Fiction Reviews

Parable of the Talents

(1998 / 2019) Octavia Butler, Headline, £9.99, pbk, 390pp, ISBN 978-1-472-26365-0


The preceding Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, book one in the series, is a chilling, very near future dystopia which starts in 2024.  Parable of the Talents, a Nebula Award winning novel, is set some years later and is written as a look back to what has gone before by Asher Olamina-Bankole. With journal entries from her mother and father as she seeks to understand who she is and how she got there.

You might be forgiven for thinking this book had been written very recently, a President with the slogan “Make America Great Again”, emboldening the far-right “Christians” to act on their intolerance to others while the President himself makes neutral statements that fail to condemn their actions. Those who have different backgrounds, who cannot prove their status are put in camps, children are separated from their parents and adopted by more “acceptable” parents. Echoes of Guantanamo bay, of indigenous American children being taken from their parents, of the recent treatment of immigrants to the United States and perhaps of darker shadows of Nazi Germany. But this was first published in 1998 proving that human behaviour has not really changed, even if we think we would be better than a dystopian fiction might portray.

The story tells of Lauren Olamina’s community, they have settled in the north and adopted the Earthseed religion as their own, full access to their community requires an individual to enter the religion also. The walls of their community made of sharp thorns, rather than steel, but harken back to the place where Olamina, as she is now known, started her life. We find once again that these walls might not be strong enough. The links they have in other communities are made with trade and the skills they have to offer, but they are still separate, seen as different by their neighbours, word spreading of their strange “heathen” ways.

There is more emphasis in this novel, compared to the first, on the impact of the Government on ordinary people’s lives, in the attitudes of communities as well as the direct result actual policies. We see how those who feel isolated in their beliefs and from those around them, who see the change and chaos in their lives, are more likely to accept and vote for and support those who offer order and stability even if it comes with other additions. We see this in the acceptance of the Acorn community for Olamina’s religious ideas, that is the cost of being in the community, but also in Marcos’ support of the new President even if comes at the cost of other people’s security.

This novel, like the first, cuts very close to home, but should be read exactly for that reason. It’s a fascinating tale, but if we don’t take on their lessons it may be one that becomes more familiar outside of fiction.

Karen Fishwick


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