Octavia Butler’s “Parable” novels
Parable of the Sower, 1993
From the inside of the book jacket: “The time is 2025. The place is California, where small walled communities must protect themselves from hordes of desperate scavengers and roaming bands of ‘Paints,’ people addicted to a drug that incites them to start fires. When her small community outside L.A. is overrun, Lauren Oya Olamina, an 18-year old black woman, sets off on foot, moving north along the coastal highway. She’s a ‘sharer,’ one who suffers from a hereditary trait called ‘hyperempathy,’ which causes her to feel others’ pain as intensely as her own.”
Global warming and peak oil are in effect: it’s hot and dry, hardly ever raining, and water costs several times as much as gasoline, which, except for arsonists and the rich, people have stopped buying. There are fewer and fewer jobs, and anarchy reigns on the outside – Lauren and her younger siblings only leave their walled neighborhood with its locked gate in the daytime with an armed adult. Lauren has hyperempathy syndrome because her mother took Paracetco, an addictive drug meant for Alzheimer’s patients to enhance their mental functioning. She keeps her status as a ‘sharer’ secret, so that others won’t be able to take advantage of it. An independent thinker, she starts to write Earthseed: The Books of the Living, based on the idea that God is change. “We do not worship God. We perceive, attend, learn from, and shape God. In the end, we yield to God, adapting and enduring, for we are Earthseed, and God is Change…God is Power – infinite, irresistible, inexorable, indifferent; and yet, God is pliable – Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay…God can’t be resisted or stopped, but can be shaped and focused. This means God is not to be prayed to. Prayers only help the person doing the praying, and then only if they strengthen and focus that person’s resolve. Used in that way, they can help us shape God and accept and work with the shapes God imposes on us.”
As she tells her best friend, Lauren is trying to “get ready to survive what’s going to happen and to make a life afterward.” She reads and takes notes from books on survival skills, simple medicine, guns, and native plants, collects seeds, and keeps a “grab and rub” pack filled with money, food, water, seeds, her notes, clothing, matches, and a blanket. She’ll try to grab one of her family’s guns if trouble comes.
“We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe. Godseed – all that Changes – is all there is. Earthseed is all that can spreads Earthlife to new earths. Whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true: All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change. Any Change may bear seeds of benefit. Seek them out. Any Change may bear seeds of harm. Beware…” Lauren plans to “use these verses to pry people loose from the rotting past, and push them into saving themselves and building a future that makes sense.”
On July 3, 2027, Lauren escapes from her burning neighborhood. A truck has been driven through the gate, and Paints have shot people and set houses on fire. Lauren has her pack and a gun, but has been separated from her family. She heads north on Highway 101 with another young black woman and a young white man. On the road, the three don’t let others join them at their fire at night, and take turns keeping watch for people and wild dogs. There are hordes of people going north to where “it still rains every year, and an uneducated person might still get a job that pays in money instead of beans, water, potatoes, and maybe a floor to sleep on.
“Embrace diversity or be destroyed.”
They join up with a Hispanic couple and their baby. Natividad enjoys hearing Lauren’s Earthseed verses, but one of the men says, “‘Your stuff isn’t very comforting.’
‘It is after a while. God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought.’
‘Your God doesn’t care about you at all.’
‘All the more reason to care for myself and others. All the more reason to create Earthseed communities and shape God together. God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay. We decide which aspect we embrace – and how to deal with the others.’”
The group is joined by an older black man named Taylor Franklin Bankole, a former doctor from San Diego, who owns rural property near Mendocino where they can build Acorn, a farming community.
“The Self must create its own reasons for being. To shape God, shape Self. Your teachers are all around you. All that you perceive, all that you experience, all that is given to you or taken from you. All that you love or hate, need or fear will teach you, if you will learn. Learn or die. Create no images of God. Accept the images that God has provided. They are everywhere, in everything. God is Change – seed to tree, tree to forest; rain to river, river to sea; grubs to bees, bees to swarm. From one, many; from many, one; forever uniting, growing, dissolving – Changing. The universe is God’s self-portrait.”
A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock, and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold.
Parable of the Talents, 1998
From the flyleaf: “The author says, ‘Parable of the Sower was a book about problems. I originally intended Parable of the Talents to be a book about solutions. I don’t have the solutions, so what I’ve done here is look at the solutions that people tend to reach for when they’re feeling troubled and confused.'”
The book is narrated by Lauren Olamina’s estranged daughter Asha Vere, née Larkin Bankole, who includes portions of her parents’ and her uncle Marcus’s writings. She starts with a quote from her father, written in 2032: “I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as ‘the Apocalypse’ or more commonly, ‘the Pox,’ lasted from 2015 through 2030 – a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.
I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems; then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. Overall, the Pox has had the effect of an installment-plan World War III. In fact, there were several small, bloody shooting wars going on around the world during the Pox. Amid all this, somehow, the United States of America suffered a major nonmilitary defeat. It lost no important war, yet it did not survive the Pox. Perhaps it simply lost sight of what it had once intended to be, then blundered aimlessly until it exhausted itself.”
Supporters of Andrew Steele Jarret, a senator from Texas and the current presidential candidate “have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being ‘witches.’ A witch, in their view, tends to be a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or, in some parts of the country, a Mormon, A Jehovah’s Witness, or even a Catholic. A witch may also be an atheist, a ‘cultist,’ or a well-to-do eccentric. Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. He says, ‘Join us! Leave your sinful past behind, and help us make America great again.’ Once a Baptist minister, Jarret founded his own ‘Christian America’ denomination years ago. He’s still recognized as the head of the church.”
Lauren, having mentioned the parable of the talents, says her ‘talent’ is Earthseed. She worries that she’s buried it too deeply in the coastal mountains.
Acorn buys ‘news disks,’ so they know the climate’s still warming. “Half the crops in the Midwest and South are withering from the heat, drowning in floods, or being torn to pieces by winds, so food prices are still high. There are also plenty of wars around the world now. Kenya and Tanzania are fighting, and Bolivia and Peru are having another border dispute. Pakistan and Afghanistan have joined in a religious war against India. One part of Spain is fighting against another. Greece and Turkey are on the edge of a war, and Egypt and Libya are slaughtering one another. China, like Spain, is tearing at itself. I suppose we should be grateful that there hasn’t been another nuclear exchange, like the one three years ago between Iran and Iraq.” Lauren mentions “slave collars” and “artificial wombs,” and says “Jarret has won the presidential election.”
Lauren, who is pregnant, finds and buys her enslaved brother Marcus, now 19, in Eureka. He explains slave collars: the slave owner has a control belt that allows him to shock his slaves. Slaves are also shocked to the point of unconsciousness if they try to run, touch the control unit, or damage the collar.
“Any entity, any process that cannot or should not be resisted or avoided must somehow be partnered. Partner one another. Partner diverse communities. Partner life. Partner God. Only in partnership can we thrive, grow, Change. Only in partnership can we live.”
Lauren dreams of establishing other small Earthseed communities, never exceeding 1,000 in population.
Two months after Lauren’s daughter Larkin’s birth, Acorn is attacked by seven armored all-terrain vehicles called “maggots.” Lauren signals an “emergency bug-out,” in which everyone is to scatter, but all are felled by poison gas. The young children are taken, given an antidote to the gas, and adopted into Christian homes. Everyone else is collared and made to work concentration-camp style as Acorn is turned into Camp Christian, a Christian-American re-education center. Lauren and the other members of Earthseed endure this horror for 17 months. They’re finally able to kill the guards and escape when a landslide disables the control center. They burn the camp and head for their caches, where they have foot and handprints of their abducted children, as well as dried food, blankets, and ammunition. They divide into small groups and scatter, planning to visit information drops.
“All prayers are to Self, and in one way or another all prayers are answered. Pray, but beware. Your desires, whether or not you achieve them, will determine who you become.”
Lauren goes to Eureka-Arcata to look for Larkin, doing odd jobs for black families with kids. Hearing her brother Marc preaching a sermon at the Christian-American church, she leaves a note for him to meet with her, then asks for his help in finding Larkin, and tells him what happened to Acorn. He doesn’t believe what she says could be true and walks away when she tells him they killed the guards. When she follows him, still asking him to help her find her child, he turns and hits her.
Later, a man gives her a note from Marc saying he’s “sorry,” and that the people who built Camp Christian were a splinter group called Jarret’s Crusaders, with whom Jarret has disclaimed connection. “I’ve been told they find good homes for the children they rescue.” Marc says Lauren’s best chance of finding Larkin is to join Christian America. “Your cult has failed you. Your god of change couldn’t save you.” He admits that women aren’t allowed to preach, but says there’s “other more suitable work for women” in the movement.
Larkin’s adoptive father saves her from a collar when, at 15, she breaks another girl’s jaw for saying bad things about Lauren. Then he expects ‘gratitude’ (sex). A year after leaving home at 18, Larkin meets her uncle Marc, by now the best-known minister of Christian America. Marc tells Larkin her real parents are dead. He’s known where she was for years, believed her adoptive parents were good Christians, and was planning to tell her of their connection when she was older. Larkin goes to live with Marc in upstate New York, returning to the church, though she’s “lost whatever faith” she’d had.
Lauren travels north with a young white woman rejected by her rich parents, who asks, “‘If God is Change, then…who loves us? Who cares about us?’
‘We care for ourselves and one another.’”
Larkin explains that her mother changed her strategy from gathering families to teaching teachers – “people who would learn from her, then scatter to preach and teach as, in effect, her disciples…
My mother, when I finally met her, was still a drifter. She was rich – or, at least, Earthseed was. But she had no home of her own – not even a rented apartment. She drifted between the homes of her many friends and supporters, and between the many Earthseed communities that she established or encouraged in the United States, Canada, Alaska (a separate country now), Mexico, and Brazil. And she went on teaching, preaching, fund-raising, and spreading her political influence. I met her when she went to Red Spruce, an Earthseed community in the Adirondacks, to rest.
By then I was 34, and wanted very much to meet her. In researching her life, I’d discovered that she’d a child, a daughter, who’d been abducted from an early Earthseed community called Acorn. The community, according to Olamina’s official biography, had been destroyed by Jarret’s Crusaders back in the ‘30s. Its men and women had been enslaved for over a year by the Crusaders, and all the prepubescent children had been abducted. Most had never been seen again. The Church of Christian America had denied this and sued Olamina and Earthseed back in the 2040s when Olamina’s charge first came to their attention…She countersued. Then suddenly, without explanation, CA dropped its suit and settled with her. Uncle Marc says Jarret’s teachings were right even if the man and his followers did wrong. I asked him whether there was any possibility that this woman could be my mother. On my phone’s tiny monitor, Uncle Marc’s face froze, then seemed to sag. He suddenly looked much older than his 54 years. He said, ‘I’ll talk to you about this when I come home.’ And he broke the connection. He wouldn’t take my calls after that.”
Larkin goes to see Lauren, who recognizes her by her birthmarks. They also do a “gene print” to be sure. Larkin stays in touch with her mother after this, but never gets over the feeling that Lauren cares more for Earthseed than for her.
Lauren lives to be 81, teaching till the end.
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man traveling into a far country, who called his servants and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his ability; and straightway took his journey.
Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with them and made five other talents. Likewise, he that had received two gained another two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth and hid his lord’s money.
And after a long time the lord of these servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. He that had received five talents brought the other five, saying, Lord, thou deliverest unto me five talents; behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
The same happens with the servant who received two talents.
He that had received one talent was rebuked as a “wicked and slothful servant” for not putting his lord’s money to the exchequers so that he could receive it back with usury. “Take therefore the talent from him and give it unto him which has ten talents. 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.”
Matthew 25: 14-30