On the night of Lauren Oya Olamina's fifteenth birthday, she dreams that she is floating through a house that is on fire. The dream shifts to a decollation of hanging up clothes to dry with her stepmother while looking up at the stars. Her stepmother reminisces about the time when the city lights would drown out the stars. When Lauren wakes, she believes that this dream is a reminder that it's all a lie.
Though the God of Lauren's father - who is a Baptist minister - is no longer her God, she still consents to be baptized. Along with a group of other teenagers and their families, Lauren rides her bike out of their walled compound and into the city at large; the families have decided they want their children to have a full-immersion baptism, which can only be conducted in a pool in a church across the city. While riding through the city, Lauren and the other members of the caravan see a number of disturbing sights: corpses on the sidewalk, a confused naked woman wandering around, and a bloodied child. All of the adults in the caravan are armed - is is only safe to leave their walled communities in large groups, during the day, and with guns in hand.
Lauren finds these sights particularly difficult because she suffers from hyperempathy syndrome: she feels the pain of others as if it was her own. This ability is particularly difficult to deal with in the violent world in which she lives; her father has taught her that she doesn't have to give in to this feeling, which she sees as a problem. Lauren acquired this ability from her birth mother, who was addicted to Paracecto and died giving birth to Lauren. Lauren's hyperempathy is not ESP or any mystical power; however, before she got her first period, she would spontaneously start bleeding every time she saw someone else bleeding.
As she receives the baptism, Lauren thinks about God. Her brother Keith says that God is just the grown-ups' way of getting you to do what they want. For some people, God is like a king or a cop or a father. Lauren cannot help but think of the 700 people who died in a recent storm, and wonders where God is in such a tragedy. The book of the Bible that Lauren likes most is the Book of Job, which deals with the terrible suffering that God metes out to a man named Job. Some people think that God is like a king or a judge, but Lauren thinks that God is none of these things - God is something else altogether.
Lauren meditates on the state of the world. There is a presidential election going on, though few people bother to vote anymore. One of the astronauts sent on the recent mission to Mars has died; though she would have preferred to be buried on Mars, her body will be returned to earth. Lauren decides that she will remember her name and honor this woman who could not be buried in her own heaven.
Meanwhile, the situation outside the walls of the neighborhood is getting more dire. More water sellers are being killed; corpses marked with the blue armband are turning up everywhere. Water is more expensive than gasoline now, though no one drives vehicles that operate on gasoline anymore. When the people of the neighborhood must venture outside, they usually ride bicycles and go in groups. Changes occur in the neighborhood as well: the Yannis family, who owned one of the last TVs in the neighborhood, recently suffered the breakdown of the appliance. Everyone in the neighborhood used to come watch it, and the Yannises would sell food to the viewers. Lauren hopes they will be able to get along without it.
Later that week comes news that Mrs. Sims - a rather cranky old woman - killed herself. Earlier that year, thieves had climbed over the neighborhood wall and robbed Mrs. Sims before raping her. Last week Mrs. Sims found out that her son and his five children died in a housefire across town, and she killed herself a few days after. Lauren knows that Mrs. Sims believed suicide was a sin that would lead to eternal suffering in hell, so her choice to kill herself reveals the depth of her pain.
Moved by Mrs. Sim's tragic death, Lauren writes down her some of her thoughts about God. She believes that God is change, and that human beings are both shaped by God and shapers of God, in a mutual exchange. Lauren realizes how deeply rooted these ideas are in her mind, and realizes that one day she will have to do something about them.
A man named Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner is elected president. He promises to dismantle the "wasteful" space programs and suspend laws around environmental protection, minimum wage, and worker protection in an effort to stimulate the economy. Lauren is skeptical that these changes will have any beneficial effect.
A three-year-old girl named Amy Dunn accidentally sets a fire in her family's garage. Rather than calling the fire department (which charges a fee for service) the neighbors come together and stop the fire with buckets of water, dirt, and heavy blankets. No one was injured in the fire, but Lauren wonders what will happen to little Amy Dunn. Amy is the product of incest between Tracy Dunn and her uncle Derek, a charismatic but evil man who assaulted her repeatedly. Amy's family generally neglects her, but she is intelligent and curious, so Lauren decides to allow her into the kindergarten class that she teaches.
Two of Mrs. Sims' distant cousins inherit her house; their names are Wardell Parrish and Rosalee Payne. They believe that the neighbors robbed the house after Mrs. Sims died, and refuse to have any friendly relations with the close-knit community. Lauren dislikes them.
A few days later, Lauren, along with her boyfriend Curtis, her father, and some other young people from the neighborhood, goes into the hills outside the walls to practice shooting - am important skill in this dangerous world. Two of the children are from the Moss family; the head of the family, Richard Moss, practices a fusion of Old Testament and West African beliefs, and has three wives.
The group takes turns practicing with the gun. Lauren wonders what would happen if she ever had to shoot another person - would it trigger her hyperempathy and kill her? She has shot birds and squirrels before and felt a little kick, but she doesn't know for certain.
A small pack of feral dogs stalks the group. Lauren's father shoots one, wounding it. Lauren feels as though she is being skewered when the injured dog does not die immediately, and she shoots it in the head, killing it instantly. She is surprised and relieved when she feels the sensation of a heavy blow, but does not die. Perhaps her hyperempathy is not as dangerous as she previously thought.
Lauren states "So last night, I dreamed a reminder that it's all a lie" (pg. 1). This invites the question: what exactly is the lie? Is it the strict religious faith of Lauren's father? The illusion of safety in their gated community? Only time will tell.
While Lauren and her stepmother hang up the clothes to dry, Lauren notes the closeness of the wall, and her stepmother comments on the dimness of the city lights but also says that at least they can afford the stars. These relatively minor details in the first few pages of the novel indicate that this world is markedly different from our own. In this way, Butler shows, rather than tells, her readers about the dystopia in which they find themselves. Butler is subtly indicating to her readers that this world is not like the one in which they live. In the world of the novel, something has happened to reduce the city lights; from this, the reader can infer that there has been some disastrous change to society. This initial impression is confirmed by Lauren's description of the journey out from their walled neighborhood: the city is rife with wounded people and drug addicts.
Damage from Paracecto (which caused Lauren's hyperempathy when her mother abused it while pregnant) might be an analogy to damage caused to the children of drug-addicted mothers in the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, there was widespread social panic about "crack babies" - however, more recent studies indicate that there is no long-term harm done to these children, as long as other health issues such as malnutrition are remedied.
Lauren's hyperempathy comes with many dangers. There is a great deal of pain and suffering in her world, and, moreover, thieves and other unscrupulous people might take advantage of her condition. However, Lauren's ability to share pain might contribute to a better world, one in which empathy and compassion rather than selfishness become the principles that guide society.
Chapter 2 makes the first of many direct Biblical references. Lauren notes that her favorite book of the Bible is the Book of Job, a book about a man whom God causes to suffer horribly in order to test his faith. Eventually, when the man nearly curses God in his misery, God reminds him that God is all-powerful and Job has no right to question him, but God eventually gives the man a new life and a new family.
Lauren is a deeply sympathetic person, but she is never a bleeding heart. Even when she decides to take little Amy Dunn under her wing, she irritably notes that "I've been taking care of little kids since I was one, and I'm tired of it. I think, though, that if someone doesn't help Amy now, someday she'll do something a whole lot worse than burning down her family's garage" (pg. 34). Lauren prefaces her very generous act by noting that she is sick of taking care of kids, but she also knows that this act is essential. This sense of responsibility will serve her well in the struggles to come.