my problems by writing about them. In a high school classroom on November 22, 1963, I remember grabbing a notebook and beginning to write my response to news of John Kennedy’s assassination. Whether I write journal pages, an essay, a short story, or weave my problems into a novel, I find the writing helps me get through the trouble and get on with my life.

This is how Butler finds her way in a world that perpetually demoralizes, confounds, and browbeats: she writes her way to hope. This is how she confronts darkness and persists in the face of her own despair.

This is the real gift of her work, a gift that shines in Bloodchild: in inviting her readers to engage with darker realities, to immerse themselves in worlds more disturbing and complex than our own, she asks readers to acknowledge the costs of our collective inaction, our collective bowing to depravity, to tribalism, to easy ignorance and violence. Her primary characters refuse all of that. Her primary characters refuse to deny the better aspects of their humanity. They insist on embracing tenderness and empathy, and in doing so, they invite readers to realize that we might do so as well. Butler makes hope possible. That hope might be tenuous, and our lives might not be what we envisioned in these ruptured realities, but new ways of being are near. These are futures where we might turn from despair and build another family after a pandemic. Where we might elect to foster life and connection. Where we might wake every day and choose to breathe, to walk, to do work and heal ourselves and others even though we struggle with suicidal ideation, with nihilism, with grief. Bloodchild is a template for how to survive, how to thrive, in broken worlds, and Butler’s work is ever prescient, ever powerful. Her voice: a rough balm.

—Jesmyn Ward

DeLisle, Mississippi, August 16, 2022

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A writer who imagined the dark future we have chosen for ourselves in book after book, OCTAVIA E. BUTLER  (1947–2006) is recognized as among the bravest and smartest of late twentieth century fiction writers. Her work includes Parable of the SowerParable of the Talents, Fledgling, and the short story collection Bloodchild. A 1995 MacArthur Genius Award winner, Butler transcended the science fiction category even as she was awarded that community’s top prizes, including the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Not merely a prophet of dystopia, Butler also wrote of the ways human beings might subvert their dismal destiny. “I write about people who do extraordinary things,” Butler has said, “it just turns out that it was called science fiction.” Her novels and stories have reached readers of all ages, all races, and all religious and sexual persuasions. For years the only prominent African-American woman writing science fiction, Butler has encouraged many others to follow in her path. The Octavia E. Butler Scholarship was established in her memory in 2006, providing scholarships for young people of color to attend the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, where Butler herself began writing science fiction.