Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Octavia Butler and the Parables (part 9; Parable of the Talents)

Octavia Butler's Parable series

The novel continues as Olamina--while still searching for Larkin--begins to rebuild Earthseed by converting and teaching people not just to be followers but also to be teachers themselves. 

Olamina gains a partner-pupil, Belen Ross. Belen argues that Olamina needs to focus on what people want and then explain how Earthseed will help them achieve it. Olamina begins proselytizing again, not with words alone but also with deeds, and teaches others to do the same. Earthseed begins to grow and years later, in the words of Larkin, it grew into “an unusual cult”:

It financed scientific exploration and enquiry, and technological creativity. It set up grade schools and eventually colleges, and offered full scholarships to poor but gifted students. The students who accepted had to agree to spend seven years teaching, practicing medicine, or otherwise using their skills to improve life in the many Earthseed communities. Ultimately, the intent was to help the communities to launch themselves toward the stars and to live on the distant worlds they found circling those stars (340).

It wasn’t until Larkin was 34 (~2067) that she realized that the now-famous Olamina was actually her birth mother, and they finally met. When a blood test confirmed that they were mother and daughter, the person administering the test said to Olamina, “I had heard . . . that you had a daughter who was lost. And now you’ve found her” (358). But, unlike the parable of the Prodigal Son, the child and parent this time remained unreconciled. Once Olamina learns of Marcos’s deception, she is unable to forgive him, and Larkin is too devoted to her Uncle Marcos to accept Olamina’s rejection of Marcos.
Olamina, at age 81, finally witnesses her Earthseed dream coming true. Members of Earthseed depart in shuttles for the stars, and Earthseed begins to fulfill its essential purpose, according to Olamina:

It will force us to become more than we might ever become without it. And when it’s successful, it will offer us a kind of species life insurance (352). 

The novel ends with Olamina saying, “I know what I have done,” and then it includes the full text of the parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30. Olamina had used her talents; she had been a good and faithful servant; the rewards were sure to come as Earthseed fulfilled its Destiny.

Butler herself explains what this hopeful ending symbolizes for her. Olamina realizes that the Earthseed people who are traveling into space into "paradise" will face significant problems. Probably many of them will die; problems of the human condition travel with them, but she hopes that the difficulties of surviving on another planet will enable them to grow into something better. People will have to work together—and avoid the “worst behaviors”—in order to survive. So, Butler says, this novel about the dangers of global warning and abuses of power reflects her own hopefulness for the human race (Francis 2010: 185). The book, like many of Jesus’ parables, is openended; it is up to the readers/hearers to respond.

Butler started a third novel in the Parable series, Parable of the Trickster, in which the people who went to other planets became homesick. But after many efforts and false starts, she gave up. A review in the The Los Angeles Review of Books by Gerry Canavan puts it this way:

And there Butler left it. The long-promised third book, Parable of the Trickster, never arrived.

Last December I had the improbable privilege to be the very first scholar to open the boxes at the Huntington that contain what Butler had written of Trickster before her death. What I found were dozens upon dozens of false starts for the novel, some petering out after twenty or thirty pages, others after just two or three; this cycle of narrative failure is recorded over hundreds of pages of discarded drafts. Frustrated by writer’s block, frustrated by blood pressure medication that she felt inhibited her creativity and vitality, and frustrated by the sense that she had no story for Trickster, only a “situation,” Butler started and stopped the novel over and over again from 1989 until her death, never getting far from the beginning.

My own analysis of The Parable of the Talents remains unfinished, because by the time I worked through the second volume of Butler' series, I realized that I would only have room to include an analysis of the first volume in my own book, so my in-depth analysis stops with the first volume (see previous posts)--a volume I recommend highly.

1 comment:

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