Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Octavia Butler and the parables (part 6; Parable of the Talents)

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents

Whereas Butler’s Parable of the Sower functions as a cautionary tale of where society might be heading if current trends continue, the second novel in the series, Parable of the Talents, offers some ideas about how to solve those problems. But Butler argued that she wasn’t proposing solutions; instead she looked “at some of the solutions that human beings come up with when they’re feeling uncertain and frightened, as they are right now” (Francis 2010: 132).

Butler saw most everything as political in one way or another; she noted, in fact, that the female protagonist Lauren/Olamina in Parable of the Talents says, “to be human is to be political,” basically represents her own viewpoint. She observed that such fictional works as The Turner Diaries or the anti-Semitic The Protocols of the Elders of Zion have had much negative influence upon society (whereas the books of Ruth and Job have had a positive influence). So her works incorporate political emphases; the primary theme of Parable of the Talents, for example, is an examination of how a country can turn Fascist (Butler researched Nazi Germany as a prime example of that happening). Other aspects of the novels, including modern slavery and global warming, came from Butler reading the news (Francis 2010: 202).

The two novels are obviously interconnected. Both, Butler noted, serve as warnings about the dangers of global warming and, in the words of Bankole in Parable of the Talents, such problems that were “caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems” (14). In addition, both are cautionary tales about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and its involvement in politics—one catalyst for Butler was Pat Robertson’s 1991 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Butler saw a major contrast between the fundamentalists’ involvement in politics and Lauren’s use of religion as a tool “for transforming.”

Each chapter of Parable of the Talents also begins with verses from Earthseed: The Books of the Living, but it breaks from the pattern in Parable of the Sower of relying solely upon Lauren’s narration and perspective. This novel offers perspectives from three different voices: a few excerpts from a memoir by Bankole (Memories of Other Worlds) and numerous journal entries from Olamina (beginning with a journal entry on September 26, 2032—the fifth anniversary of the establishing of the Acorn community—and ending with one on July 20, 2090). Each journal entry from Olamina, however, is preceded by extended comments by her and Bankole’s daughter, Larkin.

The book begins by letting readers know that they will indeed being encountering very different perspectives, because Larkin is no fan of her mother or of Earthseed:

I have wanted to love her and to believe that what happened between her and me wasn’t her fault. I’ve wanted that. But instead, I’ve hated her, feared her, needed her. I’ve never trusted her, though, never understood how she could be the way she was—so focused, and yet so misguided, there for all the world, but never there for me. I still don’t understand.

Larkin assembles this book, she says, because she believes that she can never understand herself until she begins to understand her mother (8).

Both Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents end with a complete text of the parable after which they are named. Parable of the Talents, however, also includes the parable explicitly early in the narrative, where Olamina relates a dream about her life when she was 14 or so, when her father was still alive. In her dream, Olamina’s father is preaching a sermon on the parable of the Sower. The dream turns into a nightmare, because Olamina turns to see her mother—who died when Olamina was born—sitting beside her, but her mother refuses even to acknowledge Olamina’s presence. Olamina cannot even move in her dream; all she can do is listen to her father preach about the parable from Matthew 25. Olamina observes:

My father loved parables—stories that taught, stories that presented ideas and morals in ways that made pictures in people’s minds. He used the ones he found in the Bible, the ones he plucked from history, or from folk tales, and, of course, he used those he saw in his life and the lives of the people he knew. He wove stories into his Sunday sermons, his Bible classes, and his computer-delivered history lectures. Because he believed stories were so important as teaching tools.
. . .
My father was a great believer in education, hard work, and personal responsibility. “Those are our talents,” he would say as my brothers’ eyes glazed over and even I tried not to sigh. “God has given them to us, and he’ll judge us according to how we use them.”

In the dream, her father then preaches about the faithful servants in the parable who were rewarded, but when he gets to the punishment of the “wicked and slothful servant,” where “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt 25:29), it happens: Olamina’s mother disappears, then her father, step-mother, and all her brothers are taken away, and her house is “ashes and rubble around” her (20). Her nightmare reflects the reality of her loss of family over five years earlier, and it also serves as a warning to work harder, to learn more, and to persevere. A few pages later, Olamina notes that her “talent” is Earthseed, but she realizes that she in Acorn—her settlement with approximately 60 people in the remote hills of northern California—is more like the servant who buried the talent in the ground than the ones who multiplied their talents: “And although I haven’t buried it [Earthseed] in the ground, I have buried it here in these coastal mountains, where it can grow at about the same speed as our redwood trees” (25).

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