Parable of the Talents
by Octavia Butler
Published by Seven Stories Press
Hardcover, 365 Pages
Publication Date: November, 1998
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, 1/25/99
Hollywood could learn a few things about sequels from Octavia Butler. I hadn’t read the first novel in Butler’s Parable series, Parable of the Sower, before I picked up her latest novel, Parable of the Talents. Yet at no time did I feel confused, rather, it was easy to enter the world that Butler has created. Without necessarily rehashing old territory, Butler quickly establishes the chain of events that her main characters, Lauren Olamina and her daughter Larkin, have gone through in the first novel, and then she jumps right into telling the new story of what occurs afterward. Butler’s novel is one of the few instances I’ve experienced of a novel in a series that is both a part of the whole and an entirely self-sufficient work. You don’t need to read the first book to understand or enjoy the second, though after reading Parable of the Talents, you might find yourself making another trip to the bookstore to pick up the prequel.
Parable of the Talents is set in America in the future, during the years 2032-2035. The novel is post-apocalyptic, insofar as American society as we now know it has disintegrated after a prolonged series of wars. American society is represented as fractured, controled by disparate factions. While there is a semblance of normality (regular elections are still held): the power is distributed in an unegalitarian way. Lauren Olamina, the central protagonist and one of two narrators (her daughter is the other), is, at the start of the novel, the leader of Earthseed, a new religion based on the idea that God is change. Lauren is a hyper-empath, which means that she’s got a kind of E.S.P. related to emotions. Butler’s moves as a science fiction author, such as creating this categorization, are more subtle than those of many other science fiction and fantasy authors. While Lauren Olamina has these empathic gifts, she never comes across as different from any other woman–one of Butler’s strengths is that, within a sci-fi framework, she is not really dependent on the fantastic elements. While the circumstances of the plot are important, they never overshadow the interpersonal relationships among the characters. In this way, Butler, the author, is herself a kind of hyper-empath.
Lauren Olamina, the central protagonist and one of the two narrators (her daughter is the other), is, at the start of the novel, the leader of Earthseed, a new religion based on the idea that God is change, and. As the novel begins, the Earthseed cult is operating a communal society in a rural area, which they call Acorn. While we spend some time experiencing the daily life Olamina and her followers of at Acorn, it isn’t long before the outside world intervenes and destroys the Earthseed commune.
After Jarret, a Christian right-winger, is elected to the presidency, it isn’t long before intruders with guns start showing up at Acorn. After a futile struggle, the people of Acorn are imprisoned within the compound they had built as a home. Their utopia is transformed into a concentration camp named, with no small degree of irony, Camp Christian. All of the Earthseed cult members are forced to wear collars which monitor their and control their movements. Wives are separated from husbands, and children from their mothers. The camp evoked in the novel is a horrifying cross of the modern prison, Nazi concentration camps, and slavery as it was practiced in this country over a century ago.
Lauren and her daughter both eventually escape from the clutches of the hypocrites who run the Christian re-education system–Lauren by murdering one of her (though they are re-educating the cult members to make them better Christians, they aren’t above raping and torturing slave drivers) captors and escaping, to slowly relaunch Earthseed, and her daughter by being put in the custody of Lauren’s brother, who has embraced the religious/bourgeois life offered by Jarret’s ilk. Much of the remainder of the novel is the story of Lauren’s attempts to find her daughter. I don’t want to ruin the plot of the novel, but it should come as no surprise that both survive and are eventually reunited: Butler’s planning a third novel in the series, after all.
Butler’s writing style is remarkable, partially for the very simplicity of her prose style. She tells her story in short, concise, Hemingway-style sentences, and she skillfully avoids using complex language. While some writers “show off” through their prose style, Butler appears to be doing the opposite–she consciously writes in as simple a style as possible, in order that she might include as many readers as possible. For her, writing is more about communicating the story and the ideas behind it than about demonstrating her own virtuosity as a writer.
She is a good storyteller who processes complex ideas for her readers, and presents them in a way that can be understood. Octavia Butler has won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. While many of the other writers who have been honored in this way: Richard Powers, William Gaddis, David Foster Wallace, write in such a way that their technique itself speaks of genius, Butler’s genius is not technical, but ideological. Her particular talent is for representing the problems that we experience in society today, within a future context that brings those issues out on the surface, and thus makes them more evident. So while today we might gloss over a news bite in which Ralph Reed proclaims the advent of a Christian state, Butler takes us to a point at which the rhetorical becomes the real: what would a real “Christianized” America, with no separation of church and state, look like? While we might think that the fact that about 1% of male population is currently in prison is just a fact of life, a matter of bad apples, Butler takes us to a point at which imprisonment is a matter of economic reality: the underclass, and the non-conformists, are locked away. It is one thing for the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, to offhandedly suggest that we begin building orphanages for the children of welfare mothers, it is another thing altogether to imagine what such a society might look like, might feel like for those who are subjected to it. Butler tells cautionary tales, that extrapolate the rhetoric of the present into the reality of the future. Her stories are great reading, but they also carry a serious message for readers: they are dark mirror of the present, and a clarion call to be wary of what lies on the imminent horizon.