It Takes Two: The Ballad of Lost Souls

Parable of the Sower and The Heart Goes Last

This one brought to you by the U.S. presidential election.

Parable of the Sower, for anyone who’s read it, has distinct parallels with today’s United States, even though it was first published over twenty years ago.  Minorities scrape a life out of bombed out residential streets while whites live in gated compounds with military-grade security, all presided over by an inept president who doesn’t seem to give a shit about the lives of the people, even if he had the wherewithal to actually fix anything.

The environment has gone to hell, it barely rains in southern parts of the country, and the north is guarded against people trying to emigrate for a better life.  Wage slavery is a thing again, and the only ones doing well are corporations.  But Parable of the Sower also contains a message of hope and self-determination, an undeniable statement that the people in the novel–and those the allegory is really about–are not going to take the world lying down.  Those some may give up, others are going to fight, and find a unity that can’t be defeated by mere hatred and bigotry.  It’s a message we could all use, in these dark times.  Even though we’ve lost a visionary in Octavia E. Butler, we can still read her words and take heart.

Margaret Atwood made her name in the speculative fiction world, with Oryx and Crake, and the Maddaddam trilogy.  Though many cite The Handmaid’s Tale, Maddaddam was what brought her to the forefront in climate change, dystopian fiction and showed that literature could take on these topics in a smart, ironic way that was both entertaining and horrifying.  As if that already needed proving, but that’s a topic for another day.  

But this post is not about Maddaddam, but The Heart Goes Last.  Until last month, her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last deals with climate change and post-corporate-takeover America on a deeper level than Maddaddam, tracing the story of a middle-aged, middle-American, middle-class couple as they keep trying to take the easy way out of the dystopia.  While MaddAddam is a series about fighting, The Heart Goes Last is a novel about giving up.  

While MaddAddam openly pushes the ridiculous as a contrast to the real world–a covert, ugly sort of ridiculousness that can’t be wiped away by closing the cover of a novel–The Heart Goes Last camouflages the bizarre beneath a veneer of the expedient, the necessary, the no-other-choice.  Perhaps the best part about Atwood’s novel is the depths of irony it plums.  Or doesn’t.  It’s difficult to tell where sincerity ends and irony begins; it’s difficult to hate people who are so irretrievably inept at everything.  Are they reaping the rewards of their own inaction, or innocent victims of a world gone mad?

Either way, both of these novels are good reads for bad times.

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Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

Lauren’s
life is constrained to the total square footage of the cul-de-sac in which her
family has lived her whole life. 
Lauren’s community is lucky, though.  They have a wall. 
They have guns.  They have
each other.  In a narrative that is
eerily familiar to our modern world, Lauren tries to navigate a world that
would kill her as soon as look at her, a world in which dogs have gone from
family pets to merciless predators, a world in which the government doesn’t
even make a pretense of caring for its citizens.

Parable of the Sower is a classic work
of science fiction that will probably always have resonance with the world in
which we live, precisely because it embraces the themes of change and human
compassion.  Though it depicts a
world in which humans seem to have lost all sense of their humanity—hoarding
food, murdering for the merest scrap, abusing drugs that turn them into violent
animals—there are those tiny sparks of kindness and joy that make every
dystopia compelling.

The
novel is written as a compilation of journal entries that Lauren keeps over a
short period of her life.  Butler
displays a stunning mastery of narrative, creating a personal dialog that
embraces all the naïveté of an eighteen-year-old woman, but written in the
matter-of-fact tones of one who has seen far too much in her short life.  Though the reader meets many of the
other residents of Lauren’s community only briefly, Butler imbues them with
that individual spark of humanity that turns each into a living, breathing
person.  Butler doesn’t shy away
from harsh realities, and neither does Lauren, but the precision and deft
touches with which the author distinguishes her intent from the narrative of
her character is not often matched in fiction.

Anyone
looking for a master dystopia that exemplifies the metaphor of modern life
needs to read Parable of the Sower.  Those interested in novels that
speculate on the philosophical, as well as physical ramifications of societal
collapse will be intrigued by Lauren’s interpretation of religion and what it
means to a people under duress. 
This novel is a modern classic that treats with issues of poverty, race,
and community, and should be required reading for every U.S. citizen.