Ben Smithgall

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Bit pusher at Spotify. Previously Interactive News at the New York Times, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





Parable of the Sower

By Octavia E. Butler

Finished reading on September 12, 2019

It’s funny to have read this immediately on the heels of Fall, because the worlds that they start from don’t actually sound that different from each other. What separates them, though, is who Stephenson and Butler focus on, and how those characters create and realize change. For Stephenson, the interesting people are those who have enough money that they can create massive social media hoaxes about fake nuclear attacks, and the solution is to build a giant high-fantasy simulation that we can all live in when we die.

For Butler, the focus is instead on a normal girl, part of a middle-class family that is trying to make do as the world crumbles around them. Though it was written in 1993, it is striking the degree it reflects the current moment. From small details like an outbreak of measles in New York and New Jersey to bigger plot points where the group is trying to escape from a raging fire, the book shows us a future not entirely divorced from our current trajectory.

Inside this, though, is the main character’s undeniable hope: things can improve. We can build a better tomorrow.