Parable of the Talents by Butler, Octavia, 1999

Parable of the Talents by Butler, Octavia - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Sometimes I really wonder how Octavia Butler, God rest her talented soul, managed to keep my attention for as long as she did. I think I have read all but three of her books, and the only short story by her that I have not read is the one that is still tied up with Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions, which probably is not going to see the light of day until he passes and someone finishes and publishes that work of his. I ask this rhetorical question because Butler, in the four multi-volume stories she started in her life, really never deviated from her favorite themes. Again and again, recycled from story to story, Butler used the themes of the dystopic society, the superman myth, love, coming of age, slavery, reproduction and mating, war and mayhem, and community building to great use, without ever getting boring, or repetitive, or preachy, or even overdone. I have to believe that it is because she felt her stories in her bones. What that says about her personal experiences, or her empathy, I will never really know or understand. But I know a good story when it bites me on the leg, chews that leg off, swallows it, burps loudly and asks for another. And that is exactly what Octavia Butler's tales do to you, this one no exception. Although this particular one manages to get even more melodramatic that I in its review, Iím going to give this one a strong five out of five stars, and lament loudly that this series will never be finished.

Although I have not read enough about Ms. Butler to know, I suspect that this story was what she was building to throughout her formidable, all-too-short career. To my eye and ear the Xenogenesis series and the Patternist series, as excellent as they were, were mere playgrounds for some of the ideas she works with here. Parable of the Talents was the second book in a proposed trilogy that told the story of a hippie-style religion called Earthseed. Butler published Parable of the Sower in 1994, and had started writing Parable of the Trickster before passing in 2006. Parable of the Talents won the 1999 Nebula Award for the Best Novel of 1998. Picking up a short time after Parable of the Sower left off, Parable of the Talents traces the successes and failures of the main character, Olamina, as she attempts to establish a home for an extended family, and provide a haven for her new religion, Earthseed, to grow. The novel is told in the posthumously-published diary format with commentary by Olamina's daughter, Larkin. It is set in a dystopic future in the U.S. that is slowly collapsing as a vicious form of fundamentalist Christianity rises to deal with the social issues in its typically brutish way. At the beginning of the book the "Pox," has all but destroyed American cultural values. The Pox, described as an "installment-plan World War III," was the result of ignored climactic, sociological and economic issues and has led to the downfall of civil rights enforcement, police enforcement and civil society. But it was not a total collapse. Groups of slavers, rapists, highwaymen and murderers seemed to rule the roads, but the middle class was not totally destroyed. If you let your daughters out of your home town there was a pretty good chance that they would be captured and "put to use" as sexual slaves, but you still had to pay your taxes. Groups of religious fundamentalists prowled the land capturing heathens and enslaving them in Christian "reeducation camps," but you still had to take your college entrance exams if you wanted to make anything of yourself. Of course, the middle class was tiny in comparison to what it once was, but in parts of the nation it held on tenaciously to what it once had, and made liberal use of mercenaries to guarantee that they could hold on to those few freedoms and luxuries if they had to, and if they could afford to.

Prior to the opening of the novel, and depicted in Parable of the Sower, Olamina and a group of people from her former home in Robledo, California walked north to Humboldt County after their walled enclave was destroyed by rievers and raiders. Most of the group were murdered or captured along the way, but when they arrived at a patch of secluded land owned by Olamina's husband she started a community called Acorn, which was modeled on Hippie communes of the past. She also started preaching Earthseed as a religion as well as a cultural outlook on life. Over the years Acorn grew as the citizens were able to increase their economic standing in the community, which was only a very loosely knit clump of other communes with a few towns and one city. But the whole time a group of fundamentalist Christians called Jarret's Crusaders, named after the harshly fundamentalist president of the United States, had been raiding and destroying nearby communities for crimes such as producing pot and whiskey. Olamina worried about them because they would probably see Earthseed as a cult worthy of destroying. And she was right. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Larkin, Jarret's Crusaders attacked and enslaved the community for reeducation. All of the children including the infant Larkin were sent to the Pelican Bay Christian Reeducation Facility where they were adopted out to families who would raise them with good Christian beliefs.

The major plot line involved Olamina's choice to stay at Acorn despite the very real threat, and an offer from an even better-protected city to the North that was in need of her husband's services as a doctor. Every choice that she made from the point that she left Robledo until the moment that Acorn was captured put her and her family into harm's way. Olamina was literally enslaved, her husband was murdered, her infant daughter was stolen and given to someone else, and members of the community who looked to her for leadership were murdered, raped and killed. Olamina bore her fair share of the guilt burden, but managed to escape and kill all of Acorn's captors before getting away. Once she and her people were free they split up to prevent recapture, and Olamina had some time to think, she realized that her original plan of creating Acorn to spread Earthseed by attracting those in need was flawed because it made her and the believers vulnerable to attackers. Olamina decided to become a missionary (after a long and fruitless search for her daughter), and set up many, many little Acorn communities in an almost terrorist-cell like structure.

As a religion, Butler crafted Earthseed pretty well. It was always a missionary religion, but it was not until the end of Olamina's slavery that missionaries actually were sent out. Earthseed preached that God is not an individual; it preached that God is Change, literally, and that by sensing change rather than letting it run over you, a person can control that change and make it work for them. Belief in Earthseed gave people who practiced it the power to say "this too shall end...." All-in-all it was quite an empowering religion and that central tenant of course spoke to just about all Americans. In a society where very little went right for anybody a belief system that taught a practical application of truth was just what the people needed. But with the general collapse of society and the destruction of methods of mass communication, Olamina was not able to spread Earthseed by any method other than travelling to people and converting them. By the end of the book the United States was starting to pull itself out of its hole, and mass-communication technology had returned. The job became easier then, and Earthseed flourished. The only problem I found with Butler's created religion was that it was taught in a book of simultaneously obscure and simple verse, none of which struck me as very inspiring. Here are a few examples. This first one comes to Olamina as she is contemplating the destruction of Acorn after she escaped:

In order to rise

From its own ashes

A phoenix

First

Must

Burn

This one relates to a funerary rite of the Earthseed community:

We give our dead

To the orchards

And to the groves.

We give our dead

To life.

And finally, this one relates to Earthseed's primary core belief:

Chaos

Is God's most dangerous face--

Amorphous, roiling, hungry.

Shape Chaos--

Shape God.

Act.

Alter the speed

Or the direction of Change.

Vary the scope of Change.

Recombine the seeds of Change.

Seize Change.

Use it.

Adapt and grow.

Iím sure that Butler wanted her character's verses to be simple to understand and for the topics to be instantly recognizable, even to outsiders. How else is a new religion supposed to spread? But even if that was the point, I think itís a bit much. Or maybe a bit too little. It all sounded like run-or-the-mill advertising copy for a power drink, or a computer, or a pair of shoes.

This book is an allegory of the Parable of the Talents from Matthew in the Bible. That story itself is an allegory for the personal benefits of working hard to increase your skills and knowledge, and to build upon the foundations and talents that God gives you. In the novel Olamina is blessed with the ability to intellectually seduce others, and to bring them around to her way of thinking. The perfect personality trait for a missionary, or a prophet, if you ask me. And that essentially is what Olamina wants to do. Her major purpose in life is not just to establish a new religion. It is to give humanity a chance to end the cyclical rises and falls of society once and for all. Earthseed's purpose essentially is exactly what its name implies: Olamina wants to build society and technology back up to what it once was, and more, then launch spacecraft to other planets. Before her death, Olamina succeeded. Earthseed had become the dominant religion of at least the United States and had built entire cities dedicated to birthing, raising and educating the people who would make this dream a reality.

In addition to the above there were quite a few other sub-plots that ran throughout the book. Butler gives a war between the United States and Canada over the right to cross Canadian territory and retake Alaska, which had seceded from the union. Her vision of a failed U.S. is also very, very convincing, with for example the return of company cities for protection, education, food production, and commerce; foreign owned cities for the same reason; police for hire; the devaluation of the U.S. dollar; immigration out of the U.S. to Russia, Canada and Alaska, which were major food producing regions after the effects of global warming; the complete politicization of religious fundamentalism. Butler crafted an incredible background here, and did what I think all great world-builders do, which is to keep their background actually in the background. For instance Butler never really put Jarret himself in conflict with Olamina or Acorn. They were motes to the President of the United States. But she did create an administration whose policies and acts put both of them at risk. And in telling her story over a period of years, she depicted a swing in the administration that went from bad, to horrible, to passable, to wonderful. Complicating this picture was the fact that Jarret never really wanted to do anything but good, and Jarret's Crusaders were probably just a splinter group that he was unable to control. Butler also wrote a pretty well detailed family triangle between Olamina, her brother Marcos, who was a Christian America pastor, and Olamina's daughter Larkin whom Marcos finds, but never tells Olamina about. The resolution of that plotline is striking.

I also think that this book was somewhat autobiographical. Olamina herself was a very sensitive empath. She was the daughter of a woman who took a drug called Paracetro that was originally manufactured to provide Alzheimerís patients with increased mental faculties, but was abused by normal adults to turn themselves into geniuses. Those parents tended, as a side effect, to produce empaths that could feel the pleasure or pain of those nearby. They also tended to die early. Their children, because of their abilities, were mostly peaceful people, but Olamina certainly did not let that keep her from exacting revenge where it was due. Of the Jarret's Crusader she ran across during the escape from Acorn:

We grappled with them, dragged them down, and strangled them. That simple. Even simple for me. It hurt when they hit me. It hurt when I hit them. And it didn't matter a good goddamn! Once I had my hands on one of them, I just shut my eyes and did it. I never felt their deaths. And I have never been so eager and so glad to kill people.

As I said above, I tend to think that Octavia Butler was very empathetic, simply because she has such an incredibly deep understanding of the themes that she dealt with. Olamina was also a large African-American Los Angelino woman who was raised by a single father, who was also a Baptist minister, after her mother died. She shared all of these personal characteristics with Olamina.

If you have never tried an Octavia Butler book before, this one is as good as any of them. Get out tomorrow and pick something up.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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