The New Parable of the Sower Covers are 🔥🔥

What do we make of the creative decision to limit the cover art for the latest printing of Parable of the Sower and its graphic novel adaptation to a fiery color scheme? Perhaps this shared, yet narrow color palette might help us to think about two elements of Parable‘s reception: its “unreadability” and, relatedly, the increasing urgency of its nearly (if not already) realized vision.

Debbie Notkin’s review in Habakkuk, she concludes with what she sees as a guiding proverb among dystopian science fiction writers: “It’s not depressing; it’s cautionary.” She describes Parable as “the Pandora’s box myth come true, with the tiny Hope carefully stowed at the bottom of the chest of troubles” (8). But despite this final assessment of the novel, Notkin also says the “detailed realism” of Parable creates “an atmosphere so real it’s sometimes almost unreadable” (8).

Notkin is certainly not the only one who feels this way. Damian Duffy, one of the co-authors of Parable‘s graphic novel adaptation, explained that as he was making his way through Butler’s writings, he came to Parable but could not finish it because he was “frightened horribly” (19:14). In the same interview, Duffy explains that he read Kindred—a novel he classifies as “horror” due to its addressing of chattel slavery—in one sitting (41:00,19:00). In this context, as well as Notkin’s, what do we make of Parable of the Sower‘s perceived “unreadability”?

At one point in the interview Duffy and John Jennings (the other co-author of the graphic novel adaptation) talk about the prescience of the novel and the “added level of tension” of writing about wildfires in California and presidential infringement upon civil liberties while watching the news and certain Twitter feeds (56:11). Jennings even says that many of the color palettes for the graphic novel were drawn from simply driving around his Southern California residence and taking pictures (56:45). Does our temporal and circumstantial proximity to the world Butler constructs make the novel more or less readable?

This immediacy of the world Butler constructs in Parable led John Warner to this conclusion in his 2018 review of Parable of the Sower: “I would like to still be able to read Parable of the Sower as a cautionary tale, but that time has passed. Now it’s a requiem.” And while it’s tempting to focus on the prescience of Butler’s vision in Parable, Warner argues, “Butler wasn’t clairvoyant. She merely saw the present more acutely than most.”

Given the various accounts of science fiction’s relationship to the future (e.g., Gernsback, Bova) and whether such a relationship is an essential part of (the) science fiction (author’s work), what do we make of Warner’s comments about Butler and the present?

Finally, since it’s not nice to talk about race, religion or the end of the world at parties, does Butler’s “Genius” way of scientifictioning provide a potential example of how one might snag and snub cultural capital?

Habakkuk 3:3:

Interview with Damian Duffy and John Jennings:

Warner’s review:

4 thoughts on “The New Parable of the Sower Covers are 🔥🔥”

  1. Butler has some of the most readable prose out there! Nevertheless, this “unreadability” could be attributed to the novel’s lack of irony; the same reason Lauren’s neighbors can’t see the precariousness of their fortress. Lauren is aware that walls offer temporary protection because the very classification of an “outside” is false. The novel shows us that the transformative potential presented by “outsides” are actually immanent to the system. The difference between Lauren and Automatic Jack is her belief in change: she engages the shifting interrelatedness of her world to forge better life chances.

  2. Picking up on DFarin’s comment regarding the readability/unreadability of the novel, and the quote Somtapian includes about “the ‘detailed realism'” creating “unreadability” (Notkin), I’d like to think about the different forms of Lauren’s writing that we’re presented in the novel: the bulk of the text is made up of journal-y prose entries, interspersed (and often epigraph-ed) with bold-type religious truths (Earthseed text). Lauren follows up one of these in-text self-quotations by saying “this is the literal truth” (25). What kind of realism is this? What kinds of “literal truth” are we confronted with in Butler’s SF, and how does the centrality of “change” re-configure expectations for “readable,” stable textual worlds?

  3. I think Dfarin’s point about the “unreadabililty” stemming from a lack of irony is apt. In Debbie Notkin’s review of the book she writes “Butler is attempting something virtually impossible: to write the story between ‘if this goes on. . . ‘ and ‘what if. . .’ Encountering this line I couldn’t help but do a creative misreading, allowing the word “virtually” to borrow some of its valences from our readings of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is perhaps eye-roll inducing in its quasi-beat/gonzo stylings but the cool flare that informs it bespeaks a receptivity, people find it eminently readable. This book brings so much to our conversations about escapism that I’m sure we’ll address in our meeting.

  4. This “unreadability” seems to me, as others have commented before me, counterintuitive: it’s shockingly readable—not only because of the smooth prose style—but because the horrifying content it presents is so deeply intertwined with denial. Even as Lauren repeatedly insists to Joanne that the impending apocalypse “this isn’t a joke,” Joanne continues to turn her head from the reality presented to her (58). Even the characters who recognize the horror and danger for what it is still easily retreat into denial as the horror fades into normalcy (“we hear gunfire so much that we don’t hear it” (50)). Pairing horror with denial enables an almost insidious readability, modeling methods of taking in reality at a distance: it challenges the reader, like Lauren, to get closer and see better.

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