I spent most of this past Saturday reading Octavia Butler and pushing through the difficult second book of her Parables. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are amazing books, and so utterly incredible to read right now with the current administration in power. If you do read my highlights, the highlights from Talents are difficult, I had to keep reminding myself that the book was written in 1998, not last year.
Both books are so well done, but they are also very different in some ways, with Talents being the harder of the two to read. So I’m separating them out, hopefully it keeps my thoughts a bit clearer.
Parable of the Sower
I read this book and finished it a few weeks ago, so I’ve had more time to think about it and to process it. Much like The Jackpot in William Gibson’s The Peripheral, Butler sets up a near future affected by climate change that feels real. As I read about the world in which Olamina lives, I thought over and over how this could be how it happens, this could be how our future works out. The haves building walls and keeping the have nots out, the weather making life impossible or difficult to live in certain areas, and oil becoming scarce and expensive so very few can afford to drive.
As Olamina makes her way north along with many other climate refugees, we see all the ways in which scarcity has brought out the worst in people. People are desperate and doing whatever they can to survive, and then there are the ones who I assumed were letting the worst parts of themselves take over. Maybe that’s being generous, maybe there truly are evil people, but as you read about an 18 year old trying to get north to a better life and doing so with kindness to those she senses she can trust, I could only see the bad actors in the story as desperate or truly evil.
But the amazing part of Sower for me was how in the midst of all the horrible things going on, Butler finds a way to end it with an optimistic note. I didn’t walk away feeling rattled but rather feeling that bad things may happen in this horrible future, but some good can survive it.
I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough. (p 42)
All struggles Are essentially power struggles. Who will rule, Who will lead, Who will define, refine, confine, design, Who will dominate. All struggles Are essentially power struggles, And most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together. (p 81)
People are setting fires because they’re frustrated, angry, hopeless. They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it. (p 126)
God will shape us all every day of our lives. Best to understand that and return the effort: Shape God.” (p 195)
We’re all sore and sick, in mourning and exhausted—yet triumphant. Odd to be triumphant. I think it’s because most of us are still alive. We are a harvest of survivors. (p 263)
Parable of the Talents
The second book in this story is much harder, it was so hard to read at times, that I ended up pushing through it in one day. Several times I was reminding myself that Butler wrote this in 1998 and not 2016 because the things she talked about with the presidential election were so absolutely dead on for things that our current administration would say or do.
At this point Olamina has created her community in Northern California, she’s created a new religion (not sure this is the right word, but it’s the only one that works for me, as I don’t think it’s a cult), a new way of living and her little community has grown to more than 60 people. They live and work well together, people feel safe, they take the necessary precautions to keep their community safe, but the world has other plans.
As soon as the extreme Christian president is elected, many people feel free to do illegal and awful things to those not like them, and that is Olamina’s story in the second book. Her community is imprisoned, their children are taken, and they are left to try and survive it, which they do. But throughout the book, I was reminded how those who have traditionally had power have a hard time when they no longer have complete power. Sound familiar?
America makes it through the horror and Butler does her best to end on an optimistic note, but I can’t help but think about how many people died and didn’t make it through. It’s what I keep thinking about in our current times. And where I see the greatest parallel. How many people who are considered “different” or un American won’t make it through now? I have hope, but I’m also sad that this cycle seems to keep going.
Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier, “simpler” time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping anyone who was different. There was never such a time in this country. But 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. (p 19)
Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. (p 19)
They have put our children’s feet on the pathway to good, useful American citizenship here on Earth, and to a place in heaven when they die. Now we, the adults and older kids, must be taught to walk that same path. We must be reeducated. We must accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, Jarret’s Crusaders as our teachers, Jarret as God’s chosen restorer of America’s greatness, and the Church of Christian America as our church. Only then will we be Christian patriots worthy to raise children. (p 208)
People don’t realize how free poor vagrants are being treated, but he’s afraid that even if they did know, they wouldn’t care. The likelihood is that people with legal residences would be glad to see a church taking charge of the thieving, drug-taking, drug-selling, disease-spreading, homeless free poor. (p 231)
How many people, I wonder, can be penned up and tormented—reeducated—before it begins to matter to the majority of Americans? How does this penning people up look to other countries? Do they know? Would they care? There are worse things happening here in the States and elsewhere, I know. There’s war, for instance. (p 231)
It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United States in the twenty-first century, but it did. It shouldn’t have happened, in spite of all the chaos that had gone before. Things were healing. People like my mother were starting small businesses, living simply, becoming more prosperous. Crime was down in spite of the sad things that happened to the Noyer family and to Uncle Marc. Even my mother said that things were improving. Yet Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide, and bully people, first into electing him President, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers. (p 243)
In less than a year, Jarret went from being our savior, almost the Second Coming in some people’s minds, to being an incompetent son of a bitch who was wasting our substance on things that didn’t matter. (p 244)
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 nest. (p 358)