Friday, June 29, 2018

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler: A review

A recent Google doodle commemorating the birthday of Octavia Butler served to remind me that I had intended to read the second of her "Earthseed" books. I read the first one, Parable of the Sower, earlier this year and was fascinated by her apocalyptic vision of America in the 2020s. That book was published in 1993, but it seemed utterly prescient in some of its visions of how a combination of global warming, political demagoguery, a suspicion of science and education, and an all-consuming selfishness on the part of the rich and powerful were all coming together to tear apart the fabric of society. In 1993, one would probably have thought that could never happen here, but Butler could foresee such a catastrophic outcome and today it does not seem so far-fetched.

Parable of the Talents was published in 1998 and carries the story forward from 2032 until 2090. Suffice to say that in the short term at least things do not get better. In fact, they get very much worse.

In 2032, a Christian populist demagogue named Andrew Steele Jarret is elected president. His movement is called Christian America and their goal is nothing less than to stamp out vestiges of any other religious belief in the country. To do this, they are willing to kill, burn people alive as witches, rape, enslave, separate children from their parents and send them to be raised by "good" Christians, destroy or confiscate property, to do whatever it takes. The end justifies the means.

Early in the book, I was gobsmacked to read this description of Jarret and his actions:
“Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier, "simpler" time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stopping anyone who was different. There was never such a time in this country…
Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and feathering, and the destruction of "heathen houses of devil-worship," he has a simple answer: "Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again.” (My emphasis.)
I had to pause for a bit after reading that. 

While this movement is taking hold in the country, Lauren Olamina is busy establishing her community called Acorn and further solidifying and sharing her philosophy called Earthseed; a philosophy that proclaims that God is change and that the Destiny of humanity is out among the stars, colonizing other planets, seeding humanity and Earth's plants and creatures throughout the universe. Lauren marries and in time has a baby, a daughter that she named Larkin. Her idyllic world comes crashing down when Acorn comes to the attention of the Christian America Crusaders. They are attacked, several (including Lauren's husband) are killed and the rest of the adults are enslaved. Three individuals, whose fate we never learn, escape the attack and all of the children are sent away to be adopted and raised by Christians.

I won't spoil the plot except to say that eventually Lauren does escape and is able to continue sharing and spreading her philosophy but her desperate search for her lost child is unsuccessful. 

Lauren's book which expounds her Earthseed philosophy is called Books of the Living and it contains this passage:
“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.” 
Beware cowards, opportunists, thieves, liars, and tyrants; wise advice. We should heed it.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

6 comments:

  1. That's a powerful last quote. I don't think Americans have chosen their leaders wisely in a long time. I'm glad that you liked this book so much and found it prescient.

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    1. There are many passages in this book that could have been written about today's news; especially those parts about demonizing of the "other." If Butler were alive today, I wonder what she would think about it all.

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  2. I've read other of Butler's works but not any of the Earthseed books, and I occasionally wonder why. She was a visionary, and left us too soon. What a powerful quote! Yes, if Butler was alive today, I also wonder what she, as a woman of color, would be thinking right now.

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    1. I'm just the opposite - I have not read her other works, but, having now read Earthseed, I am eager to read others. Her vision of a apocalyptically dysfunctional society is scary because it hits so close to home.

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  3. Wow, just wow. I have been trying to get to Octavia Butler for a long while, but I had no idea. It could be that the time is now. As I read your review I had a Neil Gaiman sort of vision: Donald Trump and Octavia Butler at a table in a place like Purgatory having a debrief. I hope that was not too weird to say. I have had a challenging week.

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    1. It has been a challenging week for all of us in many ways, I think, and reading Butler during it was not a comfort, but it did bring some clarity and, in the end, perhaps just a glimmer of hope.

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