I was so engrossed in the earlier book of this pair by Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, that I waited only a couple of months to get the sequel. I’m happy to say that Parable of the Talents is one of the best dystopias I’ve ever read: compelling, frightening, complex, and above all, horribly likely. As I continue this review, please remember that this book was published in 1998 — before Guantanamo, before the War on Terror, and twenty years before our current administration.
This book is formatted a little differently than the last. It is presented as a collection of Lauren Oya Olamina’s diary entries as collected and annotated by her daughter, years after they were written. In this way, we have not only Lauren’s voice, with which I was so caught up in the last book, but also some historical perspective and some critical distance. Lauren’s daughter wasn’t brought up in Earthseed, the religion where the only god is change, and she’s skeptical not only about her mother’s religion but about her motives. What happened to make all this come about?
The diary entries pick up more or less where the last book left off. Lauren and her group of marginalized drifters have created a home for themselves — Acorn. They’ve planted crops, built homes, acquired an armored truck so that they can go into a nearby village and sell their produce, and begun to heal. Despite the fact that they are always on alert, they are as safe and happy as anyone can be in a country rife with chaos.
But then President Donner is elected, of the Christian America party. (Slogan — I absolutely kid you not at all — “Make America Great Again.”) His extreme right-wing Christian party conflates patriotism and a certain brand of Christian fundamentalism, promising to bring peace and prosperity back to the nation. Suddenly, anyone who doesn’t conform is a danger and in need of “reeducation.” And that includes Acorn, with their odd beliefs about Earthseed. A rogue group of the president’s supporters, who call themselves Donner’s Crusaders, invade Acorn and take Lauren and her friends captive, enslaving them with high-tech shock collars. And indeed, that is only the beginning.
To me, this book was so plausible that it was as frightening as a horror novel. We already know that Americans will accept detention without trial, rape, torture, and removal of children from their parents, as long as it’s happening to people we think are bad or wrong, and as long as it’s not happening right in front of our faces. We already know that people will make themselves willfully blind to giant problems for a whole demographic (or sometimes an entire nation) if they can convince themselves there is benefit — or even hope of benefit — for their own family or situation. In Parable of the Talents, enslavement and torture happens not on the basis of race (though race is always an issue in a country headed by a white fundamentalist), but on the basis of conformity to certain patriotic-religious beliefs. Could that happen? Sure it could. Pay attention.
One of the things I love about Butler’s writing is that her nuance with characters keeps the themes from being heavy-handed. Lauren’s daughter, her brother, and her husband all represent different points of view on religion — Christian and Earthseed — and make it complex and interesting. And the way Butler explores the realities of enslavement from the point of view of the enslaved is — as I said — a horror, and it has long-lasting consequences. It reminds me of the flat reason Jesus gives for speaking in parables at the end of the parable of the sower in the Bible — one of the least reassuring things he ever says: Whoever has, will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
I’ve now read five books by Octavia Butler, and they have all been wonderful. This might be my favorite of them all (oh, but Fledgling!) If you’ve never read Butler, make space for her in your library bag, like yesterday.