Review: Parable of the Sower / Talents
Updated: Apr 19
Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), by Octavia Butler
Choose your leaders
with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward
is to be controlled
by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool
is to be led
by the opportunists
who control the fool.
To be led by a thief
is to offer up
your most precious treasures
to be stolen.
To be led by a liar
is to ask
to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant
is to sell yourself
and those you love
A passage from Parable of the Sower... sound familiar?!
Frankly, I'm happy to be done with these books, even though they really were quite good. But intense. And depressing. And scary. It's really hard to wrap my head around the fact that Butler wrote these in 1993 and 1998 respectively, because they are SO prescient in so many ways. It's difficult to do anything but quote passages from the two books that made my jaw drop.
Sower begins in the year 2024 (yeah, three years from now!) in the Los Angeles area, and is narrated by Lauren Olamina, a teenager living with her preacher father, step-mother, and younger brothers. Anyone lucky &/or wealthy enough to do so is living in a walled community. Everyone is armed and no one goes outside of the walls if they can help it. Society has collapsed, in large part due to climate change, into a mess of lawlessness, poverty, and chaos.
As Lauren says, "I used to wait for the explosion, the big crash, the sudden chaos that would destroy the neighborhood. Instead, things are unraveling, disintegrating bit by bit."
Lauren and her family live in one such walled community, along with a small group of neighbors. When the community is attacked, Lauren is the only one in her family to escape, and begins to walk north in search of a better life. Along the way she gathers people to her as she prosthelytizes a new religion called "Earthseed," which she has been developing through her daily journaling. Or, "discovering," as Lauren would say - not creating or making up, but discovering. I'll admit that the religion piece of the book was the least interesting to me, but it is essential to understanding Lauren and her motivations.
Unlike most of Butler's other novels, these books contain no "magical" elements except for what is called hyperempathy - a condition which Lauren has as a result of her biological mother's drug addiction. Hyperempathy, or "sharing," is a psychological illness that means the person feels the emotions of others. In better times, this might mean sharing others' pleasure, but in this world of anarchy, it mostly means pain.
Talents, narrated by Lauren's estranged daughter, picks up in the year 2032, beginning with the following paragraph:
I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as "the Apocalypse" or more commonly, more bitterly, "the Pox" lasted from 2015 through 2030 - a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended. I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems, then we sat and watched as they grew into crises.
Lauren, now known to most as simply Olamina, has started an Earthseed community on land her husband owns. She continues to find new followers, while trying to create a stable home for those already living on the land (which was almost entirely barren when they arrived).
There is a politician on the rise who is running for President named Jarret, and he is... well, he is basically Trump, but with more overt Christian fervor. It is incredibly eery to read these words and know that Butler wrote them in 1998 (in reference to Jarret's followers burning people of other faiths):
Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and feathering, and the destruction of the "heathen houses of devil-worship," he has a simple answer: "Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again."
He's had to distance himself from the worst of his followers. But he still knows how to rouse his rabble, how to reach out to poor people, and sic them on other poor people. How much of this nonsense does he believe, I wonder, and how much does he say just because he knows the value of dividing in order to conquer and to rule?
(Also worth noting what is said of his opponent in the presidential race, Smith: "Interesting that they fear Smith's supposed incompetence more than they fear Jarret's obvious tyranny.")
When Jarret's self-proclaimed "Crusaders" raid the Earthseed community, Olamina and her followers must fight to regain their freedom, and start from scratch to create a community for their religious sect.
Butler originally imagined a series of six books. Three would reference Biblical parables - Sower, Talents, Trickster - and three would take their names from "Earthseed: The Book of the Living" - Teacher, Chaos, Clay. An article from the LA Review of Books discusses this in more depth (forewarning: there are Parable of the Sower & Talents spoilers). I don't know if I'd be able to read more of this series, at least not right away, but it is interesting to think about where the story might have gone.
Recommended for anyone not too scared of reading about some possible futures we face as a result of climate change, social upheaval, and government and corporate corruption.
UP NEXT: The House on the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune