Facing the speculative: the “parable of the sower” as a parallel to our society

Welcome to “Facing the Speculative,” where I will discuss some crucial speculative fiction novels and their implications for modern society. This is an extension of the “Imagining Adaptive Societies” project with Associate Professor of Earth Systems Jamie Jones and Professor of Political Science Margaret Levi at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences.

Going to school at Stanford can seem unreal at times with the endless list of college opportunities and activities and the relentless sunshine. Life on campus can almost feel like a simulation – while beautiful in many ways, it’s an atmosphere that allowed me to get away from the real world.

It wasn’t until I started reading Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” that I was struck by how far removed I was from reality. Written in 1993, “Parable of the Sower” is a speculative fictional novel set in California in 2024. Fires, some caused by climate change and others by drug-hungry arsonists, ravage the state. Excessive sums are being spent on space exploration as it moves into privatization. Police forces fail to help fleeing refugees, often adding to the chaos and violence. Politicians promise a return to glory while suspending employee protection laws, environmental regulations and economic surveillance. Postmodern capitalism has evolved into a form of debt slavery, where employees live paycheck to paycheck, forever attached to their jobs.

Reading this novel, I couldn’t help but relate the fictional plot to the very reality of non-fiction we live in today. Record fires are currently burning in California. Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are spending billions of dollars in this new era space race to colonize Mars and pioneer space tourism. The inequality of wealth is pervasive. Afghan refugees find themselves trapped in chaos, unable to find asylum. The list just goes on.

We have come to a peak of history where the fictional tales that we once thought of as “from another world” are in fact. very worldly. They start playing in real time – here, now. Speculative fiction is no longer just an escape from reality; its fictional storylines often take you back to the non-fictional storyline that unfolds in our timeline.

But while Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and other speculative fiction novels are motivated by conflict and disaster, their plots are solved by resolutions that have yet to be fulfilled in our world. This is my fascination with speculative fiction. Authors are allowed to speculate on resolutions that we as readers may attempt to implement in the real world.

In Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”, 15-year-old protagonist Lauren Olamida zealously strives to discover her own religion which is illuminated by her lived experience. One of the verses of his “Earthseed” religion is:

“Ignoring

Protects itself.

Ignoring

Promotes suspicion.

Ignoring

Protects itself,

And protected,

Ignorance grows.

The answers to real world problems can be found both in reality and in the fictional dimension. Lauren, and Butler by extension, are begging that we don’t remain ignorant of the fictional world, let alone the world that exists outside of our bubbles, as that ignorance will only flourish on itself and grow. Perhaps the most urgent solutions to problems like climate change and political injustice are there, at the touch of a novel.


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