She would have been a wholly admirable person

Parable of the Sower ended on a vaguely optimistic note:  Lauren felt that they were ready to set up Acorn, the home of her Earthseed community.  Bankole thought there was no chance it would work.  But this is Lauren’s story, so we’ll assume that the story is tipped in her favor somewhat.

Plus, there’s a sequel, so things must work out reasonably well, right?

Well, surprise!

Parable of the Talents opens up with the news that Lauren is dead.

She is mostly called Olamina during this book because Bankole “doesn’t like my first name, so he ignores it.  That’s fair.  I didn’t like his first name either. It’s Taylor, by the way and I ignore it” (122).

This book is narrated by Olamina and Bankole’s child–unspecified gender and age in the Prologue, although by the end of this week’s reading we can assume the writer is their daughter [Bankole wants her named Beryl and Olamina wants her named almost anything that isn’t Beryl–“such an old fashioned name” (122).  The narrator later says something about high school, so it must be around 2050.

The child shares Olamina’s diary entries, but her basic attitude is that she hates her mother and thinks well of her father and wishes she knew him.

The book opens with this narrator saying “they’ll make a god of her” and the continues with something surprising about that

I think that would please her, if she could know about it.  In spite of all her protests and denials she’s always needed devoted, obedient follower–disciples–who would listen to her and believe everything she told them.  and she needed large events to manipulate.  All gods seem to need these things.  (7)

I never got the sense that Lauren wanted to be a god.  But maybe Olamina does.

She also tells us that Lauren’s middle name “Oya” is the name of a Nigerian Orisha–goddess f the Yoruba people (goddes of the wind, fire, and death, more bringers of great change (50).

Butler wrote this book five years after the Sower.  As I read Talent, I wondered what the intent of this story was. Had she planned all along to have a follower (child or otherwise) criticize Earthseed?  Had five years of thinking about Earthseed made her question the validity of Lauren’s ideas?  I don’t know anything about Butler, about whether she “agreed” with Lauren’s ideas or not.  I don’t have anything besides textual evidence to know how she felt about religion in general.  So was this book a commentary on her own ideas/ideals from five years earlier?  Or is this just interesting storytelling by having a new protagonist dispute the doctrine of the previous protagonist.  Especially if the bulk of this book is made up of Olamina’s diary entries (just like the first book was).

That’s right, even though the book is set after Olamina has died, the book so far is primarily her own diary entries from 2032, By the end of 2032, she is pregnant with, presumably, the person who is narrating this book and criticizing Olamina’s ideas.

She calls her mother “focused, and yet so misguided, there for all the world, but never there for me” (8).  This sets up a very interesting potential conflict between Olamina nd the outside world.  We soon learn that Earthseed is on the radar of powerful people (the new president) who do not approve of it.  This intro suggests that Earthseed really takes off–just how big does it get?  It’s easy to forget that it must have really grown as you read through 2032 and see the small steps they have taken in the last five years.

The other surprise is that Olamina is not the only one to have writings in this book.  It starts with and excerpt from Memories of Other Worlds written by Taylor Franklin Bankole.  There’s another writer coming up as well in due time.  We learn a little later that Bankole encouraged Olamina to copyright her books [it’s hard to believe that something like copyright is even meaningful in this lawless country], so presumably he has done the same with his.

Things will get back to normal someday…  You should do this in the same way that we go on paying their taxes” (73).

Wait, people are still paying taxes??

Bankole writes that he period from 2015 to 2030 is being called The Apocalypse or “The Pox” [that’s a hilarious comment on the media].  Bankole says it started long before 2015 and has not yet ended.  He says the United States suffered a major nonmilitary defeat–and it did not survive The Pox.

Next is the first journal entry from Olamina on September 26, 2032, Arrival Day–the fifth anniversary of the establishment of Acorn.

Olamina more or less gives us the reason behind the titles of these books.  She says that her father loved parables–stories that made pictures in people’s minds. And she summarizes the parable of the talents.  Talents were a currency during the Bible and I am, of course, curious if there’s an etymological connection between the money and how we use the word today [I’ll let Daryl investigate that for us].

Basically, a lord gives his servants money.  Two of them invest wisely and return with more.  The third buried his money and returned with exactly what he was given and his lord punished him and took away what little he had.

It turns out I had read an excerpt of this chapter in a collection of science-fiction stories last year.  And that let me get the elephant in the room out of the way.  Holy CRAP this book sounds a lot like what happened here in the 2016 & 2020 elections.  Rebecca Romney (no relation to Mitt, I assume) editor of the collection introduced the excerpt like this:

I’ve ended this collection with a meteor.  An African-America woman born with “hyperempathy” must navigate the 2020as and 2030s in a hellscape formed by climate change disasters…  The reader is introduced to a rising demagogue whose slogan in “make America great again.”  Did that send chills down your spine?

At the time she was writing, however, it’s more likely she was inspired by the past than by the future.  When Ronald Reagan accepted the presidential nomination from the 1980 Republican National Committee, he gave a speech in which he promised, “For those who’ve abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.”  Butler perceived the problems behind that phrase and used science fiction to explore how such a mindset could lead to history repeating itself, resulting in story that is even more powerful today than when she first wrote it.

When I wrote about the excerpt (it was just before the 2020 election), I was clearly freaking out about everything that was going on and the fact that people actually wanted to re-elect the buffoon who shall not be named.   So, I’m posting some of what I summarized in the excerpt (which covers most of chapter 1):

Dovetree is the community next to Acorn.  It was doing reasonably well, until it was burned down–attacked by men wearing black tunics with large crosses on the chest.  This was no gang of thugs or bunch of looters, this was an organized group–and one the narrator is unfamiliar with.

Was this group of people from my current least favorite presidential candidate, Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret?  It sounds like the sort of thing his people might do–a revival of something nasty out of the past.  … Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier “simpler” time.  Now does not suit him.  … The current state of the county does not suit him.  He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, [and they could stomp] anyone who was different.  There was never such a time in this country.  But in these days when more than half the people in the country can’t read at all, history is just one more vast unknown to them. (23)

And then this take on the electoral process.

It seem inevitable that people who can’t read are going to lean more toward judging candidates on the way they look and sound than on what they claim to stand for.  Even people who can read and are educated are apt to pay more attention to good looks and seductive lies than they should.

That sure sounds like 2020–aside from the good looks part.

At the time that I read this excerpt, I had no context about the role of religion in the story.  I see why religion is such a focus now.  Although last year it went with the election cycle pretty easily: just replace the religious aspect of this text with skin color and “cultist” with “antifa” and you could read this in any paper today.

“cultist” is a great catchall term for anyone who fits into no other large category and yet doesn’t quiet match Jarret’s version of Christianity.  …  Jarret supporters have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches.  Jarret condemns the burning, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. (24)

I imagine that there will be more horrifying parallels going forward, but I’m going to try to minimize my mentions of them (maybe an asterisk as needed).  Especially since our Jarret didn’t win in 2020.  I can’t imagine what Butler would have said were she alive.

Actually, one more, from the next chapter.  It sounds like Jarret’s competitor is portrayed as dull (or perhaps “sleepy” if you’re too lazy to think of a better word).  And Olamina marvels that so many people

fear Edward Jay Smith’s supposed incompetence more than they fear Jarret’s obvious tyranny. (31)

Scary.

In Chapter 2, the narrator gives us more context for 2032–every member of Earthseed was taught to read and write (English and Spanish).

Education was no longer free, but it was still mandatory according to the law.  The problem was, no one was enforcing such laws, just as no one was protecting child laborers. (28)

When we get to some details later about what’s happening to children–wearing remote controlled shock collars–labor laws are the least of the problems.

Bankole’s concern about Acorn seems like a general anxiety about being a Black man during The Pox.  But he was one of the lucky ones–a well-educated, professional Black man was rare–and treated with suspicion in the mountains.  But once the locals realized that he was a good doctor, people began to appreciate him.

In more exciting news, Olamina and three others went to a nearby farm to collect some supplies.  They were ambushed by a house truck. [I’m unclear about the provenance of this name–is it like a house boat?, a truck that you can live in].  Trucks like this were armor plated and fully automated with weapons.  After a few hours of hiding out, Olamina hears a child and goes to investigate.  It turns out that the truck was being monitored by two little girls–the rest of their family had been shot and was on death’s door.

They manager to rescue the two girls and the oldest boy (Dan).  The parents are dead and the older girls were taken–presumably to become prostitutes.  Obviously Dan is very upset that he didn’t save his family.  But he was shot and could barely move.

The good news is that Acorn now has an armored truck.  This is great for all of their expeditions and will also allow them to expand their small businesses–bringing food to market and making deals with neighboring communities.

Bankole is furious that Olamina risked her life for a crying child or even for a truck–his concern for her is quite touching.  Olamina, however, tells him to realize who he’s talking to–she’s no dummy.   But still, he thinks that they (maybe just the two of them) should move to one of the small towns where he can set up as the local doctor.  She outwardly says that she’s happy at Acorn–on Bankole’s property.  But inwardly, you knows she’s all “this is where Earthseed is dude, wtf.”

In Bankole’s writings he says that he was always a doubter when it came to religion, how crazy is it that he fell for a zealot.  The narrator is similarly puzzled by the appeal of Earthseed.

In Earthseed there is no promised afterlife. Earthseed’s heave is literal, physical–other world circling other stars.  It promises its people immortality only through their children, their work and their memories…  Its promise if of hard work and brand-new possibilities, problems, challenges and changes.  Apparently that can be surprisingly seductive to some people.  My mother was a surprisingly seductive person.  (49)

She continues later

She worked hard at seducing people. She did it first by adopting vulnerable and needy people, then by finding ways to make those people want to be part of Earthseed, no matter how ridiculous it seemed with its starry Destiny.

My biggest take away about the daughter’s attitude is “If she had created Acorn, but not Earthseed, then I think she would have been a wholly admirable person” (63).  [Wow, what happened??]

But indeed, Olamina says that she foresees a time

when most or all of our neighbors have joined us.  Even if they don’t like every aspect of Earthseed, I hope they’ll like enough of it to recognize they’re better off with s than without is.  I want them as allies and as members, not as just “friends.”  (69)

A new horror that’s introduced in this book is women with their tongues cut out.  There is a woman at Acorn–May–who had her tongue cut out, but she cannot tell them what happened.  Olamina says

in some of the more religious towns, repression of women has become more and more extreme.  a woman who expresses her opinions, “nags,” disobeys her husbands or otherwise “tramples her womanhood” and “acts like a man” may have her head shaved, her forehead branded, her tongue cut out, or worse case, she might be stoned to death or burned. (51)

Plus scientists in Australia brought a human infant to term in an artificial womb–reporters are already calling the womb containers ‘eggs.’ (82).  Eggs combined with cloning technology would give men the ability to have a child withou the genetioc or gestational help of a woman (83).

As new people get folded in to Earthseed, they often hasve questions.  Dan the teenager made a pretty complete recovery thanks to Bankole but he has serious questions about Earthseed.  When Olamina explains that change is God, he wonders

But what can you do with a God like that?  I mean.. it isn’t even a person.  It doesn’t love or protect you. It doesn’t know anything.  What’s the point? (73)

Her answer is, to me, unsatisfying

The point is, it’s the truth.

Although her point about prayer is pretty good.  “Flattering or begging God isn’t useful” but praying is because

it is an effective way of talking to yourself, talking yourself into things.  It can give you a feeling of control and help you to stretch yourself beyond what you thought were your limits. (74)

So Earthseed as self-help.

I have wondered before about the outside world in this series.

She talks about Alaska.  It was the dream for so many.  But even if people managed to get across the US-Canada border and then back across the Canada-US border to Alaska, things are not so great.  Plus, last year Alaska seceded and the Alaskan president and President Donner are rattling sabers at each other.  Alaska also seems to be getting chummy with Canada and Russia.

Three years ago, there was a nuclear exchange between Iran and Iraq which scared the heck out of everyone.  It caused peace all over the world for a little while, but soon people got annoyed and things flared up again.  “It’s always been much easier to make war than to make peace” (79).

I also wondered about Mars, which was sadly neglected at the end of Sower.  Well, there is a mention of it now because living multicellular organisms have been discovered there.  They look like slugs and are not exactly animal.  They are living Martians.  Although President Donner is looking to privatize the space program: “‘If it’s worth doing at all it should be done for profit and not as a burden on the taxpayers'”–as though profit could be counted only as immediate financial gain. (81)

So anything we learn about these creatures will no longer belong to America.  She cynically but correctly asserts that if they can be used they’ll be protected, cultivated and bred.  If they’re not useful, they’ll be seen as an impediment to progress. And if they’re bad for business they’ll be lucky to survive at all.

Then the worst news of all–Jarret won the lection.  Of course (most of) Earthseed voted for Edward Jay Smith.

Even a man without an idea in his head is better than a man who means to lash us back to his particular God. (84)

And then there’s this*

[Jarret has] had to distance himself form 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? (85)

Two weeks later Olamina found out she was pregnant.

And then three months later she found her brother Marcus!  (This is what was spoiled in the Foreword to Sower–not a huge reveal, but still it ruined the jaw-dropping moment).

They had put put feelers to see if they could find Dan’s sisters who had been taken.  Someone-pimp named Cougar-said he had one of the sisters.  But when they went to meet with him the girl was not Dan’s sister (but she looked similar).  However, one of the boys was MarcusI  Olamina played it cool and eventually bought him back–the parallels to the salve trade are obvious.

Marcus’ story is horrifying (unsurprisingly).  He fills in the gaps for Olamina about what happened the night she fled.  He watched his family get killed and was nearly killed himself.  He was taken in by a family who happened to have the same last name as his mother–Duran.

Chapter Seven opens with an excerpt from Warrior by Marcos Duran.  That’s what the family who adopted him called him and that’s what he feels like now–“Call me Marcos.”  He’s been Marcos Duran for five years and doesn’t know how to be Marcus Olamina anymore.

While Marcus was healing, Dan ran away leaving a note that he was off to find his other sisters.  Olamina doubts they’ll see him again.

The narrator confirms that Marc was the handsomest man she’s ever seen (even after all the shit he’s been through).  But unlike his sister, he hated chaos–it was unnatural, demonic.  His gods were order, stability, safety control.  Uncle Marc wanted to make the earth a better place.  He knew that the stars could take care of themselves. (103)

As the year and the week’s reading come to an end Bankole says the doctor is Halstead is dead and the town wants him to move there to be their doctor.  He wants to do it and he’s more insistent on the two of them moving because he has an actual job offer.  He knows she won’t agree because of

[her] immaturity, [her] irrational unrealistic faith in Earthseed, [her] selfishness, [her] shortsightedness.

That’s a dramatic place to leave off.  I’m really quite hooked–with so many questions.

8 thoughts on “She would have been a wholly admirable person

  1. Jeff Anderson April 18, 2021 / 7:12 pm

    My take on the daughter’s distinction between founding Acorn and founding Earthseed is that a community is about people taking care of each other, on a person-to-person level, whereas a religion is about a prophet and their followers, which—however Olamina may protest to the contrary—means setting herself up as a special source of wisdom and, inescapably, hope. It fucks with people, basically, to tell them, “I know the truth, and you can find fulfillment if you listen to my words and live the way I say to.”

    As for “talent”: Etymonline (one of my secret gold mines!) has the word coming from “a balance, a pair of scales” and thus to a particular weight, and then to the value of a quantity of something that weighed that much. And then check this out! “Meaning ‘special natural ability, aptitude, gift committed to one for use and improvement’ developed by mid-15c., in part perhaps from figurative sense ‘wealth,’ but mostly from the parable of the talents in Matthew xxv.14-30.”

    • Paul Debraski April 20, 2021 / 4:26 pm

      I tend to agree with Larkin about the distinction between Acorn and Earthseed as well. I think that Acorn is an amazing thing. Utopian, perhaps, but needed utopian. But everything about Earthseed sounds so… much.

      I have to wonder again, what Butler’s take on Earthseed was. Did she think it was the Truth, or does she see Olamina as flawed as well.

      • Jeff Anderson April 24, 2021 / 3:44 pm

        I’m usually distrustful of (or uninterested in? Hmmmm…) letting biography play too big a part in criticism/interpretation, at least when it’s speculative—if we don’t have the author on record, I’m not comfortable picking which parts of the fiction to take as representing truth for them.

        But! Based on the pretty substantial amount of Butler I’ve read, and a very good argument made in that New Yorker article, I think it’s safe to say that her work is deeply concerned with survival. And from that standpoint, while I’m still not willing to say whether Butler “believed in” Earthseed, it’s clearly a viable survival-oriented philosophy. The question doesn’t seem to be “is it right or wrong?,” especially since the contexts that shape that judgment are always changing so drastically in Butler, but “would it work or not?” (Which is actually pretty consistent with a lot of what I’ve read of hers. She tends to put her protagonists in sort of asymptotic cases, where moral frameworks and the like are upended, and then make them figure out how to stay true to themselves without turning that into a suicide pact.) On that tip, it does look to me like she genuinely tried to make Earthseed something that would help its adherents survive; I think it’s a good-faith effort.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston April 26, 2021 / 10:53 pm

        Once we come to the end, Jeff, I’d be curious to learn how you think these books stack up among the others of Butler’s you read. The only other one I’ve read was sort of a pedo-vampire one that I do not remember liking very much at all. I think I recall that Butler wrote some other books that were more squarely sci-fi, and I wonder how they are. Are the books we’ve read the best of Butler? Are comparisons even fair?

  2. Paul Debraski April 25, 2021 / 2:19 pm

    Survival makes sense as a theme in her books rather than religion. I’m going to have to read that article now that I’m finished with Sower.

    I can totally see the distinction between is it right or wrong and does it work. The latter is a much more viable avenue for any writer to purse I think, with the former just turning into a kind for preaching I suspect.

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