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Book Review: Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler

America is a crapsack world in this grim, dark dystopia.

Parable of the Talents

Seven Stories Press, 1998, 365 pages


Environmental devastation and economic chaos have turned America into a land of horrifying depravity. Assault, theft, sexual abuse, slavery, and murder are commonplace. Taking advantage of the situation, a zealous, bigoted tyrant wins his way into the White House.

Directly opposed is Lauren Olamina, founder of Earthseed - a new faith that teaches "God Is Change". Persecuted for "heathen" beliefs as much as for having a black female leader, Earthseed's followers face a life-and-death struggle to preserve their vision.

Best-selling author Octavia Butler's fluid writing and keen observations about race, gender, politics, and religion make for a moving parable that will be pondered for generations. A powerful reading from three standout narrators captures the multi-generational sweep of this poignant tale.

Butler's acclaimed novels have won numerous awards, and she is a recipient of a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Parable of the Talents was selected as one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly.



Parable of the Talents is the second (and unfortunately, last) book in Octavia Butler's "Earthseed" series, picking up where Parable of the Sower left off. Lauren Olamina, who fled the destruction of her Los Angeles community as the United States descended into anarchy at the end of the previous book, has now settled in Northern California with her much older husband. Her followers, the people of the nascent "Earthseed" religion, are hewing out a hard but tolerable existence for themselves.

And then the U.S., which was already on the verge of collapse in the last book, elects a fundamentalist Christian President who says that a return to Godliness will make America strong and glorious again, and everything really goes to hell. As America turns into a third world hellhole, a "cult" led by a black woman and mostly consisting of the poor and disenfranchised is inevitably the target of the most vicious hatred its resentful neighbors can turn on them.

This is not an easy book to read. You know right from the beginning that bad shit is going to go down, but things just get bad, worse, and then worse yet. Octavia Butler wrote grimdark in a way most authors can't touch with all their rape-fests and buckets of blood. Parable of the Talents is full of rape, torture, murder, and slavery, but it's not the kind that's described in gruesome, salacious detail. Most of the more horrific events happen between chapters, and we are told about them through Lauren Olamina's journals, recounting what has happened in the past tense. Moreover, this book introduces a new character: Lauren's daughter, who is also writing a journal as she reads her mother's writings many years later.

Lauren's part of the story takes place mostly in the 2030s. We know from Ashaveri's introduction that she is writing from a time far in the future, years after her mother's death. (If you do the math, Ashaveri is actually writing circa 2100.) Evidently, things get better and America eventually recovers, as Ashaveri describes the horrific experiences Lauren went through in tones of shock and disbelief... which may explain why she is also so unsympathetic to her long-lost mother.

Ashaveri is an interesting character and adds an extra level of interpretation to this book. While Lauren Olamina writes from a Lauren-centered POV and so naturally casts herself and Earthseed in a sympathetic light, Ashaveri, it turns out, was taken away from her mother when she was very young and grew up in pretty shitty circumstances of her own. Born "Larkin Olamina," she was renamed Ashaveri after the heroine of a series of Christian Virtual Reality stories, and did not know she was adopted until she was a teenager. We soon learn that Asha is very, very angry at the mother she barely knew. In between Lauren's account of her trials and reflections on the mistakes she has made, Asha writes with increasing anger and bitterness, saying, "Yes, damn right she made mistakes!" She finds it hard to feel sympathy for her mother, blames her mother for bringing about the terrible things that happened to her (and to her child), and while Lauren speaks rationally about the Earthseed religion, Ashaveri views it as an obsession that her mother valued more than she valued her family. Her mother claimed she searched for her missing daughter for years; Ashaveri never quite believes her, and minimizes everything Lauren did to find her.

Bringing in a second narrator who is highly critical of the first was a very clever move on Butler's part. Both women have very strong POVs, and we sympathize with both completely. Lauren's single-minded determination to keep her Earthseed religion alive seems eminently reasonable when she's describing it: she is not a wild-eyed prophet or a demagogue, and she's rational about her goals and prospects -- or so it seems. Then Ashaveri points out how short-sighted her mother was in so many respects, and what it cost. But while Ashaveri has her reasons for feeling the way she does, her condemnation of her mother increasingly reads as the irrational anger of a child who feels abandoned. She's not entirely fair to Lauren Olamina, and while she has great compassion for the suffering that everyone else went through -- even Lauren's half-brother Mark, who ultimately betrayed her and even lied to Ashaveri -- she seems unable to empathize with Lauren herself, let alone forgive her. When it comes to the ultimate goal of Earthseed -- launching humanity to the stars and spreading to other planets -- Ashaveri gives voice to the skeptics (fictional and in the real world) when she observes with disgust that such an immensely costly undertaking would better serve humanity if it were directed at solving problems here on Earth.

There are three basic threads in this book. The first, of course, is Lauren surviving a post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by a virtual theocracy. Much of this part of the story is straightforward enduring-the-unendurable along with some pointed comments about racism, sexism, and classism. I was initially skeptical that an America that goes as far down the road to hell as Lauren describes could ever recover, but on consideration, Ashaveri describes a peaceful, prosperous nation that is launching interstellar space ships nearly 70 years later. If Germany and Japan could recover from what they became in the first half of the 20th century, I suppose America could too, but it's not a pretty picture getting there.

The "Earthseed" bit was somewhat more contrived. The precepts of Lauren's religion (she insists Earthseed is a "collection of truths" that she simply discovered and wrote down), which open each chapter, are a mix of self-evident aphorisms and generic New Agey philosophy. I don't read too much into it; I think Butler was just trying to create something plausible for narrative purposes, not actually slipping her own philosophy into Earthseed, which is why I'm amused at some of the negative ratings the book got from Christian reviewers. That said, Earthseed never did seem like much more than a MacGuffin to motivate Lauren and, eventually, the interstellar expansion which was to be the third book in Butler's trilogy.

Lastly, the richest and most nuanced thread in the book: the mother-daughter story. Larkin/Ashaveri is just like her mother in every way. She even describes how everyone tells her she is just like her mother, but she never quite sees it herself, particularly not in her inability to forgive. We can feel their conflict across the decades, even though they barely ever got to know each other. The secondary voices of the male characters (Ashaveri's deceased father Benkole and Lauren's half-brother Marcus) are almost incidental, but add a little more texture.

Butler planned a third book in the Earthseed series, which would deal with the Earthseed religion colonizing another planet. It's unfortunate that she died before she wrote that book, but on the other hand, I really think the story was pretty complete at the end of this one, and I'm not sure what else Butler might have had to say about these characters or the forces that drove them and Earthseed.


Verdict: Genuinely brutal without much blood, and without the candy-coated glam of the YA dystopias so fashionable right now, this book will make you squirm the way a dystopia should. There aren't a lot of sci-fi gimmicks, but it's still solidly sci-fi with social commentary, and the character voices are so vivid you will believe they are real. Even though this book is a sequel, you can read it without reading the first one (though the first is equally worth reading).

Also, honestly, these books would make a great movie. But I doubt we'll ever see it. (Or if we do, the books will be absolutely gutted.)

Also by Octavia Butler: My review of Parable of the Sower
Tags: books, octavia butler, reviews, science fiction
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