Parable of the Talents (Earthseed) Paperback – January 1, 2000
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From the Back Cover
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In one of her interviews given just a couple of years before she passed away, as always speaking in that deep, authoritative voice of hers that makes you instinctively trust what she says, Octavia Butler declares that it is foolish of writers to think that they can predict the future. “When we write about the future,” she says, “what we actually write about is the present, but more of it—more advanced, harder, higher, faster.” Even though she overshoots by 15 years, it is ironic how wrong she was and how much she underestimated her own ability to see the future—even though I suspect she would be much happier if she had failed, at least in this particular case. This book is living proof that bigotry, opportunism and stupidity do indeed transcend time, space as well as generations.
Parable of the Talents is set in the aftermath of a socioeconomic and climatic calamity that has shaken the world to its core and is a direct sequel to Butler's Parable of the Sower, in itself a harrowing apocalyptic journey along the highways of an America that has disintegrated into violence, anarchy and rampant drug use. Olamina has found a safe haven for herself and her followers who she met on the road, but can her community and her nascent teaching suffer the head-on collision with President Jarret’s rising religious fundamentalism?
The book is interesting enough to read for its literary merits. The story and the characters—albeit probably not for the faint of heart—are brilliant and engrossing. What I find far more interesting though and what I also think will transcend time (as it has transcended these since 20 years since the novel was written) are Butler's universal insights into human nature: How easy it is for scared people to flock under the wing of anyone who seems strong and decisive. How quickly ordinary people can turn into monsters. How dangerous are ignorance and prejudice. How tempting is to stop thinking and to let someone else think for you.
These simple truths have outlived Butler and will unfortunately most likely outlive us all.
Okay, so this creeped me out, in a dystopian novel set in the 2020's - 2030's, published in 1998. There was a LOT that creeped me out: religious fanatics persecuting "heathens" who don't follow the Christian American party line. Beatings, murder, enslavement, rape, stealing of their children... It's an excellent book, very well-written, a classic, but make sure you have emotional support to get through, if these issues trigger you. I found it a difficult read because I couldn't convince myself this would never happen in America, right now.
I found these sections particularly insightful, about this character:
"The working poor who love Jarret want to be fooled, need to be fooled. They scratch a living, working long, hard hours at dangerous, dirty jobs, and they need a savior. Poor women, in particular, tend to be deeply religious and more than willing to see Jarret as the Second Coming. Religion is all they have. Their employers and their men abuse them. They bear more children than they can feed. They bear everyone’s contempt." and
"And the thugs see him as one of them. They envy him. He is the bigger, the more successful thief, murderer, and slaver."
The story is told from the points of view of the Earthseed founder, Lauren Oya Olamina, and her daughter, Asha Vere, and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. This is the second in what was meant to be a trilogy, but you don't have to read the first book to understand or appreciate this one.
I particularly relished and saw modern day parallels in this: "In less than a year, Jarret went from being our savior, almost the Second Coming in some people’s minds, to being an incompetent son of a bitch who was wasting our substance on things that didn’t matter."
Top international reviews
It begins five years after the settlement of Acorn, the Earthseed community founded at the end of the first book, and initially shows us the ways in which the community has grown and adapted to the ongoing social collapse that is taking place in the rest of the United States. For a short while life in the community seems good, though there is an undercurrent of possible danger presented in the form of Presidential hopeful Andrew Steele Jarrett, a Christian hardliner who believes that only a return to 'traditional Christian values' will help the country return to its former glory. Even despite Acorn's success, Lauren is also fighting against her own husband's desire to move them away from the community to somewhere 'safer', especially after she becomes pregnant; his fear of the future works directly in opposition to her inherent optimism, and the reader is given a deeper understanding of both sides of the argument as a result of their interaction.
Things begin to fall apart when Jarrett is elected as President, and shortly afterwards the community is attacked by a group of Christian America (CA) Crusaders, the members of the community enslaved. This is where the novel enters its darkest phase as we are given first hand accounts of the abuses meted out on Lauren's people. The children of the community, including Lauren's newborn baby, are taken away, and the men and women of the community are segregated and kept apart. Everything they have built for themselves is torn down and destroyed, and Acorn itself is transformed into a concentration camp, rapidly populated with new internees as the CA Crusaders seek to enslave and dehumanise those they see as a threat to their Christian traditions.
The third act of the novel begins with the prisoners at Acorn winning their freedom, though there is a sense of deus ex machina interjected at this point; the slavers themselves are rendered all but impotent when their living quarters are demolished as a result of a mudslide, allowing the prisoners to break free of their chains and escape. Lauren then sets out to locate and rescue as many of the lost children as possible, particularly her own lost daughter. Along the way we're given a broader picture of the world beyond the confines of Acorn, and it's suggested that those on the outside either don't care about the atrocities being committed by the Crusaders or simply aren't willing to believe that they'd be capable of such acts.
Lauren finally finds her daughter several years later, though the meeting between them is somewhat bittersweet. During her travels Lauren has managed to sow the seeds of a much larger Earthseed movement, while her daughter has been raised in a predominantly Christian manner, albeit while maintaining a degree of skepticism along the way. While there's no happy reunion between them, there is a reconciliation of sorts.
The narrative throughout the book alternates between the voice of Lauren herself, in the form of journal entries, and the voice of her daughter, Larkin, who we eventually learn has been separated from her mother for most of her life. By juxtaposing the two voices in this way we get a strong sense that while Larkin admires and respects the achievements of her mother, it's made clear that she doesn't necessarily agree with her mother's motives and beliefs.
In conclusion, if Parable of the Sower was a dark and disturbing read, this book is even more so. For that reason I'd consider it to outstanding, and definitely worth a read, though it should be noted that some of the themes the book explores may be triggering for some readers.
This is a book that speaks to the here and now. If you're concerned about what is happening in the world today, read it. If you have ever asked yourself about religion and the function it serves in our society, read it. If you just like a good book with a strong storyline, read it. It can offer something on all of these levels, and personally speaking, I have yet to stop thinking about the questions it raises.
An excellent dystopian novel.
*Keep in mind I'm just your average book worm, who likes to read. Not a Phd in Lit whose here to give a full-length thesis style critique.
Fun fact: the creative team behind the HBO series adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale gave June's husband the same last name as Lauren's husband in the two Parable books: Bankole.