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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

cover of Octavia Butler's 'Parable of the Talents'

In a post-apocalyptic California, with the U.S. in political and economic chaos, Lauren Oya Olamina builds a small community called Acorn, where people can live and survive and learn. But for her, this small community is also an opportunity to spread the ideas of the religion of Earthseed, which she created (she feels that rather she discovered it, as something that was already true)-- that "God is change", but change can be shaped and guided, and that humanity has a destiny to go out and take root among the stars, to spread the seed of Earth, which gives a much deeper purpose and a reason for learning almost any field of study, since it is a means to that destiny. Lauren Olamina is the daughter of an African-American preacher, and the novel is bookended with the Biblical story of the parable of the talents-- she remembers one of the last sermons she heard her father preach, on that text, and it ends by quoting the passage.

The book is structured as if edited by Lauren Olamina's daughter, Larkin, and composed largely of Olamina's writings (journal entries, as well as the books of Earthseed), and a few other excerpts from other writings, such as those by Bankole, Olamina's husband and Larkin's father. It took a while until I got far enough into the book to understand why the narrator/editor piecing these bits together seemed like such a stranger to her own mother. With the political turmoil and people seizing power, a militant group of the "Christian Americans" who follow the current leader of the U.S. come in and take over their beautiful settlement of Acorn and turn it into a terrible concentration camp. They put electric slave collars on all the adults, and they take all the young children away where they can be fostered by "true Christians" and not taught the heretical, dangerous lies of this cult of Earthseed. The depiction of the atrocities committed here, by people who have somehow deluded themselves into thinking they are doing what is right and necessary, is really painful and disturbing to read (e.g., men who torture and rape them, and then go back home to their families and churches).

Eventually, many of the people of Acorn are able to survive and escape this horrible captivity, and they split up for safety. Olamina takes to the road and travels with one or two trusted companions, disguising herself as a man (since a tall, striking black woman would be in more danger); she tries to look for her baby daughter, and does reconnect briefly with one of her brothers, Marc, but they disagree on matters of religion and politics, and go their separate ways. The itinerant lifestyle Olamina takes on-- travelling, doing odd jobs for people, looking for her baby girl-- actually allows her to spread her ideas about Earthseed even more than she ever would have been able to at Acorn, and eventually she finds well-off people who are interested in hearing her talk and making her ideas a reality.

Eventually, as an adult Larkin learns who her mother is and goes to meet; after a miserable childhood with unloving and somewhat abusive foster parents, Larkin was eventually rescued and raised by her uncle Marc, and finds herself unable to leave her beloved uncle for a stranger of a mother. The implication from Larkin's perspective is clearly that Earthseed was a more cherished and cared for child than she was, so there is a thread of rejection and abandonment running through the story, even as Larkin watches her mother's dreams of Earthseed coming to fruition.

I didn't realize until after I had finished the book that this is a sequel to The Parable of the Sower, perhaps because it stands up so well on its own.

Title:Parable of the Talents
Author:Octavia Butler
Date published:1998
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:408


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