Parable of the Sower

Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.

The year is 2024. Climate change has parched and torched the American Southwest and what is left of the United States is, functionally, a failed state. The president Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner believes that all Americans really need to get back to work, which means cutting back on needless regulation. We enter into this dystopian landscape through the journal of Lauren Olamina: author, prophet of Earthseed, teen-aged girl.

When we first meet Lauren she lives in Robledo with her father (a priest and professor), step-mother, and siblings. Robledo is nothing special: a poor community just outside Los Angeles, gated, if barely. Inside the walls is a community. There are families. They grow food. Lauren’s stepmother teaches the kids how to read. That is not to say things are perfect, but it is an island of stability. Outside the walls lies danger: drug users, roving bands, packs of wild dogs. For Lauren, the stability offered by Robledo is of particular importance because of her particular condition. She is an empath who feels the pain and joy of other people, which is a particular danger in such a violent world.

Although Parable of the Sower unfolds over four years, the story is actually divided in two parts: in Robledo and on the road. About halfway through the book, the bubble of stability suddenly implodes and Lauren suddenly finds herself cast onto the road. With just two survivors from Robledo, Zahra Moss, the youngest wife in a polygamous family, and Harry Balter, a white teenager her own age, Lauren resolves to head north to find a better land where she can build a new community based on her new religion: Earthseed. Food is scarce, water expensive, and every person in the vast human tide moving north is a potential thief or worse. And yet, there is also safety in numbers, so they find themselves accumulating traveling companions, whether in the form of Allie and Jill Gilchrist, runaway sisters whose father became their pimp, or a small family of runaway slaves Travis and Natividad Douglas with their infant child. An exception to the apparent strays that Lauren accumulates is Bankole, an aging black man who is just a little bit too prepared and a little bit too competent and starts by conspicuously traveling alongside the group rather than with it. Each new addition to the group gets the same message:

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Although Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1994, a world in which the American southwest is on fire, presidents call for deregulation, and people desperate for work take jobs in ever-worse conditions while the core problems are left unaddressed is an eerily plausible setting. And the imminent arrival of the year 2024 makes it seem all the more prescient. This is a world built on the bones of American social institutions going back to the time of slavery, but imagined in the context of the very real social and environmental problems of the twenty-first century.

As a near-future history of a failing United States Parable of the Sower falls into the same genre as Omar El Akkad’s American War, which envisions a future where the Civil War reignites over the issue of fossil fuels, splitting the country and allowing him to invert the paradigms of the American “War on Terror” as applied to the American south. I really liked American War and thought its project was a clever one, but, in a lot of ways, what Butler does in Parable of the Sower strikes closer to home. For one, Butler is significantly more insightful about the race-based schisms that linger in the United States and the gradual erosion of social order because of environmental change seems a bit more plausible than the neat resurrection of the Confederacy. Similarly, the 2019 documentary American Factory won an Academy Award for its look at the working conditions at a Chinese-owned factory in Moraine Ohio. The conditions in the Ohio factory were not as extreme as those imagined in Parable of the Sower, but it is easy to hear an echo of the same processes at work, particularly since American companies have created comparable conditions by sending their production overseas. From there it is a short leap to the reintroduction of outright slavery.

“You might be able to get a job as a driver,” she said. “They like white men to be drivers. If you can read and write, and if you’d do the work, you might get hired.”

“I don’t know how to drive, but I could learn,” Harry said. “You mean driving those big armored trucks, don’t you?”

Emery looked confused. “Trucks? No, I mean driving people. Making them work. Pushing them to work faster. Making them do…whatever the owners say.”

In short, I loved Parable of the Sower. This is my first exposure to Butler’s writing, but I was blown away by how vivid and specific it was, both in imagining the world and in painting the characters and relationships. For instance, I’m not one to usually cast books as I read them, but I could not stop imagining Bankole as Idris Elba as I read it. The book’s format as both the diary and gospel of a precocious teenaged girl is deceptively easy to read, even as the world itself is unrelenting. I can imagine a complaint that Lauren is too precocious, but this actually becomes a plot point and the format is a perfect vehicle for capturing Lauren’s empathy, which, in turn, puts both the pain and joy of the world on display. This book is incisive, painful, and optimistic by turns, and entirely worth reading.

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I reached a point of the semester where I struggled to read anything except science fiction and fantasy novels. Most recently I read N.K. Jemisin’s latest work, the excellent novel The City We Became and before that Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January (about which I was more mixed). Next up, I’m reading Jeffery Pilcher’s Planet Taco, a global history of Mexican food.

Answers in the Form of Questions

We have had routine in this house. Jeopardy! airs at 4 PM, so I record the episodes. Whenever we get around to having dinner, we turn on that recording and lose ourselves in half an hour of answers and questions. Sometimes we watch other shows, too, but if there is an available Jeopardy episode, we watch that first and loosely compete with each other. My partner is better at it than I am, in part because she reads the questions while I tend to just let Alex read them to me, but there are certain categories where her reaction is often to just turn and look at me. We judge the contestants—wager too little on a daily double and you’re a coward, but the greater sin is being slow to pick a question, which will lead them not to clear the board—and root for who we want to see tomorrow. Occasionally, I’ll throw a fit about the phrasing of a question.

All of this is to say that while I don’t aspire to being on Jeopardy!, I am among the show’s legion of fans and was greatly saddened at the news of Trebek’s death earlier this year. Claire McNear’s recent book Answers in the Form of Questions was therefore a welcome read.

The best synopsis of Answers in the Form of Questions appears in Ken Jennings’ forward:

Jeopardy! is a magic trick.

In this book, you’re about to see how the trick is done.”

McNear, a staff-writer at The Ringer where Jeopardy! was one of her beats, takes the reader on a journey through past and present of the show. This means, simultaneously, she explores Jeopardy!‘s iterations and development and the mechanics for host and contestants in its current edition.

Jeopardy!‘s first version with host Art Fleming debuted in the aftermath of the game show scandals of the 1950s where the studios rigged the outcome of the matches in order to drum up viewer interest. The most famous, as dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show, involved Charles Van Doren effectively receiving the answers in advance of the matches and ended with the FBI investigating the industry. Eventually, congress passed a law that made it illegal to fix a contest of intellectual knowledge. Jeopardy!‘s unique—or even eccentric—style was thus a deliberate rebuttal to these actions: if they simply gave the answers to all contestants and asked them to come up with the question, then they couldn’t be accused of giving the question to any one person.

However, Answers in the Form of Questions largely focuses on the second iteration of the show hosted by Alex Trebek, which, as Jennings put it, is a magic trick. And McNear does aptly show how the trick is done, from the mechanics of the podiums to put everyone on roughly the same elevation (as much for smooth camera operation as for visual symmetry) to noting how the quiz show is done live but much of the fanfare of the show as seen on TV are recorded separately (announcer Johnny Gilbert is 96, after all). Trebek comes off pretty well, even as a rather distant figure for most contestants, as McNear writes about how he used to take the contestant quiz at least once a year and works hard to master the clues—even when the writers delivered him a category called “When the Aztecs Spoke Welsh”…on April Fool’s Day.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book, though, is how much of it does not take place on a soundstage. For as much time as McNear spend talking about what the studio does behind the scenes, she also explores what it is like behind the scenes for contestants, following some from their hotel to the studio and then from the studio to a Los Angeles-area pub trivia frequented by Jeopardy! alumni. This means both looking at how contestants prepare for their 23-minutes of fame and (usually) limited-payout and interviewing former contestants of both the regular Jeopardy! and celebrity specials.

This approach also allows McNear to pull back and survey the wider cultural impact of Jeopardy!. She obviously discusses the various cameos like SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! and Black Jeopardy! skits, but also bring in the original screenplay for The Bucketlist. In that movie, directed by Rob Reiner, Morgan Freeman’s character was supposed to die in an appearance on Jeopardy!, and this connection allows McNear to transition to an adorable anecdote about how the late Carl Reiner would get together every weeknight to eat dinner and watch Jeopardy! together—even transitioning to watching together by phone after the Coronavirus disrupted their routine.

I greatly enjoyed Answers in the Form of Questions even though it is synoptic rather than comprehensive in its look at Jeopardy! and its impact. There is not, for instance, any attempt to grapple with David Foster Wallace’s Little Expressionless Animals (originally in the Paris Review in 1988, republished in The Girl With Curious Hair). This deeply weird short story is about a young woman named Julie Smith for whom the producers bend the then-extant 5-game limit for contestants because she’s popular, only to see her go on a multi-year run so dominant that it begins to tank the show’s popularity. Answers in the Form of Questions is such a paean to the magic of Jeopardy! that I was really curious how McNear would tackle the story, which warps that magic in ways that swing wildly from funny (“Alex Trebek goes around the Jeopardy! studio wearing a button that says PAT SAJAK LOOKS LIKE A BADGER.”) to bizarre (“‘My favorite word,’ says Alex Trebek, ‘is moist. It is my favorite word, especially when used in combination with my second-favorite word, which is loincloth.'”). I don’t meant this as a criticism of McNear—LEA is a strange story even by Wallace’s standards and it does not fit with the tone of Answers in the Form of Questions—but rather to point out that Jeopardy!‘s reach goes even further than what she writes about here.

Alex Trebek suffered from and eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer, passing away earlier this year. He hosted Jeopardy! effectively to the end, which has given us a season filled with moving tributes, such as on the November 5 episode when champion Burt Thakur told Alex that he learned to speak English sitting on his grandfather’s lap watching Jeopardy!. The next permanent host of the show is as-yet unknown (my dream candidate is LeVar Burton, but could also see going with someone with sports play-by-play experience), but I can think of no better tribute to Alex Trebek than this look at a deeply niche game show that he helped grow into an iconic cultural phenomenon. I have been watching this season differently since reading Answers in the Form of Questions, particularly in thinking about the changes they made in order to create the show safely during a pandemic, and just hope that whoever follows in Alex’s enormous shadow can retain Jeopardy‘s charm.

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I have fallen off from writing about books recently and hope to change this a bit now that the semester is over. I am currently reading Octavia Butler’s The Pararable of the Sower, which is an enthralling near-future dystopian novel set in United States that is all-but collapsed because of climate change.

Book Reviews

I like writing book reviews, for both fiction and non-fiction books, though the rewards for each move in divergent directions. I read a lot but, despite a few ideas for original stories and the occasional essay sent off [not to mention The Dissertation], I don’t produce much of my own writing for public consumption. As such, I wanted to take a moment to consider why I like writing about books and, to a lesser extent, TV shows and movies.

The short version: original writing is hard.

The longer version has three distinct parts: direction, digestion, and safety.

First and foremost, reviewing books offers a built-in writing prompt, and a clear subject about which to write. Successful reviews include many of the same elements, including a summary of what the book offers, evaluation, and judgement. Within these parameters there is room for creativity and any good review is going to be injected with the author’s voice and opinions, but having this basic structure is something that makes writing easier.

Second, reviewing books is a great way to digest what was just read since it requires one to form and articulate an opinion about the book. This necessarily entails grappling with text, subtext, and importance of the book. This is also the first point at which the rewards diverge between reviewing fiction and non-fiction because the content of the critiques are different. I don’t care enough about every novel I read to dedicate time to write a review and, frankly, I have limited training when it comes to judging certain technical parts of books. I hardly even know how to identify those parts (characterization, structure, etc), and only know what I like when I read it. For these reasons, a lot of the books I read that I don’t like get lumped into my monthly reading recaps with a brief explanation instead of a full review. It isn’t that the books aren’t worthy of a full review. I just don’t have the time, energy, or interest in writing reviews of books that didn’t in some way capture my interest. This also means that for a certain percentage of the novels I read, I am not motivated to do a deeper dive in terms of thinking about the book.

The third, safety, is the point that is both most personal and most misleading. The perils of the internet for aspiring academics run above and beyond the dangers inherent to the medium, particularly in the debates over academic freedom and free speech–and to what extent those things apply to contingent faculty, graduate students, and anyone who consider applying for academic jobs. My twin concerns in this regard are that some of the posts hosted here are immature from an academic perspective and that I have an aversion to some political topics. On the former, I considered deleting the posts I don’t fully stand behind, but decided against it because they represent me and my work at a given time–namely before I started graduate school and in the early years of the same. On the latter, it has been the cause of some of my silences on Twitter and also why I have avoided some topics here, particularly when those comments could be seen as being critical of an institution such as, say, the University of Missouri. Studied neutrality appears to be the prudent course.

Reviews are not without their own dangers and some journals specifically refuse to allow graduate students to review books because of the possibility of retaliation. Reviews of literature, at least those that are not being published on commission, are significantly safer, but both types of reviews feel safer to me and that feeling of safety makes it easier to write.