A re-read, since it came up in a book club -- we had a good discussion last night.
In the distant future (2025!), civilization has fallen apart. The hows and whys are a bit vague, but the social fabric has fallen apart. The rich, we assume, are doing just fine (they always do), but even the just-getting-by struggle in walled enclaves to avoid the predation of the squalid criminal rabble. About the only remnants of government are police and fire departments, and both are equally useless, if not crooked. In some ways, I see it as the libertarian paradise that would actually occur if libertarians had their way. More likely, it was Butler's extrapolation of Reagan-Bush efforts to let a thousand points of light provide mental health care and other social services rather than paying for it through taxes.
Our heroine survives the dangers of her era, while developing her humanistic religion of Earthseed. Slowly, she gathers likeminded individuals. Some are amenable to her ideas, others less so. This, I take, is the direct translation of the eponymous parable:
Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Just as with Jesus' message, some people are poor ground for the ideas of Earthseed, while in others it flourishes.
Ultimately, the ragtag Earthseed cult works toward founding their cult headquarters. There's a powerful description of them being pursued by a wildfire -- it struck me on this re-read that this is a parallel to Moses being led by a pillar of fire to the promised land.
Another detail of the novel is that the protagonist has intense empathy, so much so that she feels physical pain at the pain of others. In terms of plot, it's really kind of a minor detail, but in terms of theme, I think this epitomizes the people who are good ground for Earthseed - those who have empathy for others.
It's an engaging read, and the sequel won the Nebula (since it's even more depressing).