Parable of the Sower begins in Robledo, twenty miles from Los Angeles, California in July, 2024. It is the fifteenth birthday of Lauren, the narrator. She reports a dream she had the previous night in which she was flying. The house was on fire and she was swallowed up by the flames. Then the dream turns into a memory of when she was seven years old, talking with her stepmother under the stars at night. She lies down looking up at the stars. Her stepmother talks about the city lights, and how there are less of them now than there used to be.
The next day is a Sunday, and Lauren and some of the neighborhood kids ride their bikes to church to be baptized, even though Lauren no longer believes in the Christian God. One of the kids is her twelve-year-old brother, Keith, the oldest of her three brothers. The adults accompanying them are all armed. It transpires that Lauren lives within a walled neighborhood, and they have to travel outside it to find a church. There are few real churches left. Her father, a Baptist minister, once had a church of his own but it was vandalized and burned down. As they ride through the streets, they pass several corpses on the sidewalk, as well as some homeless people, and a naked young woman who is stumbling along aimlessly. They pass unwalled residential areas, in which many of the houses have been trashed. Half-naked children in the street watch them as they go by. The suffering on view affects Lauren because she has what is called "hyperempathy syndrome." She is extremely sensitive to the pain of others, feeling it as if it were her own. She acquired this from her drug-addicted mother, who died giving birth to her.
The church where the baptism takes place is like a fortress. Lauren is impatient with the ceremony because she has grown out of believing in the God her father believes in. She gives the idea of God much thought, trying to figure out what she believes. Is there a God? And if there is, does God care about us? Lauren has an intuition that if there is a God, he or she or it is not at all like the traditional God.
Ten days later, Lauren reports on events in the wider world. One of the astronauts on the latest Mars mission has been killed. The cost of water has gone up and many water peddlers are being killed. Water now costs more than gasoline, although few people buy gasoline any more. Lauren hears the news because the Yannis family invite her to watch their Window Wall TV, which stretches the length of the living room wall. Few people have these, and that night the one the Yannis's owned broke down. All that is left in the neighborhood are a few old TVs, although most households possess a radio.
America is still in theory a democracy, but no one in Lauren's neighborhood bothers to vote, except for her father. He plans to vote for a candidate who has promised to cancel the space program as a waste of money.
A week later, Lauren reports that Mrs. Sims, an old woman in the neighborhood has shot herself. Her entire family had died a week before in a house fire that was started deliberately.
Still thinking about Mrs. Sims's fate, Lauren writes down her thoughts about God, something she has been doing since she was twelve. She does not believe in a God who can be prayed to; her idea is that God is a power that can be shaped by humans if they have the will to do it. For Lauren, God is Change.
These chapters introduce the frightening and violent society that is California in 2024. There has been a breakdown in civil society and in law and order. Society is split up into three groups. The rich have retreated to walled estates in the hills. In the city, middle class neighborhoods have constructed walls to try to hang on to a semblance of normality in their lives, but even the walls are not sufficient to stop thieves and arsonists breaking in and wreaking damage. Essential goods are scarce and expensive. Outside the walled neighborhoods, there is chaos. People have sunk into all kinds of degradation. Disease is rampant. Drug addicts walk the streets. Dead bodies lie in the streets for days. Many people are homeless and starving.
The federal government talks about improving things, but it is largely irrelevant to most people's lives. The local police are not much use either. They charge a fee before they investigate a crime.
Against this grim background, Butler introduces her precocious heroine, Lauren, who from the evidence so far is a thoughtful, independent girl who likes to think for herself. She does not accept the beliefs of her elders, but tries to work out a system of her own that is true to her experience and accords with common sense and observation. She is also an "empath," someone who feels the pain of others. It is clear that life is not going to be easy for her.