Friday, April 01, 2011

Book Review: Parable of the Talents

Octavia Butler
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (For Parable of the Sower)

A few years ago I read Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which is a prequel to this book. I liked Sower's premise but much of the time I was pretty irritated with the main character, Lauren Olamina, who narrated the story. I thought she was stubborn and annoying. She had also developed her own religion, “Earthseed,” and spent most of her time proselytizing it all over the place.

So I was hesitant to read Parable of the Talents. But I am glad I did; I liked it much better than Sower. Talents is partly narrated by Lauren Olamina, again, but it is also partly narrated by her daughter, Larkin, who is a breath of fresh air; she thinks her mother is stubborn and annoying and wishes she’d stop always proselytizing her religion all over the place.

The back story (mostly told in Parable of the Sower) is that by the 2030s, for a combination of environmental and political reasons, economic inequality in the US has grown to the point that all middle-class and rich people have to live in iron-walled, guarded sections of cities protected from the chaos and crime and poverty outside. Eventually things outside the walls get so bad that the poor people blast their way in to these citadels; during this revolt, most of the rich and middle-class people are either killed or have to go on the road and scavenge like vagabonds.

Lauren Olamina is one of these people. Most of her family is killed during the invasion of their middle-class home in LA but she escapes and makes her way on foot up the coast, gradually collecting a tribe of people with her who buy into her hippyish Earthseed religion. They settle in northern California on her husband's property, start farming and teaching and having kids and making new lives.

This is roughly where Sower stops and Talents picks up. Just when things are starting to look comparatively rosy for the Earthseeders, a fascist right-wing president gets elected and his minions come and take over the Earthseed compound (claiming that it is a cult, which it sort of is) and steal all their children and adopt them out to nice Christian households. One of these children is Lauren’s daughter Larkin.

Talents is partly the story of Lauren persevering and rebuilding after the demolition of her Earthseed farm; this part was less interesting to me. But it is also partly the story of Larkin growing up in an adoptive household, achieving her own success, and eventually going to find her biological parents. Larkin is understandably a bit ticked off when she finds out how little Lauren did to find her until many, many years had gone by; Earthseed and the compound were clearly more important to her than her lost child.

The Omega Man
The premise of the Parable books is an example of one of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres, in which humanity is all but destroyed by war/disease/rioting/environmental catastrophe and a few survivors are left to band together and make a new civilization while being beset by other humans who want to take what they have and/or control them. There are tons of awesome works of fiction with different takes on this idea (The Stand, The Day of the Triffids, Canticle for Leibowitz, The Omega Man, etc.). One of the best things about science fiction is that you can do this kind of thought experiment and explore the ways people might deal with each other, for good and for ill, when they have next to nothing left.

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