Parable of the Talents

parable of the talentsI 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.

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9 Responses to Parable of the Talents

  1. Swistle says:

    HOW CAN THAT BE THE SLOGAN. HOW CAN THAT BE THE SLOGAN. That author must be just AMAZED now. Like, “Am I Cassandra? Am I LITERALLY CASSANDRA???”

    • Jenny says:

      Right??? I was totally blown away. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) Butler didn’t live to see this outcome, but I can just imagine how she would react. It just seems so totally prescient — much more so in many ways than, say, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is creepy enough.

      • Swistle says:

        I am reading Parable of the Sower now, and I am not sure I am going to get through it. I alternate between “This is so, so good, how have I not read anything by this author before when this is exactly what I like, etc.” and “TOO REAL, TOO REAL, THIS IS NO LONGER FUN.”

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, I know! She’s just so marvelous. I love really realistic dystopias (like I like to know what people put in their backpacks or have for snacks) but sometimes it is TOO REAL. But hang in there! I think you will like where it goes!

  2. Jeanne says:

    Oh, geez. I don’t want to reread this in light of current events, and yet you’ve made it well-nigh irresistible.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s so good! You want to reread it just because it’s so good. Horrible in places, but soooo good.

  3. Teresa says:

    This book, right? I’ve said over and over that it’s the most prescient and plausible dystopian novel I’ve ever read. It just seems exactly right. I found the religion angle really compelling, too. I was glad that she really delved into the complexity of it and avoided making Earthseed altogether perfect in contrast to the right-wing Christianity.

    I have a hard time imagining where the story would have gone next, but I’m really sad she didn’t live to finish Parable of the Trickster.

    • Jenny says:

      So am I! I assume there would have been some imagining of Earthseed in the stars. I thought Lauren was like Moses, bringing her people to the next step but not going herself. I said this in my review, but I found the part with the enslavement so rich and thoughtful (if horrifying.) It can be hard for us to imagine that, and she did it so vividly.

  4. Lindsey says:

    When you can see something actually happening, it makes it far more terrifying than something fantastical. Lovely review!

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