Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler

Parable of the Talents (1998) is the ‘science fiction’ story of what it is now clear that millions of Americans are working towards, relentlessly and ruthlessly, an evangelical theocracy. Not a story at all, SF or otherwise, but a clear warning from 22 years ago of what is on the way, as inevitably as death.

Butler posits an ending that is more positive than I think present facts deserve, but my own prediction from the safety of this other side of the world is that the evangelicals chosen weapon, Trumpism, and the futile efforts of liberals to deal sensibly and honestly with opponents entirely devoid of both, will cause the break-up of the United States: into three parts probably – North East, Mid-West and South, and West Coast.

Butler’s central thesis, which was near enough to the truth, was for economic and ecological disasters, caused by decades of greed and misrule, leading to the formation of a vast underclass, and a hollowed-out middle class which in desperation would vote in a President intent on ‘re-establishing’ the United States as a ‘Christian’ patriarchy. Luckily, ‘real life’ hasn’t yet followed her theocracy in uniting the country by going to war with Canada and break-away Alaska.

I have read that … “the Apocalypse” or … “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030 … This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment …

I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises … I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger and disease become inevitable for more and more people.

Like a lot of good science fiction this novel suffers from a surfeit of ideas. Sometimes there is just so much that Butler, or Lauren whose story it is, has to tell us. There is character development, but it is secondary to a plot which is concerned as much with expounding Butler’s ideas about the future of the USA as it is with the main characters’ ongoing survival. And the structure itself intrudes. Each chapter begins with a section looking back from the future to the time of the story, and usually the person looking back is Lauren’s child, a daughter, we discover eventually; and then in the next paragraph the story is being told in the ‘present’ (around 2030) by Lauren, ostensibly through her journals though the stories are too free-flowing to maintain that illusion.

At the end of Parable of the Sower Lauren and Bankole are establishing a small community on farm land Bankole owns in northern California. Lauren is intent on establishing Earthseed as a religion whose ultimate aim is to spread humanity ‘to the stars’. So Parable of the Talents begins with the community, Acorn, prospering and growing. Lauren finally falls pregnant, gives birth to a daughter. Bankole is unhappy, feels exposed, there are still gangs marauding around the countryside, and wishes to practice as a doctor in a nearby town where he thinks they can have a ‘normal’ life. Lauren insists on staying.

But within months of the birth of her daughter, Christian militia encouraged by the new President, Jarret, invade the farm, turning it into a semi-legal internment camp for vagrants and non-Christians. All the children on the farm are turned over to Christian welfare organisations for adoption, and the adults are used as forced labour, subjected to Bible Study, and of course the women are raped.

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United States in the twenty-first century, but it did. It shouldn’t have happened, in spite of all the chaos that had gone before. Things were healing… Yet Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide and bully people, first into electing him president, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers

Somewhere along the way Lauren has rescued from (sex) slavery her brother, Marcus, left for dead in the previous novel but now a fierce adherent of President Jarret’s church, Christian America. He goes off before Acorn is overrun, to become a preacher, but Lauren later chases him up, hoping for a reconciliation, and he eventually plays an important part in Lauren’s relationship with her long-lost daughter.

In the end this is an optimistic novel, far more optimistic I think than the facts warranted, when it was written or now when a great deal of what Butler imagined has played out, if less extremely than she pictures here. Did I enjoy it? Yes I did. Would I recommend it to my mostly non-SF reading readership? No. Your responses to previous SF reviews have convinced me that ‘hard’ SF has its own conventions of which SF readers and writers are barely aware but which render much of what is being written about difficult for non SF readers.

But hey, be careful all the Literary ‘dystopian’ novels around now don’t take you there anyway, down the slippery path to spacemen firing laser guns Pew, Pew at each other (Claire G Coleman’s The Old Lie for instance).

.

Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Talents, first pub. 1998. This edition (pictured), Headline, London. 390pp.

see also, Melanie/GTL’s reviews:
Parable of the Sower (here)
Parable of the Talents (here)

18 thoughts on “Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler

  1. Ohhhh, that good-time pew pew science fiction! I had a brilliant time reading Glory Road by Robert Heinlein out loud to Nick not that far back. Granted, there were weird creatures and lots of pew pew action, but there was this coldness the author captured, a coldness in the characters that felt REAL to me that I enjoyed.

    It’s hard to even call Butler’s work science fiction. While I enjoyed Kindred, the only sci-fi element is time travel, which the author doesn’t even attempt to explain (very far from the realm of pew pew). I think Butler did dystopian fiction and did it better than a lot of contemporary authors. The entire time I was reading Parable of the Talents I felt BAD. It was too close to reality, too hopeless, too despairing. I did a buddy read on this one, and Gil also felt that the book’s ending didn’t fit the rest of the novel. That being said, for anyone who doesn’t want to experience despair, they can read Parable of the Sower and still get some good dystopian fiction without curling up in the fetal position.

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    • Heinlein is seriously right wing and that gets in the way – there always has to be a “superman” leader. But he writes old style SF very well. I don’t remember Glory Road, too long ago!

      We’ll have to disagree. Firstly I think Butler situated herself within the SF tradition (Like Lessing and Le Guin); secondly the Parables are set 20 years plus in Butler’s future – and you can’t deny the ending is SF surely; and thirdly I think dystopian is a subset of SF, though modern literary writers like to pretend they just invented it.

      (I got caught up in work, and have only just stopped for the night)

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      • Heinlein DOES have a superman person in Glory Road, but he is nothing compared to Star, the woman he’s helping. It’s a twist for the time.

        I don’t think we quite disagree; you’re right that dystopian fits into science fiction, but sometimes I limit my view (unintentionally) as to what science fiction is. I want to see the science manifested as technology or advances in health care, that sort of thing. I forget that environmental issues could be considered science fiction. Even in the murderous mermaid books I read had a lot to say about climate change and included scientific procedures and theories to figure out what the mermaids really were and could do.

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      • Melanie. Heinlein does seem to feature a super-woman from time to time. I’d say that was because a superman deserves a super-woman but I haven’t read enough recently (ie. in the last 40 years) to say that with any conviction.

        Writers under the SF label cover a wide range of subjects, some of which are also covered by mainstream writers who don’t like the SF label. If you think about telepathy for instance that’s just straight out magic, there isn’t any science about it. Though speculating about it makes for interesting writing, as far back as John Wyndham’s Chocky. On the other hand, global warming is science so that makes eco-apacolyptic fiction SF in my book. Dystopian economic inequality in the near future generally has elements of speculation about technology too, which is enough for it to be SF in my book; and also it is often taken as a subject by writers calling themselves SF. But I can see your side too (which is not something I often admit).

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  2. What I like about this blog is that I get to read about grunge and SF without having to actually read it myself.
    So, ta muchly.
    (You could say the same thing about historical fiction on mine, eh?)

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  3. Wonderful review, Bill. It’s obvious Butler gave you a lot to think about. Do you think these connections you made are because of the ideas Butler brought to the fore alone, or does the current state of the world influence this as well? I find that my interpretation of any speculative fiction is always highly influenced by my current worldview and experiences – but perhaps that’s unique to me?

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  4. I find that Science Fiction is nearly always a commentary on what is going on in the real world. 50 years ago we had a lot of post-apocalyptic SF in reaction to the Cold War; there was cyber-punk as the internet took off; and there has always been climate change. Nearly all reviewers, me included, see the Parable novels through the lens of events today, but in fact Butler was reacting to events a quarter of a century ago and they led her, correctly, to predict growing inequality, global warming and the growth of Evangelical Fascism.

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  5. Wow, I’m impressed by the insight, but I shouldn’t, SF writers are good for that.

    I’m not a great SF reader, so I’ll pass but I’m glad you reviewed it.

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    • SF writers have tended to be Cassandras, never believed. But as you imply on your own blog with your comment about Thatcher and Reagan – the policies they represent were always going to lead to terrible inequality. But the rise of the evangelicals, that I just don’t understand. I guess it parallels a rise in hopelessness.

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  6. Butler has been on my to-read list for a long time – I probably want to start with Kindred, since I am fascinated by time travel stories, though I’m generally more interested in the mechanics of time travel used in the story than in the historical fiction content that goes along with them. Your review makes a good case for me to start here instead – I’ve been avoiding dystopian novels for the past year or so (for obvious reasons), but this sounds really interesting and since you say it’s more optimistic than the facts deserve, maybe I can enjoy this despite our current circumstances!

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    • First, I wouldn’t read Parable of the Talents without first reading Parable of the Sower. Nearly all that happens in Talents depends on stuff that happens in Sower. The optimistic ending comes as a bit of a surprise and I think you would be thoroughly depressed by all that went before – much as I hate to dissuade anyone from reading a fine book(s). Time travel is such a staple of SF that I am quite used to it, though most ‘explanations’ are closer to magic than science. And how ever sciencey (or not) it is often used to explore interesting paradoxes.

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  7. Butler has been on my radar for some time, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to her. I enjoyed your discussion with Melanie about SF and dystopian. I have tended to see dystopian as a subset of SF, but cli-fi as only partly overlapping with dystopian rather than a full subset.

    I do like time travel books, more than I like the more wondrous/out-there forms of sci-fi which create whole new worlds that don’t necessarily interest me. That’s where SF and fantasy tend to lose me.

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    • I started reading SF in the late sixties, then, as with music, I went back and explored its roots in, especially, the 1950s. So my reading is grounded in post-WWII guys shooting guys (and gunships shooting gunships) stuff. But into the 70s and 80s some really clever writers began to riff off classic SF (and off the Beat Generation). So we got Ray Bradbury, JG Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, John Sladek, Robert Sheckley, Phillip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing and they exploded out into all sorts of new directions, even including (some) believable women. My kids still find new space operas to read, Ben Bova and so on, and none of us (I think) give much time to vampires and dragons and faux-feudal spaces with magic instead of science (sorry Melanie, sorry Jackie), but my preference is for SF as a space to explore ideas about how things might work out, by writers who can really write.

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  8. I’ve only read the first three and last two paragraphs of your post because I haven’t read this follow-up volume yet. Even though I intended to, straight off reading the first last year, I just couldn’t squeeze it in. But I must get back to it before I forget the rest. Lauren is such a fine creation; I read an article in the NYT a couple of years ago, when the new Greta Gerwig film of Little Women was released, about how there should be more talk about whether one is a Lauren or a (what was the name of her friend who was afraid to even THINK about leaving their community? I’d probably have been her, cuz I’m a scaredy-cat, but I can’t remember her name because it’s Lauren’s story that we all want to read) instead of whether one is a Meg or a Jo or a Beth or an Amy. You might enjoy Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, which is being reissued this year. And Fledgling (the description might put you off, but she isn’t about to take a typical route, is she).

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