Book Review: Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in November 2001

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Parable of the Talents is the second and final book in Butler’s Earthseed Trilogy, published eight years after Parable of the Sower. The story picks up five years after Sower, in the year 2032. Here, the protagonist Lauren has successfully founded a small community called Acorn, loosely organized around the religion of Earthseed. While their community is by no means a wealthy one, it’s still something of a micro-utopia: Each person and family has just enough to meet their basic needs; every individual is treated with respect and dignity, regardless of age, gender or race; and there is no crime or violence amongst the members. The community also makes time for creating and enjoying art, music, and religious rituals, despite the hard labor they do to ensure their survival.

But Lauren, being cautious and pragmatic, still keeps an eye on events happening outside of Acorn. She is particularly concerned about the rising popularity of Sen. Andrew Steele Jarrett, a white Christian presidential candidate who wants to “make America great again”. While he intends to do this by upholding Christianity and persecuting other religious groups, his resemblance to modern populist leaders is uncanny:

Andrew Steele Jarrett was able to scare, divide, and bully people, first into electing him as President, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers.

True enough, Lauren’s fears materialize when an extremist group of his followers forcibly break into their community, separate the adults from the children, and make slaves of the adults, all in the name of “re-educating” their “cult”. For the rest of the book, we follow the Earthseed community as they struggle to break free from their captors, find their children, and establish new Earthseed communities.

I found Parable of the Talents much more difficult to read than Parable of the Sower. For one, Butler’s descriptions of the violence, rape, and humiliation that came with slavery was brutal to read about, and for another, the resemblance of their political situation to the present is so close it’s downright scary, so if you’ve been reading to take your mind off the mess of 2020, then this definitely isn’t the book to read!

On the other hand, the critique of religion that Butler hinted in Sower is becomes much more pointed in Talents. She makes it clear through the hypocritical actions of Jarrett’s fanatic followers that in its extremist form, Christianity can breed hatred and oppression. Interestingly, Butler also attempts to critique Lauren and Earthseed through the perspective of Lauren’s daughter, Asha, whose commentary prefaces a number of her mother’s journal entries. In the Prologue, Asha writes:

They’ll make a God of her.

I think that would please her, if she could know about it. In spite of all her protests and denials, she’s always needed devoted, obedient followers—disciples—who would listen to her and believe everything she told them. And she needed large events to manipulate. All gods seemed to need these things.

Unfortunately, this line of critique against all religion in general is never fully fleshed out in the novel. Plus, with her searing critique of religion in Talents, Butler seems to imply that religion is the only breeding ground for oppression, such as patriarchy and racism. While this is true in some cases, I also think that these systems of oppression have a way of taking root outside of religious contexts, which is not something that Talents addresses.

Overall, while I found Butler’s Parable of the Talents an engaging read, I felt like it fell short of its promise. I did find myself intrigued by Butler’s thought experiment, though (“What if we can create a more inclusive religion with an impersonal God?”), and I’d still be interested in reading more of her works in the future. I’ve been hearing great things about Kindred, so I might pick that one up next.

Once again, this was also a buddy read with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. I enjoyed discussing this with you, Melanie! You can read her review of Talents here.

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from August 9-15, 2020

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler

  1. I tend to assume that there are people using religion as a cloak to justify their oppression of others. Donald Trump has said there is no one more Christian that he is, which is both a stupid thing to say because faith is subjective and can’t be measured, and also obviously fault (despite the fact that we can’t measure faith) because nothing he does fits with Christian theology.

    We did talk in my book club about how there are many stories that seem to pit Christianity against magic/paganism, with Christianity as the ultimate villain and how that’s unfair.

    1. Lol at Trump! But, if he were “Christian” in the sense that Jarrett’s extremist followers were, then that’s definitely something I can agree with!

      Oh, that’s true—Christianity does get a lot of flak. There certainly Christians who are racist and misogynistic, but I also know a lot of Christians who are the nicest and most altruistic people I know.

  2. These sound so interesting and it’s been especially fascinating to read your reviews and Melanie’s in tandem to see what strikes you each. This one sounds depressingly like things happening in our actual world currently. I tend to agree that systemic oppression can grow in all sorts of systems, not just religion but it’s interesting angle to look at in fiction.

  3. Literary Elephant

    Great review! This sounds just as interesting thematically as the first book, but as much as I enjoy emotionally torturing myself through literature I think I’ll shy away from reading this one while it seems to frighteningly close to reality. The slavery aspect sounds particularly tough to deal with. And it’s a shame Butler didn’t manage to widen the conversation on religion and oppression a bit, but even though religion may not be the sole source of that kind of oppression it does sound like Butler makes an interesting argument that would be engaging to read even if I wouldn’t completely agree with her stance.

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