Parable of the Talents
Octavia Butler, 1998
In this sequel to Parable of the Sower,
cult leader Lauren Olamina's commune Acorn is suddenly raided by fascist
Crusaders allied with America's new theocratic government and turned into
a concentration camp. Olamina and her people are enslaved and regularly
raped; many are killed. After a lightning strike disables their slave
collars, they kill their captors and escape. Changing strategies to
spread memes rather than found colonies, Olamina's religion becomes
the 21st-century version of Scientology, and she becomes a very wealthy
I did not really much care for this book or for its prequel. When Geoff
Ryman wrote about similarly troubling material in
Was, his prose was lyrical with a streak of wry, sad humor.
I don't expect or want a different author to try to strike the exact same
tone, but I want some sort of art. Butler's writing in these books
did not impress me as artful. It is true that sometimes the best writing
is invisible, so that you're not even conscious of the fact that your
eyes are passing over printed pages. But Butler's writing isn't like
this. It's just bland.
Commentary: Six of One
This is the last novel we read in the apocalypse class I've been crashing.
This may seem like an odd choice, since the world doesn't blow up. The
apocalypse class proved to be a lot less literal-minded than I had
expected — certainly a lot less literal-minded than my own version
of it would be were I teaching it. I would have loaded up on the nuke
stuff, keeping "By the Waters of Babylon," "Tomorrow's Children," "There
Will Come Soft Rains," Alas, Babylon,
Dr. Strangelove, and probably
Earth Abides (though that's a plague)
and White Noise (though that's a chemical
spill). I would have thrown in On the Beach,
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Fail-Safe,
Episode 13 of Cosmos,
The Day After, Testament,
Threads, Trinity, Balance of
Power, and Watchmen, along with
Missile Command and possibly The Wild
Shore and the videos to "99 Red Balloons," "Two Tribes" and "Land
of Confusion." Possibly I'll have more candidates as I read more 1950s
Pretty much all of this material dates from either 1946-64 or 1983-86.
Not coincidentally, those are the two periods in which it was widely
believed that nuclear war was virtually inevitable and indeed imminent.
In 1965-82, by contrast, and after 1987, those who might have been writing
postapocalyptic tales tended to pen dystopias instead. (Not that dystopias
went away in the apocalyptic period, as 1984 attests.) For instance,
in 1973, Soylent Green projected that by
the year 2022 New York City would have a population of 40 million and that
people would survive by eating each other — but ten years earlier,
and ten years later, many narratives estimated that the population of New
York City in 2022 would be zero.
There are lots of systems for categorizing personality. None can be
"correct," any more than there can be one correct way to divide the
stars in the night sky into constellations. But it's interesting to
see what clusters people see, what boundaries people construct. One
schema that I find particularly interesting is the Enneagram, which
posits nine basic personality types. Type One is the sort of person
who would write dystopian fiction, the prophet/reformer type. "Hey,
world, you're doing everything wrong! If you don't change your ways
here's what'll happen!" And there is certainly an element of this in
apocalyptic disaster fiction. The film version of On the Beach,
for instance, ends with a shot of a "THERE IS STILL TIME... BROTHER"
banner in an abandoned, radioactive town square. Changing the world was
also the purpose of The Day After, and reports are that it succeeded
— Reagan was thinking about it at Reykjavik. Which makes sense:
Reagan only understood things in terms of movies, especially WWII movies,
so it probably took a WWIII movie to get through to him. But not all
fiction in this vein is Type One.
I was a little skeptical about what Parable of the Sower was
doing on the syllabus, since at least on the surface it's more dystopian
than apocalyptic. It's set in a 2024 in which American living standards
have deteriorated to African levels. Poverty, deprivation, corruption
and violence are the order of the day. Nuclear war doesn't figure into
the storyline; to the extent that there is an apocalypse in the story,
it's a local one, the destruction of Lauren Olamina's neighborhood. But,
it occurs to me in retrospect, Lauren's mindset is indeed apocalyptic.
Just as we in 1983-86 (and, from what I've heard and read, those in 1946-64)
expected that the bombs would be dropping any day now, Lauren expects her
world to blow up at any moment. At age 15, she's scaring her peers by warning
everyone that someday people are going to come burn down the neighborhood, so
they'd better put together emergency packs, learn how to grow their own food,
get handy with firearms and so forth. No matter where she goes or what
she does, she always tries to remember what to do if the murderous
arsonists invade right then. Run in terror! Attagirl, Lauren —
that flash means act fast!
This mindset isn't Enneagram Type One. This is Type Six. Various books
call Type Six "the skeptic" or "the loyalist," but I tend to think of
it as "the abused child." Sixes know that something bad is going to
happen and are constantly on alert. There is no such thing as true safety
— if things seem peaceful, it's because you don't know where the
danger is coming from. You can be in your house, in your room, and that's
no sanctuary, because suddenly, WHAM! A belt! For you! Across your
back! WHAM! Creepy stepfather's hands! For you! Under your skirt!
Nowhere is safe, not even a corporate office a quarter mile off the ground.
WHAM! Hijacked planes! For you! In your skyscrapers!
In Sower, Lauren lives in a walled neighborhood, but she's not so
naive as to think that the walls will actually protect her, and thus she is
one of the four people who manage to escape. In this, Sower fits into
the mold of the classic survivalist narrative in which the paranoid with the
ammo stockpile lives and all the Pollyannas who called him crazy die, but in
other respects it's quite different. Lauren is not about rugged individualism;
in a trademark Type Six move, Lauren spends the rest of the novel gathering a
tribe. Sixes are all about tribes, which is why some Enneagram books call them
"loyalists." They don't trust large-scale power structures because, to them,
authority equals abuse of authority, but they also have an intense need to be
affiliated with a group, because isolation means vulnerability and because
they find it unbearable to be left alone with their thoughts — it's
like being trapped in a room knowing that there are wasps in there. The
tribe hits Sixes' sweet spot, and they tend to be extremely invested in
their circles of friends. It's also only through the tribe that they're
able to express themselves; they may have notebooks packed full of writing,
the way Lauren does — the Parable books are presented as journal
entries bookended with religious verses Lauren has written — but they
can't bring themselves to release any of their work for fear of calling
attention to themselves.
As Parable of the Talents opens, Lauren — now just called
"Olamina" — is in Sixth heaven. She has her tribe of a few dozen
people tucked away on a commune in Northern California. Her husband would
like the two of them and their daughter to move to town, but Lauren won't
have any of it, because tribe comes before family. She's so certain that
tribe means safety that, in a reversal from her role in the old neighborhood,
she dismisses people's concerns that a nearby farm has been raided. And then
one day, WHAM! Slave collar! For you! Around your neck!
After the slave revolt, Olamina burns the commune to the ground and has to
decide what to do next. With a few nudges from some random people she meets,
she abandons the way of the Six and tries something else: she strikes out on
her own or with one helper, publishes her verses, and then suddenly it's 2090
and she's the world-famous founder of a global religion. Seems like kind of
a heavy-handed deus ex machina ending that makes the preceding 700
pages of the series look like the setup to a punchline saying "your personality
type sux." But, hey, maybe Butler would have found all this to be crazy talk.
Perhaps she was a Myers-Briggs fan.
Commentary: Ward of the state
In Parable of the Sower, the government functions in a manner that would
bring tears of joy to Grover Norquist's beady little eyes: it doesn't do anything.
It doesn't protect people from criminals, so they have to spend a lot of effort
protecting themselves as best they can from marauding gangs; it doesn't look after
the poor, so they have to go join company towns and submit to a life of peonage;
it doesn't offer public education, so those who can't afford private school have
to homeschool their kids as best they can. Parable of the Talents shows
the reaction to this trend. People discover that they don't like living in a
disintegrating society and elect a fascist theocracy to straighten things out,
leading to concentration camps, a war with Canada, and other stuff out of the
fascist theocratic playbook. The moral of the story (as Butler confirms in an
interview at the end of the edition I read) is that it's a really bad idea to
argue that you shouldn't have to pay taxes to educate other people's kids, because
that extra money in your pocket isn't going to be much help when all of those
other people's pig-ignorant kids grow up to become murderous arsonists and/or
religious zealots. An educated populace is a precondition of a healthy democracy,
and a perfect example of how even the affluent rely on the state to create that
educated populace is typing this sentence.
I grew up in a well-to-do household in Anaheim Hills. But one thing that has
become clear to me over the past week, which had actually never dawned on me
before, is just how intellectually impoverished my home life was. See, last
week I wrote an article about my poor sense of pitch,
and since then I've been asking people whose sense of pitch is better than
mine how they developed it. And they all said the same thing. "I didn't have
to work at it — it just came naturally along with my piano lessons." Or
singing lessons. Or "we always had musical instruments in the house so I just
picked it up."
Well, I didn't have any musical instruments in the house when I was growing up,
or rather, the musical instruments I had were little Casio keyboards I got from
my job at CBS and didn't know how to play. Certainly my parents didn't play
music, and music lessons were never a consideration. An organizing principle
of my mother's parenting decisions was that we kids would not have the same
tortures imposed upon us that were imposed upon her, and piano lessons would
fall into that category. As would pretty much all other intellectual pursuits.
This is where the mismatch between my parents comes into play. My father
graduated from medical school at the age of 22. My mother never learned fractions.
My brothers and I took after our father on this score. But his involvement in
our upbringing was mostly financial. Our mother set our schedules, and she
apparently never imagined that we could have found learning music interesting
Other things that were not part of our home life were:
Art. And yet one of my brothers is now a grad student in art history,
the other teaches high school art for a living, and I dabble in it and love
going to museums. When we were growing up, the idea of going to the local
museum (Bowers Museum in Santa Ana) was a running joke to my mother.
"So, what do you want to do this weekend? We could go to the mall... or we
could go to Bowers Museum! Ha ha ha ha ha!"
Books. My parents don't read. I mean, okay, my mother would occasionally
get spinoff paperbacks to the syndicated TV shows that played in the afternoons.
I remember that she had the Divorce Court paperback, for instance. When
she was done with her books she would throw them away. Meanwhile, my dad would
occasionally get some big New York Times bestseller and then let it gather
dust in his office until I made off with it. That's how I ended up reading
Cosmos and A Brief History of Time, for instance. But yeah, 99%
of the books in the house when I was growing up were in my room.
Travel. All of our travel was between Anaheim and my mother's parents'
place in Pennsylvania. We never went anywhere else. No, wait — one time
my dad had a conference in San Diego, so we went along and saw Shamu. That's
Cuisine. My father can cook, at least a little — he can throw
onions into a pan and toss in spices and stuff from the fridge seemingly at
random and come out with something impressive. But my mother did all the cooking
when we were growing up, and she learned to cook in a German-American household
in the 1950s.
Iris Amster-Burton plays at making chipotle-mushroom stew. My mom probably
learned about the existence of chipotles around the same time Iris did.
So, in short, my upbringing was nothing like that of kids
whose bohemian parents take them to the Whitney. Mine was like that of most
American kids. We watched TV, we played video games, and we went to the mall.
So why didn't my brain shrink to the size of an acorn? SCHOOL. I went
to a run-of-the-mill suburban public school with a pretty standard gifted program.
It saved my life. Every museum I went to, every cultural attraction, every
historical site, was part of a school field trip. Most of the books I read, and
90% of the good ones, I either ordered through the scholastic book program or
checked out of the Canyon Hills Library, another publicly funded institution.
When I went to the Bay Area for the first time it was through a school program.
When I went to Europe for the first time it was through a school program. One
extracurricular activity I did participate in was a computer programming class...
which I first learned about on a school field trip.
In short, when Octavia Butler writes about a revolt against school taxes
leading to the dissolution of American society, she strikes at the core of
who I am. For had I been forced to rely on homeschooling the way Lauren
Olamina was, the article you are now finishing would instead read "parible
of the talants by octavia butler hehe i sed butt"
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