Prescient and Hopeful: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Talents

It’s probably not a good idea to read post-apocalyptic books when the very real-world pandemic has just passed its first anniversary but if you do, make sure you choose Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic books! Having read and loved the first book in the Earthseed duology, Parable of the Sower, recently, I knew this would be dark and I knew I would like it anyway. Much like its predecessor, it manages to be both terrifying and hopeful.

by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Hardback: 410 pages
Audiobook: 15 hours 26 minutes
Series: Earthseed #2
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: They’ll make a god of her.

Octavia Butler tackles the creation of a new religion, the making of a god, and the ultimate fate of humanity in her Earthseed series, which began with Parable of the Sower, and now continues with Parable of the Talents. The saga began with the near-future dystopian tale of Sower, in which young Lauren Olamina began to realize her destiny as a leader of people dispossessed and destroyed by the crumbling of society. The basic principles of Lauren’s faith, Earthseed, were contained in a collection of deceptively simple proverbs that Lauren used to recruit followers. She teaches that “God is change” and that humanity’s ultimate destiny is among the stars.

In Parable of the Talents, the seeds of change that Lauren planted begin to bear fruit, but in unpredictable and brutal ways. Her small community is destroyed, her child is kidnapped, and she is imprisoned by sadistic zealots. She must find a way to escape and begin again, without family or friends. Her single-mindedness in teaching Earthseed may be her only chance to survive, but paradoxically, may cause the ultimate estrangement of her beloved daughter. Parable of the Talents is told from both mother’s and daughter’s perspectives, but it is the narrative of Lauren’s grown daughter, who has seen her mother made into a deity of sorts, that is the most compelling. Butler’s writing is simple and elegant, and her storytelling skills are superb, as usual. Fans will be eagerly awaiting the next installment in what promises to be a moving and adventurous saga.

If, like me, you thought Parable of the Sower was depressing and hopeful at the same time, then prepare yourself for more of the same, except, you know, different. Unlike the first book, this one isn’t told just through Lauren’s diary entries and her Earthseed verses. You still get those, but they are framed by Lauren’s daughter’s first person narration as she reads her mother’s diary and the Books of Earthseed. Interspersed among those are a few written words from Bankole as well, turning this book almost into a little family history.
I immediately liked the mixture of new perspectives with the familiar narration of the first book, especially because the audiobook narration was done really well by all three narrators. (I went all out for this book, getting the gorgeous hardback copies of the duology plus the audiobook for this one.)

But that’s where talking about this book stops being easy. Much like the first book, it deals with many dark themes and comes with a lot of trigger warnings!
Lauren Oya Olamina and her now husband Bankole have been living in Acorn for over five years, the community they built with like-minded people. They support each other, they grow their own food wherever possible, they live together in trust and friendship. And of course, they live by Lauren’s religion Earthseed which has grown a lot over the years. In other parts of the country, people even know about Earthseed as “that cult”. Althought things aren’t exactly idyllic, life is mostly good for Lauren, Bankole and their surviving friends. It doesn’t stay that way…

I will say very, very, very little about the plot of this book. Not because there are so many mind-blowing twists or surprising moments that I don’t want to spoil, but because this isn’t the kind of book where the plot is all that important. Things do happen (and fast!) and they are exciting and terrifying and wonderful and horrible and everything you can imagine. Reading this book for the plot alone will not disappoint you, but that’s not the heart of this novel or, I imagine, any of Octavia Butler’s novels.
In Parable of the Talents, a politician is running for office with the slogan “Make America Great Again” and if that doesn’t send shivers down your spine already, this will: Some of his followers are wannabe Super-Christians who call themselves the Church of Christian America and of course they hate everyone and everything different from their own, narrow world view. Ring a bell? Remind you of anyone? Anyway, add to that a splinter group or a supposedly small, independent part of these Super-Christians, that isn’t satisfied with simply thinking and saying bad things about people of different beliefs, but who actively go after them, beat, rape, enslave, and kill them. It was incredibly chilling, reading about this Church of Christian America and how they try to justify terrible acts (which I can’t imagine any god would condone) in the name of keeping their country “pure”. It would have been chilling at any time, but in the current political climate, it was even worse, simply because what happens in this book doesn’t feel far-fetched at all! We may not have special technology electroshock collars that we use on people to enslave them, but we do have people in this world who believe everyone who doesn’t fit into their own narrow idea of personhood, doesn’t deserve to live. So this may be shelves as science-fiction and near-future but it didn’t really feel like it.

Clashing religions and political unrest aren’t the only themes in this book, however. This is still Lauren’s story and with a baby entering her life, things are about to change. Because we experience the book through flashbacks, we know that Lauren’s daughter grows up to be at least old enough to read her mother’s writing. What we don’t know is whether Lauren herself survives long enough to see her dream of an Earthseed society fulfilled.
I loved how Parable of the Talents approached the theme of family, both blood family and found family. I’m a sucker for found families and the entire duology is pretty much about that, on a large scale. It may start with Lauren building a small community that lives by what Earthseed teaches. But her plan is to convince the entire world that Earthseed is truth and that humanity’s future lies among the stars. Big dreams for a young woman, you may rightly think, but this book tells the story of how such dreams could be realized. Lauren’s approach to teaching her beliefs changes throughout the years and I really enjoyed watching her evolve as a person. I can’t say I always understood or agreed with her, but she is one hell of a fascinating protagonist to read about.

As for the writing style, I enjoyed it as much as I did in the first book. The three narrators each had distinct voices, which was even more obvious in the audiobook than in the paper copy because they were actually narrated by three different people. But I believe if I opened my book at a random point and read a few lines, I could easily tell whose narration I was reading.
I also appreciate how Octavia Butler describes the horrors that happen in her story. It might be tempting for a writer to go into gratuitous detail in the torture or murder scenes, just to elicit emotions from the readers. But Butler went a different route. In fact, the most terrifying events, aren’t described very much at all. They are mostly stated as fact, something that happened, but that we don’t want to dwell on. Considereing this is Lauren’s first person narrative, it makes even more sense to do it that way, because who would recount a traumatic event in vivid detail when they are still under shock?
That said, the sparse descriptions of the various horrors doesn’t lessen their effect at all. I may even have been more shaken by the simple statement of “Yesterday, my friend was raped.” than I would have been if some long-winded description had foreshadowed it. But be aware when reading this book, that although Lauren has a support system now, that doesn’t mean her life gets easier.

The ending of the book came a bit fast compared to the rest, but I found it very fitting and believable. Just like in real life, some things work out the way we hope, and others don’t. Some plot strings lead to nowhere, others aren’t quite resolved, yet others lead to a completely different destination than we had expected. And since I have to stay vague in order not to spoil anything, I’ll just say that I found the way this story wrapped up altogether satisfying. It kept the tone of these books perfectly, showing us that this is an imperfect world with many, many problems, but that there is always hope. And hope can start as the smallest thing. Like a thought in the mind of a young girl, written down in her diary, and tended to until it grows into something so big it might just change the world.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Depressing and Hopeful at the Same Time: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower

After the amazing Kindred, I knew I had to read more Octavia Butler books this year. I had steered clear of the Earthseed duology because… well, I had heard that it is depressing and lots of terrible things happen in it. But I also got myself a gorgeous hardback edition of these two books this year and it was picked as a book club read for the Sword and Laser podcast. What I’m saying is I had no more excuses.
And it turned out that, while a lot of bad, bad things do happen, the book didn’t actually leave me feeling depressed but rather filled with hope.

by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1993
Hardback: 332 pages
Series: Earthseed #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: I had my recurring dream last night. 

Parable of the Sower is the odyssey of one woman who is twice as feeling in a world that has become doubly dehumanized. The time is 2025. The place is California, where small walled communities must protect themselves from hordes of desperate scavengers and roaming bands of “Paints,” people addicted to a drug that activates an orgasmic desire to burn, rape, and murder. When one small community is overrun, Lauren Olamina, an 18 year old Black woman, sets off on foot, moving north along the dangerous coastal highways. She is a “sharer,” one who suffers from a hereditary trait called “hyperempathy,” which causes her to feel others’ pain as well as her own.

Parable of the Sower is both a coming of age novel and a road novel, set in the near future, when the dying embers of our old civilization can either cool or be the catalyst for something new.

Lauren Olamina lives in a walled community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Her family and their neighbors work together to protect themselves and each other from outsiders. Because outside the walls, chaos reigns. The poor are constantly looking for opportunities to steal food or water – an expensive commodity – and the new drug “pyro” makes people light fires everywhere because watching them gets them high. Lauren’s life is mostly safe and she loves helping her mother out teaching at their little neighborhood school. But Lauren knows that life can’t go on like this forever. Always worried, constantly vigilant, going outside as little as possible… there’s no future in that. In her diary entries, she writes down these feelings she has, along with her unfocused ideas for a better society and how to find god in such a miserable place.

This book follows Lauren as she grows up in a broken world where she nonetheless inhabits a relatively safe place. As you can imagine, things don’t quite stay that safe but rather get worse and worse. Lauren is forced to leave the only place she’s ever called home and venture out into the dangerous outside in search of a better future. As water is supposed to be cheapter up North, that’s where she goes. Along the way, she picks up a handful of companions from the many, many people walking the roads, trying to survive. But even though the people who come with her appear to be friendly, nobody can be trusted when people are starving and stealing is often the only way to live through another day.

I’m not going to lie, this is a damn bleak book. For a long, long time, nothing good happens at all. One tragedy follows another, misery strikes in every chapter, and I would have understood if Lauren had just given up at some point. But that doesn’t make for a good story and it also doesn’t fit who Lauren is. Despite her hyperempathy – a condition that lets her feel other people’s pain – she stays brave and always tries to do what’s right. Even if that very thing is considered madness. Like sharing your food with a mother and her child simply because they need it. This is not the kind of world where people share, this is the kind of world where you hide what you have so nobody robs and kills you at night to get that one apple you’d been saving. But Lauren quickly learns that there’s strength in numbers. When you have people you can trust you can watch each others’ back, you can set up guards. And boy, are the guards necessary.

This book comes with a ton of trigger warnings. Physical violence, rape, cannibalism, murder… it’s all there. And while Octavia Butler doesn’t describe any of these things gratuitoulsy, they add up to the general level of dread the characters feel. This is not a comfort read, it’s not a book that’s fun or relaxing. Much like Lauren, I was constantly worried that something terrible would happen, that they would come across a group of looters, that the children among them would be kidnapped and sold as prostitues, that their guns would be stolen and turned against them.
Strangely enough, despite these very uncomfortable emotions, I always looked forward to picking the book back up. Because Octavia Butler managed to somehow describe the worst possible world with the worst, most selfish people in it, and keep a shimmer of hope on the horizon.

Lauren’s diary entries are mostly straightforward recounts of her days. She spends little time on making her language sound pretty because that’s just not practical. This is a story about survival, about finding a family when everyone has lost theirs, about growing up constantly afraid, and about learning to love nonetheless.
I didn’t find the Earthseed aspect of the book to be particularly religious in nature, although that’s what it appears like at first. Lauren has these ideas that she’s putting into verse (and which we get to read at the beginning of each chapter) and they usually have to do with the nature of god. But the message of these verses is clear and simple: This is how humanity should be if it wants to continue; this is the future! Earthseed is a slowly growing rule book for how the world could work, how humanity can survive, how a sliver of happiness can be found even in these dark and dangerous times.

There were so many intriguing ideas here, starting with Lauren’s hyperempathy. Just imagine having to shoot at someone to protect your own life and feeling that person’s pain as the bullet hits them! So Lauren is always in more danger than everyone else because even self-defense could knock her out and leave her helpless and unprotected in the street.
I also found the idea of company towns quite interesting, although the story doesn’t go into too much detail about that. I suspect they will come up in the second part of this duology. The same probably goes for the drug “pyro” and the supposedly safe and water-rich areas up north. I had to remind myself that this was published in 1993 because it feels so contemporary at times that it hurt. Octavia Butler clearly had a keen eye for humanity and its flaws and she spun a tale of the future that we should try to avoid at all costs.

While by the end of this book, the bigger story of Earthseed  is far from finished, I did find the conclusion satisfying. This chapter of Lauren’s life is finished and there is hope for another, better one. One with less death and loss, one without so much fear, maybe even one where the ideas of Earthseed take root and help a new society to grow. I’ll be sure to find out.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!