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Parable of the Talents

| 27.3.03
Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler

In this sequel to her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower Octavia E. Butler exceeds my expectations by writing a book that is more interesting than Sower in terms of plot and style. At least to some extent Butler abandons the journal format of Sower, adding in material that is not written solely from the perspective of Lauren Olimina. However, I was disappointed in the way she resolved the broader religious questions that dominated the first novel.

Parable of the Talents is written from multiple points of view. Structurally the glue that holds this story together is an extended essay, or history, written by Asha Vere --Lauren Olimina's daughter. She writes about her own life as one abducted from her parents and raised to oppose the Earthseed religion of her mother. Interspersed in this big story are first person perspective "historical documents" --journal entries by Lauren Olimina and Asha's father, Bankole --as well as a few selections from her uncle. All these different perspectives provide a more interesting and varied reading experience than the first novel, which was entirely journal entries of Lauren Olimina, founder of Earthseed. Perhaps this structure is symbolic of the fragmentation and much later re-integration of Earthseed that takes place in the novel.

I was much less impressed with the treatment of the Earthseed religion in this novel than in Sower. I felt that in Talents the author sacrificed the probing spiritual questions and realistic formation of a spiritual community in favor of moving the plot along. Unlike any other religious founder I can think of with the possible exception of Mohammad, Lauren Olimina lives to see the fruition of her religious tradition's ultimate goals. Since "The Destiny of Earthseed, / Is to take root / Among the stars." (p. 65) this seems a bit hard to swallow --especially since Olimina's whole world has been plunged in a post global-warming apocalyptic-style horror for the past 50 years! While Olimina, like Moses in the Bible, doesn't actually get to enter her Promised Land, the breakneck speed at which she progresses defies belief even within the confines of the story and the genre. When Olimina goes from a religion of one, to a community of maybe 50, then loses all that and is forced to start over again door-to-door, finally getting a rich national following capable of funding research and technology to build starships --I'm left unable to suspend my disbelief.

On the whole I must admit that I enjoyed this sequel more than I disliked it. In the final analysis, however, I see it as a novel that satisfies if one liked Parable of the Sower and merely "wants to find out more" about what happened to Olimina and her ragged band of followers. But if one wants an in-depth speculative novel about an interesting belief system and its implications, Parable of the Talents fails to deliver.

PUBLISHER: Seven Stories Press, New York. 1998. ISBN: 1888363819

Parable of the Sower

| 20.3.03
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

When I first learned that Parable of the Sower was yet another near-future dystopia, I groaned inwardly. While such books certainly have their place as cautionary tales, I usually find them so depressing that they don't make for entertaining reading. Science fiction is usually a more optimistic vision of how science and technology can shape us and take us places we've never been before. The whole dystopia sub-genre seems dark and depressing in contrast. 1984 and its warning against totalitarianism; Alas, Babylon and The Postman with their twin depictions of the aftermath of nuclear holocaust --these are all well-written books with an important political message, but they also seem a little surreal and far away in the future. Parable of the Sower manages to transcend the genre by offering a theme of hope through personal transformation. Author Octavia E. Butler is also relatively conservative in her extrapolated future, which makes her message seem all the more immediate, believable and relevant.

Butler takes current disturbing trends of global warming, gated communities, homelessness, and privatization and extrapolates a disturbingly familiar near future. The year is 2025, and it hasn't rained in years. Water (and everything else) is in very short supply. The middle-class live in gated communities topped with barbed wire and laser wire to keep out the street poor and gangs --desperate starving people willing to kill for food or shoes. And things are getting worse. Every year more gated communities are breached, looted, and pillaged by the desperate. The inhabitants are killed, rapped or tortured --rendered desperate themselves. Police, Fire departments, and other basic services are only available to those willing to pay their fees, resulting in only small enclaves of law and order surrounded by a sea of anarchy. Public education is non-existent, and unemployment is astronomically high. The United States government still exists --still collects taxes-- but seems exceedingly distant, in the hands of corporate interests, and unable to exert much force on the local level.

Against this backdrop we're introduced to the main character, Lauren Olamina, who lives in one of these walled communities outside San Diego and senses its coming destruction. Daughter of a Baptist pastor who is holding the small, ragged community of eleven households together through sheer force of will, Olamina is secretly forging (or discovering) her own religion called Earthseed, which gives her comfort and a sense of purpose as everything slowly crumbles around her. Here are some verses from the bible she assembles through the course of the novel, called Earthseed: The Books of the Living:

All that you touch,
You Change..

All that you Change
Changes you..

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

Why is the universe?
To shape God.

Why is God?
To shape the universe
(p. 72)

The bulk of the novel outlines Lauren Olimina as she discovers and refines the Earthseed religion, using it to understand the cataclysmic changes taking place in her life. Her walled community is ultimately invaded and she is forced to flee with a few possessions and a few companions, seeking out a new home where she plans to establish a community based on the new principle that "God is Change." The only way to survive is to embrace Change and try to consciously shape it --and allow it to ultimately shape you.

I found the concept of a new religion that embraces change to be enticing. While most institutional religions seem quite conservative and slow to change, Octavia E. Butler paints a convincing picture of Lauren Olimina as a dynamic religious tradition founder. The community she assembles is small enough and cohesive enough that its lack of inter-nicene squabbling does not detract too much from its realism. Perhaps only after the religious founder dies (not the subject of this book --maybe treated in Butler's later novel, Parable of the Talents?) do differing interpretations, and the calcification of the tradition start to arise. How that would be treated by a religion that defines God as change would be quite interesting.

As a person of faith and an avid reader of science fiction I enjoyed this novel because it not only extrapolated the future of science and social trends, but also religious belief. Defining God as change is an optimistic imagining of a people's reaction to cataclysmic change. I can't help but wonder if its overly optimistic, however. Surely a more typical human response is to either fear change, reject change, or to try to hold on to something as constant within the midst of change? Relgious founders are hardly typical, however, and maybe Butler's machinations are how most new faiths are formed --out of response to a specific historical situation or calamity.

As an unrelated sidenote, I didn't actually read this book --I checked the unabridged Audiobook CD out from the library, ripped it to MP3, and listened to it on my portable MP3 player. It was the first time I'd tried this, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to listen while taking my daily exercise. Nowadays I seem to have so little uninterrupted time for reading that it is nice to be able to leverage some other time each day. Since the novel takes the form of entries in Lauren's journal, it is easy to ingest in small doses.

PUBLISHER: Four Walls Eight Windows, New York. 1993. ISBN: 0941423999

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