Parable of the Talents

Octavia E. Butler

Book cover

Octavia Butler famously intended to write a third Earthseed book, but didn’t manage to do so between this (second) book’s publication in 1998 and her death in 2006. Having read it, this doesn’t surprise me. (Note that this review is going to be mostly a critical view of this book, but it is all in the context of me liking it quite a lot, and just feeling that it failed its promise in certain ways.)

Most of PoT has the classic feel of the second book of a trilogy: the hero, Lauren Olamina, having established a toehold for her Earthseed religion in the Northern California community of Acorn, [spoilers removed] Yet I feel like Butler rushed to squeeze in the plot developments of “Book Three” of the trilogy at the end of PoT as well. [spoilers removed] There are kernels of an extremely good “Book Three” in these plot developments. The “Earthseed” that we see being ultimately successful bears little resemblance to the Earthseed of Acorn. We get glimpses of how this affects Olamina personally, but only superficially as the story by that point is told mostly from the perspective of her daughter Asha Vere Alexander. And the distrust between Olamina and Asha Vere when they are reunited seems like extremely fertile ground for character development, as well as being quite believable to me. I found the alternation of narration between Olamina and Asha Vere in this book to work effectively, but even near the end of the book I was convinced that it would end without them meeting one another–a signal of how Butler rushes time forward in the last pages of the book.

It is ironic to me, given the tenets of Earthseed, that Butler does little to show us how the religion’s success impacts Olamina herself: having shaped god (change), Olamina’s own teachings tell us that she in turn will be shaped by god (change)–but we really don’t get to observe that process. Instead, it feels like Butler just wanted to advance the plot to the point where space colonization would actually occur. According to Wikipedia, Butler’s planned third Earthseed book was intended to focus on the community’s struggle to survive on a new planet. I think this overall structural plan was a mistake. I can imagine a powerful third book that focuses more on the passing of the torch (willingly or otherwise) away from Lauren Olamina. This story in my mind would be compelling in a similar way to the passing of the torch from Paul Atreides to Leto II Atreides in the Dune books: Paul, having found success and rising to power on Arrakis, realizes that he does not have the will to do what he knows is necessary to consolidate power on a broader scale. His son Leto II is the one who is willing to do this, but in the process becomes a literal monster who would be unrecognizable to Paul Muad’dib. I can similarly imagine Asha Vere, or someone else, taking the reins of Earthseed from Lauren Olamina so that it evolves in a way that the latter could never have predicted. It seems clear that Lauren Olamina is a visionary, survivor, and fighter, but certainly not a manager of a planet-scale cooperative enterprise. My fan-fic version of PoT would stop following Lauren around the time that Earthseed started to become successful, focusing on the story of Asha Vere, and would end with the meeting of the two of them, revealing Lauren to have been deeply transformed by the unseen process of success. The third book would then focus on the renewal of Earthseed, through some combination of cooperation and conflict between mother and daughter, revealing through flashback or narration how Lauren experienced the process of success.

Finally, I am sure I am far from the first one to observe this, but–I noted already in my review of Parable of the Sower that Butler seems quite prescient about many modern-day problems. She reprises this performance in PoT, mainly by portraying the rise to the presidency of a right-wing demagogue whose slogan is literally “Make America Great Again.”

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars