Parable of the Talents
Octavia E. Butler
This book broke my heart a dozen different ways, many of which were unexpected. I anticipated the gloominess of social and racial injustice and the ugliness of weaponized patriotism.
But in this prophetic 1998 novel, that presaged 2015-2020 America by nearly two decades (in which a demagogue becomes president, campaigning on the slogan, “Make America Great Again”), the gut-punches come from unexpected directions.
There is the heartbreak of destroyed families, both physically (the murder and enslavement of non-Christian and minority communities) and personally (the ideological divide that has pushed loved ones to opposite extremes of the culture war).
There is the heartbreak of those who have been rescued from slavery and trafficking turning against the ones who saved them.
But I think what I find most heartbreaking is the cognitive dissonance that pervades society. In perhaps the most prescient aspect of the novel, when the atrocities committed by the Church of Christian America are exposed, the church’s followers deny the enslavement, rape and execution of the “heathens” within the church’s network of “reeducation camps.”
It is eerily reminiscent of the way revisionists are already trying to distort the facts of the January 6 insurrection, despite an absurd amount of video evidence provided by the perpetrators themselves. It befits a country where the only defense that 40 percent of the population can muster is to shout “fake news” over and over like pull-string talking dolls.
This was honestly one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read, and I am a connoisseur of the disturbing. Butler does not shy away from the depressing truth of human nature. She doesn’t try to tack on a happy ending or hint at a brighter future.
She presents humans as they are, not how she’d like them to be. This is a book for truth-seekers, not escapists. Nietzsche rather than Pascal.
The reality is that victory lies not in winning, but in persevering. Victory is speaking the truth when the truth has become criminal, no matter the costs.
If there is any misguided optimism in Parable of the Talents, it is the notion that we can colonize other planets for the betterment of humanity. The protagonist, Olamina, has devised a peaceful philosophy called Earthseed that she hopes to expand to other planets — despite the fact that we can’t even stop destroying our current one.
Though in Butler’s defense, that is a lot more obvious now than it was in the mid-’90s, which was a time of great optimism.
Like the members of Butler’s Church of Christian America, humans will believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence. A beautiful lie will always be more welcome than an ugly truth.
No matter the atrocities committed in their name, having pride in a country’s mythology is always easier than building a country worth being proud of.