Lauren Olamina is a fifteen-year-old Black girl living in the Los Angeles area in the year 2024. (Parable of the Sower was published in 1993.) Lauren’s father is a Baptist pastor and also teaches at a nearby college. She has four younger brothers, who are sons of her father and her stepmother, Cory. Their neighborhood is a cul-de-sac, surrounded by walls to create a safe haven in which people look out for one another, despite racial and religious differences. Cory runs the neighborhood school. Outside the walls, desperately poor and starving people struggle to survive, and bands of criminals high on a drug called “pyro,” which makes the user want to set fires, rove about looking for neighborhoods to attack and burn down. Lauren’s father encourages his neighbors to learn how to protect themselves, but he dislikes Lauren’s talk of escaping to go north and wants her to stop sharing that idea with her friends.

Lauren is unusual in two ways. First, because of a drug her biological mother abused, she has hyperempathy: she feels other people’s pleasures and pains as if they were her own. The other unusual thing about Lauren is her outlook on the world. Although she loves and respects her father, she is skeptical of Christianity and other mainstream religions. In a journal she keeps, she develops a new system of thought, which she calls Earthseed. Its central doctrine is that God is Change and cannot be resisted, but God can be influenced. Eventually, Lauren has enough poems and reflections to form what she calls Earthseed: The Book of the Living.

Keith, Lauren’s oldest younger brother and Cory’s favorite child, is also skeptical of organized religion, but in all other ways his approach to life is completely different from Lauren’s. He is selfish and stubborn, eager to prove himself a man, and heedless of his parents’ guidance. A year after the story begins, he runs away from home at age thirteen and, for a while, leads a successful life as a street thug, occasionally showing up at the Olamina house to drop off a bundle of cash—evidence that he has chosen the right path in life. One day, however, his parents must identify his body. His killers tortured him to death but left his face intact so it could be recognized. A few months later, Lauren’s father disappears on the way home from teaching and is never seen again.

The next summer, the neighborhood falls to an attack by pyro addicts. Lauren escapes, along with two others: Harry, a white friend; and Zahra, the Black youngest wife of the neighborhood’s now-dead polygamist. Zahra saw Cory and all of Lauren’s brothers killed by the pyros. Lauren, Harry, and Zahra escape to the coast and then north along U.S. 101, after Lauren cuts her hair and poses as a man to make the three of them look less vulnerable. As they travel, they add others to their group: Travis and Natividad Douglas and their infant son, Dominic; a doctor, Taylor Bankole, who is about the same age as Lauren’s father; two sisters, Allie and Jill Gilchrist; an orphaned toddler, Justin Rohr; Emery Solis and her daughter Tori; and Grayson Mora and daughter Doe, all escaped slaves.

During the trek northward, which includes a detour through Sacramento to avoid chaos in the Bay Area, Lauren tells her companions about Earthseed. Someday, she says, it will spread to other planets, but for now her goal is to start a community on earth. The others’ levels of interest vary, but none are hostile to Lauren’s ideas. By now, Lauren is eighteen. She and Bankole become a couple, despite their age difference. He owns property on the northern coast, where his sister and her family currently live. The acreage is enough for the entire group to settle on and start the first Earthseed community. He is not an Earthseed believer, but he is happy to support Lauren in her mission.

Jill dies protecting Tori during an attack by pyro addicts, but the rest of the group, after surviving dangers that include not just criminal attacks but also an earthquake and a firestorm, eventually reaches Bankole’s land, high up in the hills of redwood country. The home Bankole’s sister and her husband built has been burned to the ground, and five skulls inside testify to the family’s fate. Stunned, the group debates what to do to next. In the end, they agree that even though the remoteness of the location has proven to be no guarantee of safety, Bankole’s land is still the best place for them to build the Earthseed community. After holding a memorial service for all the loved ones they have lost, Lauren and her companions name their new home Acorn.