Butler, Octavia E. 1998. Parable of the Talents. New York: Seven Stories.

Reviewed 04 Jan 99

Parable of the Talents (cover) This book continues—in a sense—Butler's earlier Parable of the Sower (4 stars). Parable of the Talents is a much more subtle work. It's all too easy to get lost in the spiritual and religious overtones and fail to see the historical context of this book.

Structurally, this book is a multiple autobiography. The primary narrator, Lauren Oya Olamina, is a fairly tough-talking future Prophet (in the Biblical sense, but not of the Bible). The secondary narrator—and the one who provides the meaning to the book—is her daughter.

It's easy to see the spiritual aspects of this book. Lauren is a powerful preacher herself, but she does not realize that a Prophet's role as Prophet is to teach, not to do, until after what she has done is torn down and scattered by religious fundamentalists. This is an interesting shadow of the Diaspora; the parts missing from this shadow are equally interesting.

But there's another historical parallel here, one that members of the largest ethnic group in this nation (Caucasian-Americans) simply don't get: the Reconstruction. Some of the parallels include:

  • the election of a President in a time of economic and political crisis whose election touches off a secession, literal or figurative (Lincoln/Grant | Jarret)
  • the rise of demagogery as a substitute for political discourse (William Jennings Bryan | Jarret, Marcos Duran)
  • the reign of terror by a "God-fearing" group of white men who concentrate on exploiting and enslaving religious and ethnic minorities, particularly those already toward the bottom of the economic heap (the Klan | the Crusaders)
  • the official disavowal, but actual dependence, of the power structure on that reign of terror
  • the hypocritical professions of virtue—such as avoidance of mind-altering substances and extramarital sex—by the power elite, which hide worse-than-normal abuses
  • the destruction of successful minority communities and scattering of their members
  • the success of literacy and individual dignity as means to end the repression, despite the failure of economic attempts
  • the end of the repression comes only when some well-connected members of the majority become true believers in the minority's philosophy
  • the remaining undercurrent of distrust
In other words, this isn't just Ayn Rand espousing some oddball philosophy that might become popular among naïve college students in ten years or so. These parallels are just the obvious ones. And some of them apply today, too.

But, without narrative, without character, without plot, this would just be Atlas Shrugged (1
star), or The Fountainhead (1
star), or Looking Backward (1
star) for the turn of the century. Whatever one says about the philosophy in those books, they're not good fiction. Butler does not make the mistakes of the ordinary utopian novel. The critical difference is that Butler maintains a narrative. Rand and Bellamy did not develop anything; they allowed an explicit or implicit "memoir" form to control the development of their ideas, their plots, and their characters. Butler, on the other hand, is not afraid to let her characters make mistakes—and learn from them—even though the form of this book is also similar to a memoir. Neither is she afraid to have plot threads resolve in a fashion unrelated to the Big Idea, nor have some of the Big Ideas refuted in the course of the novel. Her ideas—her talents—are bigger than that.

Which leads to some thoughts about the title. A parable is closely related to the fable, the "fairy story," the myth—even more so than fiction in general and speculative fiction in particular. All four of these forms express their meaning through metaphor. The parable is a "teaching" form, just as the subject of this novel is ultimately "teaching." Remember that one meaning of "rabbi" is "teacher," and you won't go far wrong in understanding this novel.

Overall rating: 4 stars Excellent (award candidate). This is the Big Idea novel of 1998. It's as close as speculative fiction gets anymore to anything in the utopian tradition. That's a shame, because several aspects of that tradition are central to speculative fiction. Its religious aspects are a fascinating counterpoint to Mary Doria Russell's duology (The Sparrow [5 stars] and Children of God [4 stars]) in their different approaches to faith, to religion, to mankind.

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