Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

In Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, five years have passed since the first book, Parable of the Sower. Lauren and the group of people she collected while walking north in California reached a plot of land owned by Bankole, an elderly doctor in the group. Finally reaching land, they remember their dead by planting one acorn seed for each person and dub the new place “Acorn.” Lauren and Bankole are married, and Acorn has grown as a community, building a school and houses, gardens and walls, and adding more members who spend one year on probation before they can permanently join, which also includes agreeing to follow Earthseed. Earthseed is a new religion Lauren has written and spoken about since she was twelve. She tells folks she didn’t make it up, that it’s a truth she knows. Her writings are published and distributed at Acorn. Our destiny, she tells them, is in the stars — meaning not on Earth.

But a new United States president who believes destiny is in the Christian faith emboldens Christian fanatics whose goal is to wipe out non-Christians, especially “cults” like Earthseed, and remove children for those groups so they can be raised in a good, Christian-American family.

Firstly, Parable of the Talents feels so unfathomably close to American today that it scared the shit out of me. The president who is voted in and takes over with a Christian agenda feels like a crossbreed of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. This fictitious president actually says he wants to “Make American Great Again” — and Parable of the Talents was published in 2001. When the president’s radical followers burn down communities he “condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want.” That sounds an awful lot like when Trump said “there are some very fine people on both sides” after a neo-Nazis caused chaos in Virginia. And another Trump tactic is highlighted by Lauren:

Once [the president has] made everyone who isn’t like him sound evil, then he can blame them for problems he knows they didn’t cause. That’s easier than trying to fix the problems.

“Mexican rapists,” “shit hole countries,” and now another birther claim about Kamala Harris, and this all sounds like frightening Trump/Pence territory. It is for this reason I wouldn’t recommend Parable of the Talents to most of you in 2020. It basically confirmed and exacerbated every fear I have right now. All this fictitious president needed to do was round up postal drop-off boxes into dump trucks to make me close the book and send it back to the library immediately.

Trying to back up and look at Parable of the Talents objectively (not possible), I will note that I thought the ending was rushed, concluding most of the novel in summaries put together by both Lauren’s daughter’s journal and Lauren’s old journals. Also, the first two-thirds of the novel is brutal. Octavia Butler takes tactics used while slaves were shipped across the Middle Passage and writes about them in an imagined America in the 2030s (a time not that far away, I’m terrified to notice). Shelf beds, whips, rape, manipulation, silencing, obedience, forced acceptance of a Christian religion — it’s all parallel to American slavery but reimagined in a futuristic way. It’s hard to say, “Butler writes futuristic slavery really well!” but she does, and that’s why it’s so challenging to read.

Not quite the book I wanted it to be, and I wish I had stopped after Parable of the Sower, which ended on a more relatably hopeful note. It’s not to say Parable of the Talents is hopeless, it’s just not the kind that comforts me, and I needed some comforting.

27 comments

  1. I can understand that you need comforting, but I’m afraid Parable of the Talents sounds brilliant (I’m not as close to the action as you are) and it’s definitely on my to buy list. Our own Prime Minister is a cross between Trump and Pence – a pentecostal marketing guy – so that description really hit a chord. BTW I’m not sure Bankole is elderly, just older.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just chortled at work and had to explain to my co-worker why I did so. You’re not elderly, you’re like a peach on a windowsill!

      I do think you’d enjoy Butler’s duology. They’re right up your alley with the political, futuristic aspect.

      Like

  2. Goodness, this sounds grim (and like it’s definitely not for reading right now, even if I’m a bit further away from the situation in the US than you). It sounds great, though – I’m sure I’ll read it one day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You think so? I thought you preferred hard science fiction and less emotional drama in your genre fiction. I also don’t see you reading a lot of dark works, so I didn’t think you’d enjoy the Earthseed books. Now I’m intrigued by which part of my review piqued your interest!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s an absolutely extraordinary act of foresight when you think about when it was written – I read this about two months ago and completely agree that it’s so close to the present, it’s the very opposite of comforting. But what I really liked about it was the strength, fortitude and cunning that Butler’s characters display: living is hard and dangerous, but they live, together and separately. I found some hope in that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought Bankole was insane for suggesting Lauren leave Acorn. She built this community, one that feels communal, but also has individual homes. And then Acorn itself is this separate thing from the rest of the world, a respite, if you will. The fact that he would give up this new, beautiful community for the sake of going back to what he remembers as normal — a town with for realz buildings — struck me as very 2020. How many people are now trying to incorporate what they feel is normal into their daily lives, when it just won’t work with COVID? Even the outbreak at the University of Notre Dame, which now has 372 cases, tells me that students think returning to campus meant time to party, because that’s what they do, and now they’re all quarantined to their own dorms. They can’t leave campus, off-campus students can’t come on campus, classes are online but they weren’t sent home….this is what happens when you have nostalgia for normal and act on it, rather than adapting to what’s happening now. Then again, if Lauren and Bankole went to that town, would they both be alive with their daughter and simply living a very different life? I was never sure what would happen to Lauren if she couldn’t teach Earthseed.

      Like

      • Yeah – I think Bankole’s investment in what he knows is a very resonant reaction in the time of covid, when people seem to be frantically trying to get back to normal by pretending that conditions aren’t what they are. I also interpreted it as his attempt to protect Lauren and his unborn child, by bringing them back into an environment that he understands and used to be able to navigate; I certainly think his intentions are good, but it’s so evident that Lauren’s ability to adapt and survive changing circumstances is simply greater. (Maybe because she’s younger, too? And this might also have resonance for 2020: I’ve seen a lot more compliance with covid regulations from Gen X, in general, than from older people.)

        Anyway, Parable of the Talents is by far the dystopia that has hit me hardest between the ears recently. I’d like to seek out more Butler but she seems to be largely out of print in the UK: only this, Parable of the Sower, and Kindred are available. Frustrating!

        Like

  4. Yikes. Yeah, I won’t be reading this any time soon– if ever. Though, Parable of the Sower is still going to stay on my TBR. I’m shocked at how many parallels to our current reality you saw. What made you keep reading despite the need to run and hide from more of what we’re experiencing in the world today? You are a brave woman.

    Like

    • I kept reading because Gil and I said we would read these together. I tend to only bail on a buddy read if I can’t understand what’s even going on in a book. That just feels like eyeball exercise to me. You can totally read Parable of the Sower as a stand alone and enjoy it. I read that one years ago, as I mentioned, and wish I had left if there, though it ends more optimistic in a way that is probably unlikely in real life. Then again, we all deserve freaking break sometimes, am I right?! ALL THE OPTIMISM.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “Butler writes futuristic slavery really well!” This sounds grim, especially in light of the current political situation in the US. I might take your recommendation to stop after Parable of the Sower 😅

    Like

  6. It’s horrifying that this is both a reflection of our human past (children being taken away from their families reminds me of the residential schools in Canada) and our present so it’s not hard to believe these things will also be our future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I see both the military presence in Seattle bullying peaceful civilians and the riots in Chicago led by people doing criminal acts, I get nervous because the utter chaos and flow of bodies moving around sounds a lot like Butler’s future. I hadn’t even thought of the indigenous children being removed from their homes, but you’re totally right — and they did that in the U.S., too.

      Like

  7. It sounds like steering clear of this one for now is probably a good idea- though it feels a little odd to say so while plague books have seemed so appealing to me this year. Perhaps it’s the thought of a person being the source of the evil that’s more frightening than a natural-ish phenomenon. The societal ideas Butler explores in these books sound very interesting though, and I think it would be fascinating to read this once the present *everything* has passed, but I think I will go for Kindred first rather than subject myself to such realistic horror. Sorry to hear this was such a tough read, though that does seem completely understandable, given the circumstances! Kudos for making it through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paradise Cove, which I started yesterday, is a welcome reprieve for sure. And it’s funny! I’m enjoying it so far 🙂

      I think you’re right that the plague books seem less scary because it’s not attached to a human. A plague is a plague because a virus is doing what it’s designed to do, but a horrible human being seems senseless and frightening, and I want to understand them.

      Liked by 1 person

Insert 2 Cents Here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s