Do you think Lauren's hyperempathy is a weakness or a superpower?
I think that Lauren's hyperempathy is a superpower. She is able to feel the pain of others, and this can be useful to her in a variety of ways. Firstly, she can empathize with people and gain their trust in a world where most people rightly have a very hard time trusting others. This can of trust can be the basis for building community. Secondly, she has little fear of pain being inflicted upon her because she has already dealt with feeling so much pain from the people around her. Though Lauren's hyperempathy sometimes seems like a liability, it can actually be used to gain people's trust and to build community.
Why do you think Octavia Butler chose to make a Biblical reference by choosing to give her book the title The Parable of the Sower?
The Biblical parable of the sower refers to people who have heard the religious message of Jesus: some of them ignore it, some of them act upon it for a little while and then abandon the way, and yet others accept the message and live it fully.
Like Jesus, Lauren starts a new religion and must gain followers. She first tries to explain some of her beliefs to her father and other members of her walled neighborhood, but they are extremely skeptical and dismiss her ideas due to age. They could be compared to the seed sown along a path, which never takes root.
Later on, during her journeys in the violent world outside the walls, Lauren draws people to her who take her message more seriously. Travis, Zahra, Harry, and others ask questions and meditate on the belief system of Earthseed, and eventually decide to accept it for themselves and live in a community based on its principles. They would be likened to the seed sown on good soil that produces a crop. The use of this parable in the novel also makes the name "Earthseed" more significant: Lauren, like Jesus, is sowing seed.
How does Butler show the breakdown of society? What are some of the clues in the first few pages or chapters that demonstrate that this world is not the same as the one we live in?
In the first chapter, Lauren and her stepmother are hanging laundry outside in her dream, and her stepmother comments that there are fewer city lights than before, but this means they can see the stars more and they can afford the stars. This suggests that Lauren's world differs from ours in some major respect, because something has happened to reduce city lights. This "something" turns out to be major economic collapse.
Later on, Lauren mentions that her father has decided that they will go to the great trouble of using potable water for baptism. In our world, where we can turn on a tap and get drinkable water (as in most places in the United States), this seems strange. This shows that in Lauren's world, major environmental crises have turned water into a rare and important commodity. The determination of Lauren's father to use water for his daughter's baptism shows his commitment to his faith.
The Parable of the Sower is often praised for its very realistic dystopia. Are there any features of the world in which Lauren lives that have already happened in ours, or that are likely to occur in the near future?
In the novel, the police are not to be trusted. They demand a fee for their services (though theoretically their work should be paid for by taxes), and they tend to arrest the easiest person to blame rather than attempting to find the actual culprit. On the streets, they are almost as much of a danger as the gangs or drug addicts, because they will arrest people for carrying guns - even though anyone who walks the streets needs a gun to survive.
This parallels the horrendous violence committed by police forces against communities of color in the contemporary United States. In many such communities in the real world, police are distrusted for their tendency to do the same kinds of things that the police in The Parable of the Sower do.
Many consider The Parable of the Sower to be a coming-of-age story. How does the character of Lauren change through the novel?
Lauren begins the story ashamed of her hyperempathy and fearful of sharing her burgeoning belief system of Earthseed. As the minister's daughter in a small walled community, she must play an expected role rather than giving free reign to her dreams. She also does not want to threaten or alienate her father, whom she loves. Additionally, she is not taken seriously because she is only fifteen, and many people remember when she was a child.
However, when her community falls, Lauren is able to gain the trust of Zahra and Harry by explaining her hyperempathy to them. She also exercises excellent decision-making and keeps her small group safe. She becomes more willing to share her Earthseed writings, and discovers that many people take Earthseed seriously.
Lauren's community is built on trust. Why is this important, and what helps the people in her group develop trust with each other?
Other communities in the novel are build on proximity (Lauren's neighborhood) or intimidation (gangs). Neither of these principles proves very lasting: in the case of the neighborhood, proximity does not translate to friendliness or even the ability to work together well; for the drug addicts, intimidation is only useful to keep people in line.
Instead, Lauren helps people at times when they need her most. She protects Travis and Natividad from thieves who try to steal their water, she feeds Emery and her daughter after they sneak into the group, and she picks up little Justin Rohr when his mother dies. Lauren's generosity encourages generosity in the people around her, which puts them on their best behavior and helps them trust each other.
Why do you think Joanne reacted so negatively when Lauren told her that the community should be better prepared? Do you think Lauren's suggestions (such as establishing a rendezvous station or studying edible plants) are paranoid or forward-thinking?
I think that Joanne understood that Lauren was correct in saying that the wall would someday be overrun and the community needed to prepare for such a day. Joanne had also been present during the raids on the community, and she probably came to the same conclusion that Lauren did but was too afraid to consider the loss of everything she knew. She must have been aware of the vulnerability of the community because she moved with her parents to the safety of Olivar.
I also think that Lauren was forward-thinking in establishing such suggestions. Even if nothing happened to the neighborhood, it would do no harm to have such plans in place. Also, the attacks on the neighborhood were getting worse, which suggested a major calamity was on its way. It is not paranoid to have such concerns in such a volatile atmosphere.
What lessons does the reader learn from the story of Lauren's brother, Keith? How does Keith's perspective on life differ from Lauren's, and what can the reader learn from the contrast between these two perspectives?
Keith decides to go into the outside, and make a living from proving services to a gang. He is eventually murdered, and when his family discovers his body, they find that he was tortured to death.
From Keith and his ill-fated show of macho bravado, the reader learns that strength is not best shown in engaging in violence for its own sake or participating in the exploitation of others. Keith believed that the world was cruel and that he needed to be cruel to survive in it. However, Lauren's life demonstrates the opposite lesson: through taking in a diverse group of people, many of them women and children, she endured much less suffering and survives to the end of the novel.