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).

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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)

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

ParableOfTheSower(1stEd).jpg

Parable of the Sower (1988) is deeply American SF, all guns and God. Well SF when it was written anyway, 3 decades ago, but now just another story of the US’s decline into hell in a handbasket. Trump, and McConnell’s GOP, too busy harvesting the spoils thrown up by the collapse of the once, recently great empire to offer leadership.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006), a Black American woman, is one of the greats of science fiction writing, deeply thoughtful about race, gender, and class, though not as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

In Parable of the Sower she posits the rise of a new religion, with the slogan “God is change”, and a young black female messiah, against the background of climate induced chaos as America falls back into the unregulated capitalism of mass unemployment, zero social services, corrupt police, and indentured slavery, not to mention roving packs of drug crazed pyromaniacs and walled, armed enclaves in the suburbs.

And I say ‘background’ because though economic and social collapse is central to the story there is not the clear economic analysis of the book’s forbears, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack London’ s The Iron Heel and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instead, Butler focuses on what a new religion might look like, what sort of God would make sense of the ever-present danger and disorder of ordinary people’s lives.

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

I don’t suppose only Americans substitute religion for logical economic analysis, though it feels like it sometimes, and the best of them, as here, make their way back to anarcho-syndicalism – that is, self government and equal opportunity – with some sort of synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and a non-interfering God which seems to offer them comfort without causing us much harm.

Lauren, 13 when she starts telling her story, has already begun discovering not inventing the religion she calls Earthseed with a God it is up to us to shape. She, her college teacher parents and younger brothers live with four or five other families in a walled enclave in the suburbs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Throughout the city and by implication, throughout the country, any unprotected building is occupied and ransacked by the masses of unemployed. Gasoline fuelled vehicles are a thing of the past, the internet is mostly down, schools are closed as it becomes too dangerous to leave the enclave, water is scarce and dirty, food is expensive and must be supplemented by home gardens and orchards. Police, fire brigades, ambulances must be paid to attend, are always late and often turn on the people who called them.

With no chance of a college education or employment, Lauren, already sexually active, faces a future of early marriage, constant child-bearing, crowded accommodation and grinding poverty. The father, a Baptist minister, trains the children of his community to shoot and organizes sentries but it is all for nought. By the time Lauren is 18 one brother has joined the gangs and been killed, the father has disappeared, and the enclave is overrun, ransacked, women and children raped, her mother and remaining brothers murdered.

She escapes with Harry (white), a childhood friend and Zahra (black), a wife sold into polygamous marriage by her prostitute mother. And so they join the long trek north, up the west coast to Canada, with tens of thousands of others, preyed on and preying on each other, slowly accumulating a few companions they can trust, children and parents with children.

The danger, shootings and deaths are a given in this brand of dystopian SF, but well done anyway. And the characters and relationships of the protagonists are filled out in a way not generally managed by the writers of boy-SF derived from war and wild west pulp fiction.

Among the people who accumulate in her train is an older black man, Bankole, to whom Lauren, though travelling as a boy, is attracted. They slowly become lovers and he, though sceptical of the religion Lauren is weaving around her little band, offers to lead them to 300 acres of remote farmland he owns in the mountains above San Francisco.

There they find the farm buildings all burnt and the bones of Bankole’s sister and her children in the ashes. And there with seemingly reliable ground water and arable land, remote from the worst of the marauders, they decide to stay. But that, as is always the case with SF, is another story, Parable of the Talents.

Perhaps to make her story more ess-eff-y, Butler gives Lauren and a couple of the lesser characters the ‘talent’, handicap really, of being able to feel the pain of others, so that if Lauren shoots someone she must die, or feel like she is dying, with them. But what is much more interesting is the feeling which people have, at least while they still have jobs and houses, until quite late in the story that this failure of the state is temporary, that after the next election or the one after, life will return to normal.

You get this feeling from America today. That the GOP, captured by the billionaires’ Tea Party, will be stopped from wrecking civilised governance, that the engineered failures of health, education and social security systems, the headlong rush to climate catastrophe, the hollowing out of the middle classes will all be reversed by a Blue Wave in November, when the opposite is clearly true. The Democrats are as captured by Big Money as the GOP; the South is already lost; the American dream is headed for nightmare as SF writers have been fortelling for decades.

 

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 4W8W, New York, 1988 (first ed. cover)


*Origin “Going to hell in a handbasket”
The phrase originated in the USA in the mid 19th century and the first print record is in I. Winslow Ayer’s account of events of the American Civil War “The Great North-Western Conspiracy”, 1865  (theidioms.com)

The suggested origin I liked best was being lowered down a gold mine shaft in a basket, which would have been quite common during the gold rushes from the 1840s on.