If you know Seinfeld, you’ll likely know of the episode in which much is made of the practice of yada-yada-ing over important details of a set of circumstances. Parable of the Talents feels like a very big yada-yada to me. In Parable of the Sower and at times in Talents, we get lots of details. But then we jump ahead suddenly to Olamina dead at 81 after a brief, tepid meeting with Larkin some 25 years earlier. Add this to all the sort of inconsistencies in the world building that I mentioned in a recent post, and this book really just did not do it for me.
This bugs me because I figure the book must be good and I must just be blind to it. It won the Nebula award, after all, which I take to be sort of the Pulitzer of speculative fiction. Other books nominated for the Nebula? Gravity’s Rainbow. Slaughterhouse-Five. Various and sundry books by Le Guin, including one of the marvelous Earthsea books. Gene Wolf’s The Urth of the New Sun (I didn’t love this whole set of books all around, but the world is certainly well imagined). Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Dhalgren. Dune (which I happen to be rereading right now and enjoying a lot). Several of George R. R. Martin’s books, which aren’t perfect but which hold up much better as fully-realized stories and worlds than Butler’s parables. Gaiman’s lovely The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Cloud Atlas. VanderMeer’s Annihilation (the follow-ups are weak, but I thought this one was really good). And then of course several of Jemisin’s books, which in my view are all stronger than Talents. Few of the ones I’ve listed here won the Nebula, but still, they show the sort of company the winners keep.
In the reader’s guide in my edition of Talents, Butler says in an interview that she really struggled to write the book and in fact rewrote and rewrote the first 150 pages without feeling satisfied. The death of her mother, she said, was the spark that changed her perspective and led her to make the story less about Olamina than about a relationship between a mother and a daughter. I like what Jeff said a little while ago about the story being sort of a set of gospels about Olamina, and I think that format makes sense and is even pretty compelling filtered through an estranged daughter’s perspective. But the book really just didn’t live up to that potential for me.
Putting aside my disappointment for a moment, I’ll note a couple of things that stood out to me as I read this last portion of the book.
I wondered if Marc and Olamina represented sort of a Cain and Abel story. Certainly there is enmity between them. Olamina is a sort of a farmer while Marc is sort of a shepherd (of his Christian America flock). I hadn’t really thought of it until, on page 307 of my edition (early in chapter 18), Larkin says that Marc’s time as a slave had marked him. God marked Cain to protect him when throwing him out of the Garden of Eden. The parallels aren’t entirely parallel, and it may be a stretch, but this is where my brain went.
On 366 and 377 (early in chapter 21), Larkin reflects on what she has learned about Earthseed over the years. It has grown rich and powerful, expects its members to teach and serve, and embraces a sort of self-will (“shape change”). It is a cult with charismatic (or “seductive”) leadership. It doesn’t have an actual god. And, of particular note to me:
I found that Earthseed was a wealthy sect that welcomed everyone and was willing to make use of everyone. It owned land, schools, farms, factories, stores, banks, several whole towns. And it seemed to own a lot of well-known people — lawyers, physicians, journalists, scientists, politicians, even members of Congress.page 377
This sounds like at least an echo of what Scientology represents, and I wondered whether and what Butler would’ve thought of L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics. He was, after all, a science fiction author too (he was not ever nominated for a Nebula award).
There’s more, but I’ve run out of steam. I guess I’ll yada-yada over it and say that I really wanted to like these books. I did like Parable of the Sower well enough. There was so much that Butler could have done with Talents — including, oh, writing actual science fictiony stuff about the technologies she mentions and the Mars mission that’s just getting ready to occur as the book ends — and I found the book disappointing. I’m really puzzled that the book won the big science fiction prize, and honestly I don’t know whether my puzzlement is a result of my being a bad reader of this book, my misunderstanding of the prestige of the award, or something else altogether.
I agree that I found a lot of the last sections disappointing, even to the extent that they sapped some of the earlier parts. There was so much repeated buildup to Larkin/Asha hating Olamina for “what she did” and her responsibility for “what happened”, and then it’s a great big nothing. I can’t even really see an attempt to justify her perspective here.
There’s a real discussion to be had about the validity of the Earthseed “Destiny”, and how it stacks up against more down-to-Earth (literally) problems. There are real questions, and even real answers, starting with the fact that the solutions to the problems posed by a Martian colony can also be applied to problems on Earth. Advances in sustainability to live within the meager means the colonists will find can help communities at home improve their own quality of life.
And there’s just nothing of this here. Maybe Butler had intended more of this to go into the third book she’d planned, but it’s still fair to assess this book on its own merits. And what she does here is cast the opposing viewpoint into a petulant child holding an infantile grudge against a long-suffering parent who wanted nothing more than the very thing she’s holding the grudge over. It’s the cheapest rhetorical trick there is, and seems the sort of thing you do if you actually don’t believe your position can withstand scrutiny.
I’m glad it’s not just me!
I’m so excited to see that you’ve read Wolfe! I’m always, like, the only person I know who has, and I love reading his stuff so, so much. (If I ever have the chance to write a thesis or a dissertation, my longtime plan has involved using the Book of Nature as an interpretive approach to the Urth cycle in particular. But there would probably also be some stuff on paranoid reading, which would likely have to pull in at least Pynchon…)
I think there’s more to Asha than just petulance—Marc was poisoning her against Olamina for decades. She’s almost a complete success story for him, except for choosing CA only for community rather than out of religious conviction. I don’t agree with her, but I understand her. It’s like Olamina says to Len after she meets with Marc: “He couldn’t stay with them if they did such things, so he’s decided that they’re innocent, and somehow everything is my fault.” Whether he taught that behavior to his “daughter” or it’s innate to humans (my guess is some from column A, some from column B), she makes the same rationalizations against the threat to what she loves.
I’m bummed that you didn’t get out of the books what you were hoping for! If you’re still interested in Butler, I’d send you toward either Wild Seed or Dawn. Each is the beginning of a series, and off the cuff (which means I might change my mind another time), I’d say Wild Seed is the better book but Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood (the series that begin with Dawn) is a better series than the Patternist books (which begin with Wild Seed).
Remember Matt Kish, of Moby-Dick fame? I have him to thank for my exposure to Wolfe. I read the Urth books in two volumes. I found the first volume fascinating and vivid and weird. I found it all less interesting as it went on. I ditched my copies after reading, but your enthusiasm here makes me wish I hadn’t. Maybe I’ll try them again sometime.
I’ve read one other Butler book, maybe a decade ago. I forget which it was. Maybe Dawn? There was like… I think vaguely pedo vampire sex? Just sorta turned me off.