Diablog: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Part I

We're changing things up … let's talk about books!
We’re changing things up … let’s talk about books!

Gemma: Let’s start with the dystopian vision of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.

Rasha: RIGHT ON. I haven’t finished rereading both books, but I have started, and it’s the first time returning to them since reading them in my mid-twenties.

G: Around that time, you pressured me to read Octavia Butler, which I have always been very glad you did.

R: I’m so glad you read them, and that you’re glad! OEB is a treasure.

An amazing writer, a tremendous loss.
An amazing writer, a tremendous loss.

G: Seriously! And the Parables remain my favorites, though I’ve been wanting to go back to some others. I’ve read both Parables at least five times. Aside from losing her being a tragedy generally, that the next book on her agenda was to be Parable of the Trickster DESTROYS me.

R: Yeah, she actually wrote Fledgling during a period of writer’s block on Trickster. I usually recommend that people new to Butler start in one of 3 places: with Parable of the Sower if they like dystopian fiction, with Kindred if they want more historical fiction/African American literary canon, or with Dawn if they want aliens with tentacles. I adore Butler that those three are such clear strands in her writing.

G: And yet all so deeply linked. When I first read them, also in my mid-twenties, I actually read Talents before Sower, though I can no longer recall why. I think it was an accident of library-oriented fate.

R: Oh, wow, that must have really influenced your reading of Sower!

G: It did.

R: I love Talents. I think it’s a brilliant sequel.

I read this edition very early on.
I read this edition before any other Octavia Butler book.

G: I’ve found that several people I’ve talked to STRONGLY prefer one book to the other. If I could take only one of the two to a desert island it would unquestionably be Talents, but I think each gains a great deal when read in the context of the other. Talents does what I think the best sequels do: complicate my picture of the “original.”


G: It’s actually brilliant dystopian worldbuilding, to create the very insular community and then travelers who become Earthseed practitioners in Sower and then to set that in a wider context in Talents.

R: I have been excited for the reread for that very reason. I remember being inspired by Sower‘s spin on a dystopia–it’s so near-future and it’s so almost-working a society. Parable of the Sower is the book that made me start thinking about what a Pre-Apocalyptic literature would look like: how do we know when what we’re experiencing is apocalypse? I think it’s not something we should take as given that “we’ll know it when we see it.”

What will an apocalypse really look like?
When does it get bad enough to pack up and run for the hills?

G: That’s an excellent way to put it. And then Talents, in a way, explains why that would be the case–that we might not know it when we see it, I mean.

R: Yeah, we get the benefit of a future quasi-recovery moment in which people (specifically Lauren’s daughter) can look back and say: damn, that was the Pox.

G: Well, and even when we’re sure something is a universal social moment, different communities are having different, fragmented experiences of it

R: Also, it struck me this time how very specific the setting is. It’s so California, down to the climate, the drought, and the different lines of community—Black, Asian, Latin@, and white. The differences between the urban and the small town and the rural are really drawn out—danger, resource, acceptance, suspicion. She packs so much in!

G: SERIOUSLY! And the communities are drawn on multiple lines of race, class, education, geographical location—who can unite, who can hear each other, how.

R: And yet, she doesn’t have to give us a global narrative to give us a global sense, or national sense, of danger.

G: Right. Sower is this intimate book, overall—we’re very tightly following Lauren’s experience, her religious and emotional development, the disaster that befalls her family and her father’s community (religion is something else community is based on), the movement of being on the road. It’s so streamlined. Deeply set in a context, deeply engaging with how the global events impact this experience, but still zoomed in on one experience.

One woman giving us her lens on the world.
We see the whole world through the life of one young woman.

R: On the dystopia thread, Parable of the Sower is also a significant contributor (along with a visit to Hopi and Dine’ nations) to my reading of Cities as Deserts. The picture we get of the way people are stranded in cities and suburbs with diminishing and precarious resources, is pretty sharp. The opening of Sower was actually harsher than I remembered it, and it made me realize for the first time how much Lauren Olamina’s perspective is, relative to her time, coming from a middle-class context. I’m also reading Delany’s Dhalgren these days, which has a vastly different vision of pre-apocalypse–much more crustpunk, bohemian commune, leather daddy biker gang survivalist.

G: Ooh, I’m going to have to read that. Yes, the middle-class context is important, which I think becomes clearer in Talents. Olamina family’s community is more suburb than city, but everything in Butler’s 2020s has become an island. The question is always getting from one place to another or finding a place to stay.

R: One thing I might take issue with in Sower is the intense level of seemingly random violence. Maybe it’s just coming from Dhalgren, where the main character and all his compatriots are folks living in gangs and squats and trying to survive —death feels close in that world, but it doesn’t feel necessarily like something that Those Other [dirty/homeless/drug addicted] People are going to Do to Us. That was a little jarring, even coming from a fifteen-year-old, and from what I see, it seems like Butler course corrects some of it in the journals at the beginning of Talents.

G: Ooh, say a little more about that course correction. I thought a lot of it had to do with street drugs—in Sower and in Talents to a lesser degree—and that seemed to me to stem from the ’90s context of the writing.

R: Yeah, Butler does wave in Sower to some drug that makes people more interested in setting fires. Talents, or at least Olamina’s journal in Talents, open(s) 5 years after the end of Sower, and early on the narrative, Olamina says that there’s less random violence and arson now. The threat shifts to being concerned about these essentially white supremacist religious fanatics who are stooges for the firebrand presidential candidate. I buy that origin of violence much more than I buy that Desperate People Are Our Biggest Threat. Given what I know of the world, people in power are much more dangerous.

G: I thought about that pyro drug during the “bath salts” controversy a couple of years ago. But to the rest—Sower is the fruits of the structure we learn more about in Talents.

R: Absolutely. The structure of Talents is genius, I think. A grown woman is reading back through the diaries and writings of her mother and father. Given that Sower is also set up in a diary structure, I can imagine that if you read Talents first, you might have looked at Sower as the first part of the Collected Writings of Lauren Olamina with commentary by her daughter.

Talents is to some degree a book about its own curation.
Talents is to some degree a book about its own curation and how we reassemble history.

G: Yes, and the commentary by her daughter a) points to the socioreligious white supremacist structure you were talking about and b) casts deeper doubt on the reliability of both her own narration and her mother’s.

R: Say more about the second part there.

G: Well, when you’re deep in someone’s head in a piece of dystopian fiction, you have to give over to their reliability, because you don’t have any direct outside referent on the society; thus we trust Lauren in Sower, because she is who we’re riding with. In Talents, moving between Lauren and Asha as first-person narrators (and Marc and Bankole to a lesser degree), we see them constantly calling the other’s view of the world into question, and that’s expert-level worldmaking on Butler’s end. I do find those brief intercessions of Marc’s and Bankole’s first-person narratives to be the book’s biggest flaw, incimadentally. We need more of them or none of them.

R: Hm. I’ll have to think about it. I buy it that Bankole’s reticent and not a writer. As a writer, I also get what it’s like to try to invite certain characters to speak. You’re making me want to talk about how that conversation/argument unfolds between mother and daughter in the pages of Talents, and how that reverberates back through Sower. We’ll have to save that for Part II!

G: Yes! (I buy the bit about Bankole as his character, but I don’t buy it as a way of structuring the volume, especially since the bit we have is presented as an excerpt from something larger, but we never hear from it again.)

R: I’ll part with: one of the most satisfying moments of my soul’s life was meeting Octavia Butler in person and getting to thank her for her work, and specifically for how awesome a sequel Parable of the Talents is. Y’all should read it. Also, go see authors you love while you still can.

G: OMG. Yes. That is amazing. I am glad that happened for you.

Rasha actually got to meet this marvelous literary superheroine!
Rise in Power. To the Stars.

Read Part II here.

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