Cbr13bingo Reader’s Choice (sub for New Series), bingo #12
Book two of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Series delivers an astounding gut punch follow-up to Parable of the Sower. Her imagining of what would happen in America’s future is frighteningly accurate. Set in the 2030s and beyond, Parable of the Talents takes us back to Northern California and the Earthseed community known as Acorn. Lauren Oya Olamina and her followers have escaped the upheaval and violence of Southern California and built a commune based on the principles of Earthseed. Yet they have done so in a world that is still unstable politically, socially, economically and ecologically. Parable of the Talents details the fate of Lauren and her community through her writings, the writings of her husband and of her brother, and the later evaluation of Lauren’s daughter Larkin, aka Asha Vere. This novel challenges the reader to think about the danger of crossing of religious fervor with politics, the consequences of ignoring the problems we have created, and the problems we face when we examine the past and try to come to terms with it.
As we learn in Parable of the Sower, Earthseed is a “religion” that Lauren Olamina began to develop when she was a young teen living in a gated Los Angeles neighborhood. Earthseed embraces the idea that “change is God/God is change” and that all of us can and should embrace change and try to form it. For Lauren, this is an active kind of religion, a belief that encourages people to grow up, be adult, and try to make the world better. Ultimately, humanity should use all of its intelligence and ingenuity to colonize space. This is a religion that emphasizes constant human growth and improvement through education and service. When the dangerous and violent upheavals of the day destroy her home and force her and a few neighbors to take to the road, Lauren shares her ideas and notebooks about Earthseed with others. She gradually wins over a small band of fellow travelers all on the road fleeing the fires and violence of the south for whatever stability can be found in the north. Among her band is a doctor named Bankole, who is old enough to be her father but will become her husband. Lauren and her 12 disciples settle on land that Bankole owns in Northern California and build a commune called Acorn.
Parable of the Talents takes the reader several years into the future, into the 2030s. Acorn has grown in membership and prosperity. Everyone works the farm, learns specialty trades and teaches. There are children who get an education at the Acorn school and who learn to be productive members of the commune. Everyone also learns how to shoot a gun and act as a guard because the world around them is still so unstable. Being homeless or a “vagrant” is a crime, and criminals can be subjected to slavery. Slaves actually wear shock collars and can be forced into prostitution. It is common for children to be abducted into this horrific system. When a neighboring farm is raided by Christian extremists, Lauren and the members of Acorn begin to take extra precautions to protect themselves.
All of that is happening in the fall of 2032, a year in which several important events occur. First, Lauren discovers that she is pregnant, something she and Bankole had been desiring for some time. Lauren also discovers that a member of her family whom she had thought dead is actually still alive and enslaved. And, of especial importance for the novel and of special interest to the modern reader, a presidential election is about to take place. This is the part of the novel that had my jaw dropping. The candidates are a man named Edward Jay Smith, who is a dull and perhaps incompetent man, and Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret. Jarret is a conservative Christian preacher whose church is called Christian America. His followers have been known to engage in acts of violence, including the burning of “witches” and other “cultists.”
“Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.”
Jarret encourages listeners to join CA, claiming all are welcome and that they will work together to restore America to the way it used to be. He actually says,
“Help us make America great again.”
Butler wrote this novel in 1998. So much of what she imagines regarding Jarret and his radical conservative Christian followers sounds like what we have seen happening in the US over the past several years: these wingnuts have armed themselves in paramilitary fashion; they take the law into their own hands without consequence; they target people of color and women, whom they force into subservient roles; they claim to want to protect and save children while ripping them from the arms of their parents and sending them to other families, never to be reunited. All of this violence and hatred will have a direct impact on Lauren, and reading about her fate and that of her followers might be triggering, as rape and torture are described.
In addition to Lauren’s story, which we learn from her notebooks, her daughter’s story is revealed gradually throughout the novel. From her first entry, Larkin/Asha makes it evident that she has conflicted and overall negative feelings about her mother and Earthseed, frequently referring to Lauren as a “seducer.” The parts of the novel that show us Larkin/Asha’s story as well as the story of the other family member who survived are relevant to our current situation. As facts come out about the previous administration and its crimes, there are people who will refuse to believe it or find a way to explain it away, or they will say that “not all of us were like that.” While the Earthseed part of the series is interesting and worthy of discussion, I find the family relationships even more interesting. The daughter, representing the next generation, looks at the past very differently from her mother. Is she right about her mother and her other relative?
The Earthseed Series is superb and I highly recommend it. Butler’s imagination and her writing are brilliant and breathtaking. This series would generate a lot of interesting and necessary discussion as we try to deal with the political, social, economic and ecological upheavals of our times.