So That’s What It’s For

Whether it’s my fault or Butler’s, it wasn’t until some 600 pages deep into this series that I finally understood Earthseed. We’ve talked about it a couple few times already, this question of why: Why take these relatively uncontroversial and certainly not new ideas and wrap them up in a religion? And whatever does the Destiny “to take root among the stars” have to do with these ethical precepts? And I have to wonder whether Butler was hearing the same question from readers, maybe editors, maybe fellow writers. Because then with just a chapter and an epilogue to go in Parable of the Talents, she has Len ask Olamina a question that really doesn’t logically lead into the manifesto she gets in reply:

“That’s what Earthseed was about,” I said. “I wanted us to understand what we could be, what we could do. I wanted to give us a focus, a goal, something big enough, complex enough, difficult enough, and in the end, radical enough to make us become more than we ever have been. We keep falling into the same ditches, you know? I mean, we learn more and more about the physical universe, more about our own bodies, more technology, but somehow, down through history, we go on building empires of one kind or another, then destroying them in one way or another. We go on having stupid wars that we justify and get passionate about, but in the end, all they do is kill huge numbers of people, maim others, impoverish still more, spread disease and hunger, and set the stage for the next war. And when we look at all of that in history, we just shrug our shoulders and say, well, that’s the way things are. That’s the way things always have been.”

“It is,” Len said.

“It is,” I repeated. “There seem to be solid biological reasons why we are the way we are. If there weren’t, the cycles wouldn’t keep replaying. The human species is a kind of animal, of course. But we can do something no other animal species has ever had the option to do. We can choose: We can go on building and destroying until we either destroy ourselves or destroy the ability of our world to sustain us. Or we can make something more of ourselves. We can grow up. We can leave the next. We can fulfill the Destiny, make homes for ourselves among the stars, and become some combination of what we want to become and whatever our new environments challenge us to become. Our new worlds will remake us as we remake them. And some of the new people who emerge from all this will develop new ways to cope. They’ll have to. That will break the old cycle, even if it’s only to begin a new one, a different one.”

Well that makes more sense. That’s what ties the community focus, adaptive practice, and visionary future together. It’s an interesting combination of historical analysis and evolutionary metaphor to say that the things we tend to think of as the bad side of “human nature” aren’t just impulses we have to learn to master, but a developmental stage we have to collectively make a leap out of. No one person, no matter how virtuous, can change these cycles through their behavior; the solution to a collective problem can never be reached through individual action. So Olamina has designed a project that’s intentionally too large for anyone to solve without cooperation on a massive scale, and then laid out personal-level ways to learn to welcome and participate in that cooperation.

It’s really extraordinarily hopeful, isn’t it? Reminds me of a very useful thing Josh Marshall wrote: “Optimism isn’t principally an analysis of present reality. It’s an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in.” I know we’ve differed ’round these parts on the quality of Butler’s writing, but for me there’s a strong ethical imperative in it, often connected with minimizing harm in suboptimal situations—particularly after the recognition that harm can’t be avoided. (I like Erika Nelson’s view on it: the protagonist of another Butler novel “does what Butler’s heroines do well: She negotiates between poor options.”) Here it takes the form of a determined choice to look at the problem of a circle in three dimensions instead of two, and then to set up a pragmatic framework for being able to climb out into that third dimension.

This vantage point of cycles, though, makes the title of the novel a much sharper critique than I had supposed until the very last page, though. I even read the Parable of the Talents (the Bible story) before starting the novel, as I imagine the rest of you did too—and I read right over the interpretive coda. I had Luke 12:48 in my mind: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” Or to put it another way: with great power comes great responsibility. But that’s the wrong parable. I just mentioned this in a comment, but the ending of this parable is so much harder to swallow than that: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” And that’s the end of Butler’s novel. The critique I’m seeing here is the implication that even the teachings of Jesus find their way into another of those ditches Olamina mentions. Not just that religion does, once it’s been separated from its founder and made more convenient or more palatable or more useful—we’ve already seen that with CA. But this is a parable we’re meant to take as being direct from the mouth of Jesus. It reads like a cold-eyed description of “the way things are,” but it’s presumably supposed to be aspirational; it is, after all, what “the kingdom of heaven” is like, according to the first line of the parable. Same as it ever was, I guess, at least until we put in the work, as a species, to leave our collective adolescence behind.

Yada yada

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.

Thou Shalt Not

(Quick note: I usually post late enough in the week that it’s basically the next week anyway, so I’m going to draw some from our final week’s reading in this post too. Hopefully by the time you read this, you’ve finished the book anyway in preparation for the last round of scheduled posts going up.)

My sister was born when my mom was 21. She was dangerously premature, born around 32 weeks, if I remember right; once she was allowed to come home, my parents dressed her in doll clothes—as in outfits sold for actual dolls—because she was too small for baby clothes. While my mom was still in the hospital, recovering from giving birth, her pastor’s wife came to visit. More specifically, she came to ask my mother “What sin is in your life?” that would explain my sister’s struggle to survive being born.

That was the end of my family’s attendance at that church, but not of our being Southern Baptists generally. We had to come to that point individually, each of us, whether through reasoning, unsatisfied questioning, or simple recoiling from the multitude of restrictions and cruelties and constant browbeating that suffering was inflicted out of love. (This last, of course, was my aunt’s rationale for getting down on her knees every night and praying that my husband and I would be unhappy together, so that we would be nudged into correct, acceptable, heterosexual lives. Sin is a nonsense idea, a means of installing the surveillance camera inside your head and abdicating the responsibilities you have toward anyone who might be able to confront you with choosing to fail them—but if there is such a thing, surely willing for a fellow human being any more misery than whatever they might already be carrying counts.)

One of the great contrasts Butler gives us between Earthseed and Christian America is in the ways the two beliefs treat people’s humanity. In all that we see of people living Earthseed, there’s a great focus on your responsibilities to the larger community and to yourself. You work, you share, you learn, you teach, you make your own decisions. You’re answerable to the community in terms of whether you try to be of benefit to it, and if you’re harmful to the community, they expel you. (We hear about that, right? At least one case?) But you decide how much you believe, on your own timeline, and as long as you’re willing to pitch in, you don’t even have to believe. You are a person, whom Olamina and much of the rest of Acorn hope to convince that their way of doing things makes the most sense. (There’s an extraordinary bit in Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay where a golem gains the ability to make his own decisions rather than merely follow his programming. His moral manifesto makes me cry every time: “NOT THOU SHALT NOT. SAY I WILL NOT.”)

Then there’s Christian America, where all the decisions have already been made for you, including what you will and won’t believe, and your options are to conform or be forced to. And unlike Earthseed—whose god is understood as a force and a process and a truth and an inevitability, but offers no comfort—CA refers all its issues upward, to a god who will love you, you’re told, and will stop punishing you, if you’ll just decide to be good enough. If you still require correction, well, whose fault is that?

The evil of Jarret’s Crusaders is plain, even (as Daryl pointed out) melodramatic. And for Jarret and the rest of CA, it’s useful in multiple ways. On the one hand, it gets the results they want: subjugation. “Cleansing.” Impunity. Marc even calls them “courageous” in his note to Olamina: “misguided, but courageous,” and there’s another way they’re useful. They’re the bad apples. As long as the Crusaders are around, everyone else in CA can point to them and say, “There are your bad guys.”

But there are lots of kinds of zealots, and they don’t all wear big white crosses on their chests and enslave heathens “for their own good” and rape them and torture them to death. It was the Alexanders who tipped me off to what Butler is doing. At first I was a little disappointed with Asha’s stories of growing up: the evils of adoptive parents, right? That old trope. But what Butler’s showing us is how water flows downhill. This is the whole model of god as the abusive parent, reproduced on every scale in a person’s life, because that’s how totalitarian ideology functions. The differences between how Olamina is treated at Camp Christian (her home, before it was taken) and how Asha is treated in her home are only in degree. (“Even in the homes, there were no collars except as punishment for the older children, and then only after warnings and lesser punishments had failed.” Oh well in that case.) “Quiet was good. Questioning was bad,” Asha says. At three or four, she’s slapped and screamed at and made to burn herself, and then told she’s going to hell where it’ll be worse. She’s sexually assaulted by a man the church has put in authority over her. She’s forbidden to write and forced to confess publicly. She says herself about rank-and-file Christian Americans: “They were so certain that they were right that, like medieval inquisitors, they would kill you, even torture you to death, to save your soul.” There’s not a good wing and a bad wing of CA, just the difference between a factory and an Etsy shop.

And then there’s Marc. He’s horrified by what Olamina tells him about Camp Christian (and even just reading her recital again, I can feel my own anxiety start squeezing)—so horrified that he tells her again and again that she’s mistaken (because what she was put through is so mistakable, and of course she couldn’t know her own home that she built when she’s interned there), that he doesn’t believe her, that it’s not true, because he knows the people of CA and they’re good people. So horrified that he punches her for telling him the truth about what he’s chosen to be a part of.

And what kind of bullshit offer is it that he makes to her, that if she joins CA, maybe she’ll find out where her daughter is? That’s the same paragraph where he says, “Some of our people have relative or friends who are Crusaders.” Only a few paragraphs after conceding that “if Acorn was attacked” (my emphasis; the cognitive dissonance of granting Olamina a shred of credence would destroy his beliefs, so she must be the one who’s wrong) it was by Crusaders, he tells her to embed herself among people he knows has intimate ties to them. Surely if he’s done the research he says he has, he’d know how unlikely the Crusaders would be to let an escapee from Camp Christian walk free if they were alerted to her location.

He actually has more good to say about the Crusaders in his letter than bad—because he agrees with them. As far as I can tell, he finds his niece within a couple years, but she doesn’t meet Olamina for another 30 years, and that’s only after discovering his lie that Olamina and Bankole are both dead. (The woman who bought him out of slavery.) It’s like Olamina says in the Epilogue: “How completely, how thoroughly he has stolen my child.” He’s just the beautiful face of eliminationism, even within his own family. I’m genuinely sitting here at my desk seething from thinking so much about him. It’s breathtaking what some people will do in their zealotry, in far more insidious ways than the “simple” brutality of Camp Christian. That insidiousness, that awareness of the different and subtler forms of interpersonal violence that moral certitude licenses just as much as the grosser forms, is one of the lessons of this parable.

Moses

Early in chapter 18 from this week’s reading (page 307 in my edition of the book), Larkin writes about her uncle Marc, saying, among other things, “What Uncle Marc had been through as a slave marked him.” Had Butler not shortened his name to “Marc,” this might not have stood out to me, but she did, and it did. Marc is marked. Marc is also jealous of his sibling. The Cain and Abel story isn’t a direct template for this relationship, but there are echoes, as God marked Cain before sending him wandering.

Thinking about that wandering put me in mind too of another Biblical story. Moses, you may recall, had an adoptive mother, saw a burning bush, revealed the word of God by writing down the ten commandments, and eventually led the Israelites out of slavery, sending them out to wander the land for 40 years.

Lauren also has an adoptive mother. Early in Parable of the Sower, she has dreams (visions?) of fire, and of course fire is in no short supply throughout that book (people worship it, even). She says again and again that she’s merely writing down, in her Earthseed verses, the truth she’s discovering, not a religion she’s making up. And in this week’s reading, she leads her people out of slavery. If one wants to stretch things a bit, one might even liken the saving mudslide to the parting of the Red Sea. Finally, she breaks her rescued people into smaller groups that wander off in different directions. There’s at least a slant rhyme here with the Moses story, no?

Harriet Tubman too came to be called the Moses of her people. And though Butler’s story doesn’t limit enslavement to African Americans, it’s hard not to think at least a little bit about Tubman when reading the group of Butler’s books we’ve read this year.

I have no stunning point or incisive literary criticism to offer here. I’m just noting an association that came to mind while I read. I’ll offer two further associations in the form of worthwhile books by living authors. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad gives a sort of embodiment to the historical underground railroad. Ta-Nehesi Coates is well known for his nonfiction, but his first novel, The Water Dancer, is well worth a read too. Set in 19th-century America, the book confronts slavery directly. Its magical realism elements didn’t always work for me, but I liked the book on the whole, and it was neat to see Coates writing lyrical prose fiction; I’d gladly read any straight-up realist fiction he published.

Bummers Abound!

I don’t know how much of this comes through to folks from elsewhere, but in the books we’re reading this go-round, Butler feels like such a Californian writer. She knows this place, its past and present, and uses it in the books. Unfortunately, the two really good examples of that from this week’s reading are awful.

I mentioned one in a comment on Paul’s most recent post: Pelican Bay State Prison, which Christian America converts to Pelican Bay Christian Reeducation Camp. Honestly, I’ve read and written as much about that today as I feel like dealing with; if you’re not familiar with Pelican Bay, and the brutality of its Special Housing Unit, and the prisoner hunger strikes, it’s easy to search up. As far as currently operating prisons in California (so, with Alcatraz ineligible), it’s pretty much the symbol of the most notoriously terrible practices.

And then there’s Camp Christian. The concentration-camp elements are clear and obvious, but the unique characteristic is the religious bent of it, which calls to mind the history of the Spanish missions in California. Some version of this is standard fourth-grade history out here, but I don’t know how familiar everyone else is with them. The missions are a series of outposts up the coast, from what’s now the US–Mexico border all the way up to north of the San Francisco Bay. They were designed as religious frontier communities, more or less, for the specific purpose of converting the Native Americans in the local area. And of course they were abusive; they were a holy mission, after all. Men and women were housed separately, Native Americans were only allowed to leave with a priest’s permission once they had “consented” to join the community, obviously their prior beliefs were stamped out by whatever means necessary. There’s some dispute about what conditions were actually like for the Native Americans at the mission sites (of course there is), and I don’t think there’s good reason to presume it was only and everywhere terrible. But the parallel to Camp Christian seems deeply intentional.

The other reason it comes to mind is again back to Pelican Bay, but this time as an analog to the Indian boarding schools and forced assimilation policies of the US government: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” (Not only the US, of course. There’s also Canada, and Australia’s Stolen Generations, and surely more. If you take your enemy’s children from them and raise them as your own, you’ve already conquered the future.) Again, the history is discouraging and easily available. (As Leslie Knope says, “We need better, less offensive history.”) And the thing that’s significant about it is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s legal.

Daryl and Paul have both asked about the legal infrastructure of the US we’re shown in these books. They have taxes still? They have copyright? Well, some people do. As an absolutely extraordinary comment on Crooked Timber put it a couple years back: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” This has always been the case, and what’s disorienting about what we see happening in the Earthseed books is that we can feel the contraction of that line between in-group and out-group. It’s almost like we can see the dome produced by the shield generator shrinking, until suddenly our protagonists are outside it, exposed.

“But that’s not right!” I imagine you object, because I try to imagine the best of people until they teach me to stop. But of course, the law isn’t right or wrong, the law is power. This is the lesson of a minority existence. James Tiptree, Jr.—whose true identity as Alice Sheldon came to light at the beginning of Butler’s career as a novelist—has a pitiless, excellent story called “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973) in which the male narrator is stunned to hear from the woman he’s stranded with after a plane crash:

“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

(There’s a great biography of Sheldon by Julie Phillips called James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She invented aerial photography intelligence for the Air Force! Her parents were big-game hunters! She and her husband completed a suicide pact! And the Tiptree stuff is worth reading for its own sake.) I guess I don’t really have an argument in this post, just associations. This stuff was rough to read! All the same, you can see how Earthseed will apply for its adherents. Their belief is that change is inevitable, but not inevitably good or pleasant, and you can either be its victim or shape as much of it as you can. It’s survivalist. Might as well give them something they have to survive, right? Also, what upstart religion would be complete without a persecution narrative?

What if Butler Were White?

I have not read Harold Bloom,, but I understand loosely that his notion of the anxiety of influence describes the proposition that authors are sort of tied to their predecessors and can never really escape their influence. So, Wallace is frequently compared to Pynchon and Gaddis and is in turn cited as an inescapable influence on Levin. Jemisin may have some difficulty escaping the influence of Butler in the reception of her work. I wonder if there’s a name, though, for the phenomenon wherein something (the history or personal traits, say) of a book’s author influences how the book is received by the reader.

I think of David Mitchell, for example. I read all of his early novels and found Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet especially virtuosic. When I got to The Bone Clocks, I expected more of the same and was disappointed to find it a much less accomplished work. Like, it was bad within the broader context of Mitchell’s capabilities. My expectations based on what I knew of Mitchell’s prior work made it hard for me to read The Bone Clocks on its own terms.

In these books of Butler’s, I have so far kept right in the very front of my mind the fact that she is a widely read and respected Black woman author of speculative fiction. So of course her books will include a lot about racial injustice, right? Since this real heavy stuff seems sort of a given, I find myself picking other nits rather than spending much time thinking about and applauding the obvious.

And there are nits to pick. I like my fiction to hew pretty closely to the reality it presents. It’s ok if that reality is wacky as long as it’s fairly consistent. There are a fair few things that’ve stuck out to me in Parable of the Talents that do not seem consistent with the reality Butler is presenting. Paul mentioned a few of these in his post from week one: Would systems like taxation and copyright really be upheld in this lawless country? Compulsory voting seemed far-fetched to me too, given that there are so many squatters scattered around the country in settlements lacking real infrastructure. Butler’s description of the housetruck is of a very formidable military-grade weapon, to my mind. Such a thing would cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars — likely more given the inflated value of money in this world — and it beggars belief that the Noyer family could really have afforded such a thing. Maintenance on such a vehicle would require specialized knowledge and materials unlikely to be available to the Acorn community and yet they manage to keep the housetruck in fairly good shape. Later we learn of the maggot vehicles, which seem like souped up versions of housetrucks. Who is manufacturing and distributing these? And how can Dreamasks and slave collars possibly be widely available in an impoverished society? Who is mass producing such things in these times? And how does Bankole keep medical supplies in stock? There are carefully guarded shops out there, sure, but are they really likely to carry more than the basics in terms of medical supplies? Have they suddenly stopped requiring prescriptions for the more potent medications? In other medical marvels, Bankole seems to be able to determine that his child will be a girl long before she’s born and without the benefit (presumably) of any sonogram machine. There’s a lot of this sort of fracturing of the reality Butler presents, and it’s been very distracting to me.

I wonder if I’m being fair, though. If, for example, a white man had written this book, might I find myself focusing on the themes of racism and feminism in the book instead, and thinking the author pretty woke for bringing them up, and excusing a little more freely these nits? Is it fair that Butler, by virtue of the marginalizations she cannot escape, should have to do the work both of highlighting these marginalizations and of writing an air-tight speculative fiction narrative?

I think the very best work manages to do both of these things. Le Guin wrote great speculative fiction (at least the bits I’ve read) and also wrote about gender. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy both presents a marvelous, consistent world and pokes at the cruel use of Black bodies to serve the populace.

Still, I wonder if my expectations here have been fair. Am I holding Butler to a higher standard than I might a white writer because, in a way, she gets the anti-racist stuff for “free” or as a given? Hold that thought for a moment while I provide a less fraught example. Say a former professional baseball player who lived a long baseball life took up novel writing and indeed wrote a baseball novel. I think I would expect that the baseball parts of the novel would be flawless and also less effortful for him, given that he lived them. So I would really want the other parts of the novel to shine. That’s what I’m getting at when I say that Butler gets the race and feminism stuff for “free.”

Only of course she doesn’t get it for “free.” In fact it’s a greater burden to exist as a Black person in America and perhaps a hardship or an annoyance to feel that one must write about it as well.

So that’s what I’m chewing on as we head into the last half of the book and the final in this series. If I’m finding some of Butler’s work to be less to my liking than work that maintains a consistent (even if wacky) reality, is that fair? Would I feel the same if Butler had been white?

Another Dispatch from Your Religion Correspondent

Wikipedia and a bunch of nonscholarly places claim that epistolary novels don’t have to be made up of letters: “The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.” (I have not yet, in a quick search, found a scholarly source to confirm that this understanding is shared by the critical community.) On basically etymological grounds, though, I’ve always reserved the term for novels that are made of epistles, and I unvented the term “documentary novel” to cover the ones that insert other kinds of “preexisting” documents. (“Unvented” comes from knitting doyenne Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s Almanac, coined as a way of acknowledging that surely someone, somewhere had already invented the thing she just did—but she had never seen it before.)

Thinking about it, though, I have some dim, more theoretically defensible reasons for that distinction, and they come down to questions of the intended audience. A letter is (almost) always from one person to another person. In my other book group, for example, we just read and discussed Les Liaisons dangereuses, and one of the big factors in that novel’s spectacular effectiveness is that quality of intimacy. A specific reader is addressed in a letter, by a specific writer, and therefore the totality of that letter’s meaning encompasses both the personalities of both parties and the relationship between them.

That’s not the case with those other kinds of documents. Take Parable of the Sower, which is formatted as diary entries. (Or actually, as a mix of diary entries and Earthseed scriptures.) Diary entries are great for giving a sense of the diarist as an observer and an analyst. (Bearing in mind that the cultural presumption of more unguarded honesty in a diary is rebuttable on sufficient demonstration.) But they’re essentially one-person shows. The only mind we see in action is the diarist’s, and the only interactions we see them having are the ones they reconstruct in their “private” writing.

(There is a whole other question—which some epistolary novels confront and some duck, and which documentary novels seem more likely to have to deal with—of how this manuscript came into the reader’s hands. We know how we got Lauren’s/Olamina’s journals: she saved them for the posterity of Earthseed, even going so far as to produce copies that could be safeguarded separately. They’re practically a midrash, and are essentially written to everyone/anyone. In Gene Wolfe’s work, these mechanics of transmission are often foregrounded, probably influenced by his engineering training; in the dramatis personae at the beginning of his On Blue’s Waters is a delightfully enigmatic pair of listings: Horn, “the protagonist,” and on the next page, the Rajan of Gaon, “the narrator.”)

Now in Parable of the Talents we’re getting a further complication of that documentary structure, as Daryl wrestles with. It’s a sufficiently significant break in narrative approach that it makes Paul ask whether Butler was revising her original concept. What I think it’s doing is introducing evidentiality to the “record” of Earthseed. That’s one of the things that disparate documents bring to a text, right? (If you were reading me back during the original Infinite Summer, you may recognize that this is a recurring interest for me.) By bringing in voices and documents and texts that aren’t Olamina’s, this book is giving us a more stereoscopic view, requiring us to do precisely the work Daryl describes of judging each piece of evidence ourselves in relation to the others. (It doesn’t look like we’re getting such a thing here, but I note that a common kind of interpolated document is a newspaper article, which will unavoidably activate questions of objectivity and truth and factuality.) With Olamina’s daughter assembling this text for us now, juxtaposing her mother’s journals with writings by her father and uncle and especially superseding each chapter’s material with her own commentary on the people and ideas it contains, we’re getting a very opinionated context for Olamina’s beliefs and actions. It’s not an unalloyed first-person view anymore.

On its own, I appreciate that as a narrative complexification and as a whole extra layer of nuance. But I also think there’s another thing going on that’s particularly intriguing. A couple weeks ago I mentioned one of the Earthseed scriptural passages as evidence of the community-building of the early “church” of Earthseed. I take the analogy here from studies of the early Christian church, and the kinds of documentary evidence that scholars use to reconstruct the lived practices of the people and communities who were converting the words of their prophet into a way of existence. That growth of faith communities starts with the doctrine, the words of the founder. But then the faith grows beyond the range of its founder; converts join and merge their own ideas with the doctrine they adopt, and offshoots spring up in other places and inevitably evolve their own slightly different variations. I think that’s what Butler’s giving us in this book. The first book was ultimately about Lauren’s distillation of her philosophy, and about that philosophy itself. Now here in the second book what we’re seeing is that philosophy being grown out into a religion instead, which means adherents and practices, no longer just ideas. It means other people. Olamina’s daughter, writing to us from some unspecified (right?) period far enough in the future that Olamina is dead in her past, may well be the first church historian of Earthseed. This is her critical record of how her mother’s ideas became a religion in the world around it.

Who should I trust?

I had sort of a lightning bolt moment when reading Gulliver’s Travels in high school. I found the book kind of interesting but also tedious at times. And I took everything pretty much at face value. It didn’t occur to me that I might dislike or distrust a character who wasn’t, at face value, a capital-B, capital G Bad Guy. I mean, stories have clear archetypes, right? The Bad Guy wears a black hat and has a sneer, right? I forget whether it was Gulliver himself or one of the haughty houyhnhnms who attracted the lightning bolt, but I remember that my mind was blown when my teacher, in effect, gave me permission to read sort of outside the boundaries of the archetypes. It was ok, she taught me, to countenance ambiguous characters, to perform independent interpretive acts while reading. It sounds simple, but it really was a formative moment for me.

I’ve read a lot since then, and I’m often still pretty dim and literal in my reading, but I’ve learned to read with a little more nuance. Still, the early part of Parable of the Talents has my head spinning a little. We hear from several people:

  • The daughter of Olamina and Bankole
  • Olamina
  • Bankole
  • Olamina’s brother Marcus (or Marc? or Marcos?)

And they all have different points of view. We’re pretty well used to Olamina’s voice by now. Her religion seems reasonably level-headed even if it’s not clear (to us, to Marcus, to Bankole, to Dan Noyer…) why she’s babbling on about change as a god. I haven’t fully understood her, but I’ve felt inclined enough to trust her as an agent for good.

But her daughter calls her a zealot and a weapon. Her daughter’s view of Olamina so far seems lukewarm at very best.

The daughter writes more warmly of Bankole. And I like Bankole. But I have some ambivalent feelings about him too. After all, he hooked up with someone very much his junior (just barely an adult) and didn’t think to feel weird about it until afterward. And he’s putting Olamina in kind of a weird position by pressuring her to move to a settlement when he knows her mind is set on making something of Earthseed at Acorn, though his intentions are positive enough. I can’t really fault him for this, and in fact he’s really probably right about it, if a little old-fashioned (but then, he’s kind of old). I feel a little ambivalent about him is where I’m landing here.

I don’t know yet what to think about Marcus. His niece says that he’s likely a worse zealot than Olamina. He abhors chaos while Olamina embraces change. He’s certainly had a hard few years and has plenty of reason to be complicated.

I sure don’t know yet what to make of the daughter. Does she have an agenda? Is she going to wind up being the voice of Butler who helps us see what’s problematic about too easily trusting a messiah figure, or that figure’s opposite, or a kind but old-fashioned man who is all to ready to run arms open into something that seems a little like a sort of gentrification? Or will the daughter turn out to function essentially like a Greek chorus? Or will she become a key player as we get deeper into the book?

So we’ve got these four viewpoints, each at least a little different from the others, and I haven’t yet figured out whose to weigh the most heavily, or how to consider them all together. And of course there’s no saying I have to. But it’s on my mind as I read, this multiplicity of perspectives, and the commentary on the part of the daughter that brings them all together.