I don’t even know how to write this review. If I were doing this properly, it would be a research paper, complete with citations, and filled with arguments and analyses far more illuminating than what I have here. But I’m writing a review for a book review blog. And I’ve just about left behind academia for good, so I’m not obligated to produce anything resembling a research paper anymore. Instead I will humbly attempt to hone in on what makes Parable of the Talents such a stunning, smart, beautiful novel. I feel incredibly fortunate that I chose to read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents to “officially” delve into Octavia Butler’s oeuvre. I can only hope this review does the book justice.
Parable of the Talents is the story of Lauren Olamina four years after the founding of Acorn, the first Earthseed community. She’s proud of the work that’s been done and eager to spread Earthseed to even more people. No matter the odds, Lauren wants Earthseed to culminate in what she has named the Destiny—in which humanity leaves Earth and ascend to the stars.
Parable of the Talents is also the story of Lauren’s daughter, Larkin, renamed Ashe Vere after she was snatched from Acorn and her parents, the first in a series of crimes committed in a prolonged ordeal of violence, degradation, and suffering enacted by religious militants, members of The Church of Christian America.
The United States, tired of the apocalyptic chaos the country has experienced during the past decade, has voted into power the fanatical and fascistic president Donald Trump Ted Cruz Andrew Steele Jarret. (At one point he actually says as part of his campaigning that he will “make America great again. *SHUDDER*). Jarret is the founder of the powerful, right-wing Church of Christian America. He preaches a return to godliness, in the form of persecuting, prosecuting, and “saving” any American who refuses to lead a good Christian life. And that includes stamping out all “cults” who go against the bible’s teachings and allow women to speak and hold positions unacceptable for their gender.
Four years after Lauren and her group of wanderers have founded Acorn, after she’s seeded the beginnings of Earthseed as a living religion with multiple followers, after she’s finally a mother to an infant daughter, an armed group of Christian America militants invade and destroy Acorn, turn the place into a “re-education” camp, and enslave all the adults with electric collars they use to administer excruciating punishment. All the children are stolen and sent for “re-education” elsewhere to be fostered and adopted by Christian American families.
Larkin Olamina—renamed Ashe Vere Alexander—grows up in one of these Christian American homes, unloved and abused by her adoptive parents, never knowing who her biological parents are. Only as an adult does she learn that her mother is none other than Lauren Olamina, founder and leader of the now-powerful and widespread religion Earthseed.
And Ashe hates her. For choosing Earthseed over her. For choosing to bring to fruition the Destiny of Earthseed, for being the leader of a religion of millions rather than the mother of her daughter, and for shutting out her uncle Marc—Marcus Duran, Lauren’s half-brother, discovered to be miraculously alive, whom she bought and freed from enslaved prostitution, and who became a minister of Christian America.
Parable of the Talents is a harrowing and frightening yet soberingly realistic story of a future United States where the separation between Church and State no longer exists, where in the absence of law enforcement on behalf of the government or even the police, the Church of Christian America steps into the void and enforces its own violent set of edicts. It’s the story of religion as a social force, used in order to uplift or to subjugate, and the ways in which it unites people out of fear and desperation, and also out of the need to believe in something more than just this universe, or simply to be more than who or what we already are.
It’s also an intimate, personal story of a mother and daughter, each of whom spend their lives needing each other and not getting the person they wanted. The beauty of Parable of the Talents lies in the dual narratives told by Lauren (written in her present) and Ashe (written as an adult after Lauren’s death). It’s a story of guilt, regret, bitterness, and deep, heartache pain of not having each other.
Power is the primary force that is reckoned with in Parable of the Talents, and the use thereof in order to spread a message and reshape the world. While Jarret’s reign of terror as the leader of the fantastical Church of Christian America—charged with rebuilding Christian morality, getting rid of vagrants, and restoring women to their “natural” submissive roles—is the obvious instance of power as a shaping tool in this book, the thing I actually had to reckon with is that Lauren is fundamentally a power-seeker, and that she was always going to be one in order to fulfill Earthseed’s Final Destiny.
When I read Parable of the Sower, I admired Lauren for having created Earthseed, but I failed to fully respect her or understand the depths of her ambition. Like Bankole, who is now Lauren’s husband, I’d admired her ideals without believing in her vision. And so I underestimated Lauren and her single-minded focus. It’s not enough to have Acorn; it’s not enough to just have a singular functioning, thriving community—she envisions Earthseed everywhere. Lauren’s hyperempathy—her ability to feel another person’s pain or pleasure while witnessing it—becomes a useful tool even as it remains a cure—with it, Lauren can befriend—some might say manipulate—the people sympathetic to the idea of Earthseed. And no matter what happens to Lauren, spreading Earthseed and achieving the Final Destiny remains her one true purpose.
Ashe can’t stand Earthseed and bitterly refers to it as her mother’s first child, effectively her only child. From Ashe’s perspective, Lauren cared more about Earthseed than her daughter and her husband, since otherwise none of the horrors that were visited upon the three of them would have happened. Ashe calls her mother a seducer, a manipulator, a ridiculous dreamer who cared more about an irrational space trip than fixing the problems on Earth.
And this is a major crux of this novel, which Octavia Butler herself identified in a 1999 interview included in my copy of the book—the line between duty and selfishness, between caring for and saving the world and caring for and saving one’s own family. And this crux is encapsulated in the triangle formed by Lauren, Ashe, and Marc.
Marc, Lauren’s step-brother, is the only “real” family Ashe ever had and the only person from whom she received love and affection. So even after she learns that Marc is the one who deliberately kept Ashe and Lauren apart for decades, Ashe is much more prepared to defend and accept Marc as family than Lauren, who Ashe believes cast them off in favor of her adoring masses.
Marc, despite his love for Lauren, sees her as a self-identified, delusional cultist who refuses to see the good in his Church. In adopting Ashe as his own rather than give her back to Lauren, he imposes his own power both over what he thinks the world should like and what his own family should look like, all from his position of power as a minister of the Church of Christian America.
And Lauren—she never stopped looking for Larkin, never gave up hope of the possibility that her daughter was still alive. But Earthseed was her sole purpose, her reason for living, for existing. And humanity was—is—stagnant. Humanity needed Earthseed, needed to embrace change, needed something to reach for and aspire to become that was real. Humanity needed to embrace change—and so Lauren became Earthseed’s prophet even as her daughter remained lost to her.
The entire thing is a hopelessly and painfully knotted set of familial relationships as seen through the lenses of religion, power, morality, and destiny.
The thing I cannot get over about Parable of the Talents and its predecessor is how much these books are about people, and the humanity of people, which includes both the admirable and the detestable and all the variations in-between. They’re about people, their intrinsic value as people as opposed to “vagrants,” and people coming together through community, religion, family, friendship, or acquaintance. They’re hyper-realist novels that are undeniably science-fictional at their core, not because they’re set in the future from when they were written, but because they look forward, toward a future in which humanity inhabits the stars. These two books form a story in which one individual dreams of an SFnal future as humanity’s salvation, and while it is as dark as any grimdark book being written today (I’d actually argue more so), the story does offer hope, in the form of looking upwards toward the sky, toward a humanity that has risen above itself to take on a new form. To become more than it thought it could be.
I don’t know that I’ll ever do more than scratch the surface of Parable of the Talents (and I certainly won’t do it in this review). Right now, I feel lucky and blessed to have read these books, to have read them now, and that they exist in the universe for people to read and be inspired by. I am also incredibly sad that we’ll never get to read the other four books Octavia Butler meant to write in this series covering the evolution of Earthseed and humanity alongside it. Still, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are without a doubt two of the best, most important books I’ll read this year, and I am thankful for that.