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.