Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Series: Book 2 (Final Book) of the Parable Series
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
Amid the collapse of modern American society, Lauren Olamina soon had to face the smaller destruction of her parents gated community.  She set out on her own, armed with little more than her newborn ‘Earthseed’ religion and her determination to survive.  In Parable of the Talents, Lauren has formed her first peaceful Earthseed settlement, Acorn, and she is slowly becoming a respected religious leader. In addition to her religious responsibilities, Lauren has become both a wife and a mother.
People are beginning to rebuild the infrastructure of the United States, but things can never return to the way they were before. Tragedy has given rise to a new wave of conservative religious fundamentalism, exemplified by the charismatic sect known as “Christian America”. As religious fervor begins to combine with secular power, Acorn’s future looks anything but secure.  Soon Lauren will be struggling to protect both of her children—her baby daughter Larkin and her budding religion.” ~Allie
Parable of the Talents is a sequel to Parable of the Sower. I think Talents could be read without first reading Sower, but it would be best appreciated after having read the first novel. Sower provides a lot of background into Lauren’s character and to the origin of the Earthseed religion.
My Thoughts:
While Sower was told through the diary of teenage Lauren Olamina, Talents incorporates several viewpoint characters.  There were also numerous non-viewpoint characters, many of which were described almost solely in terms of the trauma they’d experienced and their methods of coping.  I think this was done to show how the current events affected many different people, but I think I would have preferred the story to focus more deeply on a smaller group of characters.
The characters one comes to know most deeply, of course, are the primary narrators. The main narration is through Lauren’s diary as an adult, and the other most notable viewpoint belongs to her estranged daughter.  I think having two very different narrators effectively added depth to the story.  I think it would be easy to see Lauren as simply a courageous figure, but the bitter outsider’s view provided by her daughter highlighted the costs Lauren’s choices exacted from the people around her.
I appreciated the way in which the novel managed to examine the role of religion without feeling as though it were adhering to an agenda.  Christianity takes a lot of criticism throughout the story, but it seems like the specific content of the religion is less relevant than its relationship with power and social structure.  The two religions observed, both with highly charismatic founders, are Earthseed and a new sect called Christian America. Earthseed deals from a position of weakness, while Christian America wields significant political and societal power. 
In such a difficult time, people have turned towards both religions for comfort, hope, and the assurance that their lives have a purpose. In order to attract followers, Lauren had to deliberately cater to those needs.  Some people also used religion to establish hierarchical structure and to justify their own horrific actions.  A large, powerful religion like Christian America was able to do much to improve the state of society and to rebuild the infrastructure that had crumbled.  However, the movement also ended up providing shelter and forgiveness to people who misused its doctrine to support their own illegal and immoral acts. While Earthseed was currently too small and weak to be used in this fashion, Lauren was all too aware that her religion would also begin to change the moment she was gone.  I think Butler wanted to show how religion can be both a powerful productive and destructive force, and how vitally important it is for believers not to turn a blind eye to corruption within their own ranks.
I have to say that Parable of the Talents is a much more depressing story than Parable of the Sower. Lauren’s life is full of personal tragedy, such as the fate of Acorn and her relationships with her only living relatives.  Some of Lauren’s experiences were pretty disturbing, and very difficult to read. The first novel was incredibly bleak, but it had a thread of hope—that Lauren would be able to form her community out in the country and become a force that would help rebuild the United States.  Talents still has a small thread of hope, but I felt like the story was somehow even more brutally realistic.  Such a devastating societal collapse is not something that can be easily fixed or reversed in a single lifetime.  Perhaps Lauren can make a difference, but it may only be for a future she will never see.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Parable of the Talents is a worthy sequel to Parable of the Sower.  The personal stories of Lauren and her daughter fit together wonderfully to show two very different views of the same society.  While parts of the story were painful to read, and it was a pretty depressing story altogether, it was not a story completely devoid of hope.  I enjoyed Talents also as an examination of the role of organized religion in society.  I’ve heard that Butler had planned a third novel in the “Parable” series, but, sadly, she passed away in 2006.  I think her series feels complete with Talents, but I would have loved to see what the final volume would have contained.

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