“Parable of the Talents” by Octavia Butler is a sequel to her 1995 novel “Parable of the Sower.”
Set in a dystopian future America devastated by climate change, societal collapse, and widespread violence, the novel is uniquely presented through the perspectives of Larkin Olamina (Asha Vere), her mother Lauren Oya Olamina, and her father Taylor Franklin Bankole.
Lauren Olamina, the protagonist, grows up in a crumbling Los Angeles during the 2010s and 2020s. After losing her family and home in a brutal attack, she escapes and starts to develop Earthseed, a new belief system emphasizing change and adaptability. Earthseed holds a vision of humanity’s future beyond Earth.
Lauren, along with refugees including her future partner Bankole, establishes a community named Acorn in rural California, devoted to living by Earthseed’s principles.
The novel’s backdrop is a United States in chaos, worsened by the election of President Andrew Jarret in 2032. Jarret, leading a fundamentalist group called Christian America, pushes an agenda of traditional values, violently opposing other religions and subjugating women.
Tragedy strikes in September 2033 when Acorn is overrun by Christian America, turning it into a brutal re-education camp. Lauren’s daughter, Larkin, is taken away and adopted by a family in Seattle, rechristened as Asha Vere Alexander.
In a dramatic turn, Lauren and other captives overthrow their captors in 2035. She then disperses her followers, believing that the communal living model of Acorn is no longer viable for spreading Earthseed.
While searching for Larkin, Lauren encounters her brother Marcus, now a prominent Christian America preacher. Despite his assertions that Christian America condemns the extreme acts of Jarret’s Crusaders, a radical splinter group, Lauren remains undeterred in her mission.
Lauren’s journey takes her northward, where she meets Len, a disowned wealthy woman.
Together, they travel to Portland, attracting new Earthseed followers and expanding the movement’s reach. Earthseed’s influence grows, and Lauren becomes a renowned figure, especially as Christian America’s power wanes and Jarret’s crimes come to light.
Parallel to Lauren’s story, Larkin, disillusioned with Christian America, leaves her adoptive home at 18.
She later meets her uncle Marcus, who, recognizing her resemblance to Lauren, deceives her about her parents’ fate. Larkin, who eventually pursues a Ph.D. in history, grows close to Marcus while becoming increasingly curious about Earthseed.
The novel reaches a poignant climax around 2067 when Larkin, discovering her true parentage, confronts Marcus.
She learns that Lauren is indeed her mother. Their reunion, however, is fraught with tension and unresolved issues, leading to a strained relationship. Larkin remains closer to Marcus, seeing him as her true family.
In the final scenes, set in 2090, an aged Lauren witnesses the fulfillment of Earthseed’s vision as shuttles carry followers to space for settlement missions. She passes away shortly after, content with her legacy and the promise of Earthseed’s future.
Lauren Oya Olamina
The heart of the story, Lauren, is a young Black woman who embodies resilience and intelligence.
As the founder of Earthseed, she navigates the tumultuous world of 2030s America with pragmatism and a deep sense of purpose. Lauren’s charisma and strong oratory skills make her a natural leader, guiding her followers through challenges, including the harrowing experience at the Acorn community.
However, her greatest challenge comes from within, as she grapples with hyperempathy syndrome, making her acutely sensitive to the pain of others.
This trait shapes her into a community-centric leader, though it sometimes masks her emotions, leading to misunderstandings with those closest to her, including her daughter Larkin and brother Marcus.
Lauren’s journey is marked by the tension between her roles as a leader, partner, and mother, culminating in her witnessing the realization of her life’s work as Earthseed reaches for the stars.
Larkin Olamina/Asha Vere Alexander
Larkin, Lauren’s daughter, provides a contrasting perspective to the narrative. Raised by adoptive parents after being taken from Acorn, she grows up feeling disconnected and out of place.
Her journey is one of self-discovery, shaped by feelings of abandonment and resentment towards Lauren.
Larkin’s intelligence and creativity echo her mother’s traits, but her emotional journey leads her from curiosity to rigidity, influenced by her uncle Marcus and her complicated feelings about her mother’s legacy.
Taylor Franklin Bankole
Bankole, Lauren’s older partner, is a steady presence in the narrative. A doctor by profession, he brings not only medical expertise but also a deep sense of compassion and commitment to the Acorn community.
His relationship with Lauren is marked by mutual respect and shared values, though the age difference between them is a recurring point of contemplation.
Bankole’s love for his daughter Larkin is a highlight of his character, adding a layer of emotional depth to his sudden and impactful exit from the story.
Marcus “Marc” Duran
As Lauren’s brother, Marcus serves as a foil to her character.
Growing up in the same environment but responding differently to the world’s chaos, Marcus seeks order and control, aligning himself with the Christian America movement.
His desire for structure and recognition starkly contrasts Lauren’s more fluid and community-focused leadership style.
Marcus’s physical attractiveness and charisma aid his rise within Christian America, highlighting the divergent paths siblings can take despite shared beginnings.
1. Adaptability and Resilience in the Face of Change
Central to the novel is the concept of Earthseed, which posits that “God is Change.” This philosophy underpins the narrative, showcasing how adaptability and resilience are essential for survival in a world of constant flux.
Her creation of Earthseed, in the midst of chaos, is a testament to human resilience and the ability to find hope and direction in times of despair.
The theme extends beyond individual survival to encompass societal evolution, suggesting that adaptability is key to the future of humanity.
2. The Interplay of Religion, Power, and Control
Butler explores the complex relationships between religious beliefs, political power, and social control.
The novel presents two contrasting religious views: Earthseed, a philosophy of empowerment and adaptability, and Christian America, a fundamentalist movement that enforces rigid, traditional values.
Christian America’s rise to power and its subsequent imposition of control over others is a critical commentary on how religious ideologies can be manipulated to justify oppression and violence.
This theme is further enriched by the character dynamics, particularly between Lauren and her brother Marcus, a Christian America preacher, highlighting the personal conflicts and moral ambiguities that arise in such a polarized environment.
3. The Importance of Community and the Challenges of Utopian Ideals
The book intricately examines the concept of community through the rise and fall of Acorn, the community founded on Earthseed principles.
The novel presents a nuanced view of the utopian community ideal, acknowledging both its strengths in providing support and a sense of belonging, and its vulnerabilities to external threats and internal disagreements.
The destruction of Acorn by Christian America forces and the subsequent dispersion of its members underscore the fragility of such communities in the face of hostile forces.
Moreover, the book raises questions about the practicality of utopian ideals in a harsh, unpredictable world, and how the pursuit of these ideals can sometimes lead to unintended consequences.
“Parable of the Talents” is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that delves into themes of resilience, spirituality, and the enduring strength of the human spirit.
Octavia Butler masterfully weaves a narrative that not only explores a dystopian future but also reflects on contemporary societal issues. The focus on diverse characters and the realistic portrayal of their struggles adds a layer of depth and authenticity.
The novel, while set in a speculative future, resonates profoundly with present-day challenges, making it a timeless and essential read.