Lauren Olamina, the novel’s narrator and protagonist is a 15-year-old Black girl living in a walled community in Robledo, California when her story begins. The year is 2024 and the nation has regressed into violence and chaos as climate change, economic disparity, and racial divisions transform the country into a modern-day dystopia. It’s amid this bleak landscape that Lauren, the precocious daughter of a Baptist preacher and an unnamed mother who died during childbirth, envisions a new concept of God. It’s not the God of her father’s Christian faith but, rather, a God based on her own observations of the world, a world in a state of constant flux and upheaval. She names her belief system Earthseed and its tenets revolve around the concept that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to take root among the stars. Change is to be embraced, not resisted, in Lauren’s faith, and lifting the veil of self-denial that shrouds that truth from her community becomes her primary motivation.

As she spreads its gospel, the notion of establishing an Earthseed community comprised of individuals who share in a hopeful future for humanity becomes an attainable goal. Lauren is acutely aware of the impending destruction of her community and takes the necessary steps to prepare for a sudden evacuation. Her father shares her concern, but Lauren’s congenital abnormality concerns her. She was born with hyperempathy, a syndrome enabling her to feel the pain and pleasure of others. While hyperempathy can prove debilitating, it allows Lauren to interact with people and the world around her in a unique way, particularly after her walled community is destroyed. Hyperempathy complements the compassion she shows others after their own personal tragedies bring them into her fold of travelers. People become drawn to her as they embark on a treacherous journey to a proverbial promised land in Northern California. They begin to respect her intelligence, conviction, and leadership skills and trust her to shepherd them like a Black Moses leading her people out of bondage and toward a new destiny.