Parable of the Talents

Book 2, Earthseed Novels
By Octavia Butler
Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., ISBN: 978-1-4532-6543-7
Paperback, 320 pages. © 2012
(Originally published 1998)

In 2032, Lauren lives with her husband Bankole, their infant daughter Larkin, and the rest of the Earthseed community on an isolated piece of land they’ve named Acorn. They support one another, care for each other, set up watches for the inevitable would-be thieves and murderers from Outside who will steal or kill to survive. They’ve hidden caches of food, documents, money, medicines all around their land. And they’re doing a fine business with Bankole’s medical training, Acorn’s garden produce, and the many tinkering talents they’ve accumulated among their members. Life is good, and those who live on the land at Acorn feel blessed.

But when the new president is elected, promising to “make America great again,” his crusaders spread out among the “heathen, non-Christian witches,” arresting people for vagrancy, for teaching or believing anything other than Christian American theologies, or for being in possession of something they themselves could use. Acorn, isolated as it is, draws these vultures like roadkill and none of their lives will ever be the same.

Parable of the Talents picks up where Parable of the Sower left off, more or less, but is “narrated” by Larkin, who is grown and looking back over her mother’s life. Events are revealed in journal entries, as they were in Sower, but this time it isn’t only Lauren’s words we see. Larkin, Bankole, and a surprise callback from Sower (no spoilers!) tell us of their lives after the birth of Acorn. Each journal entry’s voice is unique, colored by the individual writer’s experience and perspective, all viewing Lauren’s life—and her decisions—through their own filters. Not all the characters in Lauren’s journey see her as she saw herself, and I think that is one of the details I liked best about Talents. We are each heroes in our own story, even when we are villains in someone else’s. Butler made this distinction in a way that shines.

There is an old quote attributed to Nietzsche which says “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Lauren Oya Olamina is the embodiment of this bit of wisdom, and while she did not see herself as a hero, she consistently and unflinchingly does whatever she thinks is necessary to fulfill a Destiny for her people. Once again entrenched in a classic Hero’s Quest, she must learn to not only keep herself alive, but her people as well. This time, however, the stakes are twisted. Sometimes, death is not the worst that can happen. And sometimes, scars run too deep to ever completely heal.

Talents is a frightening, dystopian tale, one that surpasses even Parable of the Sower in its prophetic, plausible intensity. There were times, reading Talents, that I felt physically sickened by the events unfolding on the page. At least twice, it was all I could do to keep reading—not because the story wasn’t good, but because it was so horrifically believable. I could easily see these events taking place in our own time, our own world. Climate issues continue to be part of the setting’s challenges, but in this second book of the Earthseed story, it is human extremism that darkens the pages. Butler is not twisting reality, I think, to show us this worst face of humanity. We already see tendencies toward this mindset in modern-day American news and politics. It wouldn’t take much to open the gates on the sort of hate and power-mongering Butler depicts in Talents. That is, for me, what made it such a difficult read.

I don’t think you could pick up Parable of the Talents and understand it without having first read Parable of the Sower. And I don’t believe you could read both books and come away unchanged. Butler has pulled back the curtain on where we are headed, and shown us one of many ugly futures we could face if we don’t change directions. The Earthseed novels are essential reading for anyone living in this era.

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