Octavia Butler's vision of an American state on the brink of economic and social collapse seems all too near and plausible. Lauren Olamina, the young minister's daughter, lives in a gated community that falls prey to the violence and anarchy that's been eating away at the edges of civilization for years. It's a brutal novel, as everyone Lauren loves dies, and the deaths are often described in gruesome detail. Lauren herself suffers from a condition called hyper-empathy, which causes her to feel what people around her feel... a very bad thing when people around her are being attacked, raped, and killed.
But Lauren is anything but a fragile helpless character. She carries the seeds of a new religion, and she's been planning for the collapse since she was a child. This novel has a lot in common with similarly-themed sci-fi where the protagonist is a "chosen one" destined to lead his or her people out of chaos and barbarism, except that no one has "chosen" Lauren. She's decided for herself that this is something she has to do.
The story takes us on Lauren's journey up the coast of California, as its highways are flooded with refugees and its cities burn (thanks in large part to a drug called "pyro" which turns people into psychotic pyromaniacs). What is most interesting is not Lauren's "adventures" (which are mostly just a series of tense encounters fraught with dangers, as she constantly has to weigh the need for allies against the hazards of trusting unknown people on the road) but the brutal laying bare of certain truths beneath our capitalist society. Lauren's father foresaw the coming collapse and tried to keep his family from being lured into company towns that were economic traps, but even he didn't foresee how bad things would really become. Lauren discovers that slavery is real, and has been real and common, right here in the U.S., for quite some time.
You might think it's a cynical and overly pessimistic view of the future, but if you're not among the privileged classes, it's not far from how many people live today. Ultimately, the book gives some hope for the future, but there is certainly going to be more blood and tears along the way.
This was actually my first time reading Octavia Butler, whom I really should read more of, and I'm definitely going to pick up the next book in the series.