In our latest reading group meeting, held on the 29th April at Gordon Square, Birkbeck, we discussed The Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia Butler.
The novel continues the story of Lauren Oya Olamina’s struggle, begun in The Parable of the Sower (1993), to survive the slide of the U.S. into racism and instability, through the propagation of her space oriented religion called Earthseed. The novel takes the form of curated excerpts from Lauren’s diaries presented and glossed by her estranged daughter Larkin, covering Lauren’s experience of setting up the commune of Acorn and the subsequent trials and tribulations which follow.
The discussion was wide ranging and highly engaging. We even managed to spend a good deal of time discussing our theme of the year of economics and labour in science fiction.
Below is a run-down of some of the topics that were discussed:
There was quite a disagreement about whether Lauren’s daughter Larkin was right to be so angry at her mother considering Lauren’s traumatic experiences. Larkin seems to feel that Lauren’s religion is another form of child who is preferred over Larkin. The Acorn community is one based on a wider kinship structure than the nuclear family. It appears at time that Lauren’s friends such as Zahra and Harry are closer to her than her own husband Bankole or her daughter. At the same time, though there are queer kinship structures, the basic unit for the community is one of a small family working within a larger community. Also, despite the positive inclusion of queer characters within the Acorn community, it was felt that many of the queer characters had negative representation; the torture of Allie and her partner by the Christian Americans seemed gratuitous; Marcus is presented as an asexual and self-hating queer man; while sex-work is always connected with slavery and male homosexuality is often connected with paedophilia.
Earthseed is both similar and an inverse of Christian America, the organization based on evangelical Christianity which gains power in Butler’s future U.S. Both demand full commitment, dignity and purpose through labour, and stable family structures. However Earthseed’s scripture is almost the opposite of Christianity. It is short, aphoristic, non-narrative, which appears at times (someone in the group pointed out) to be like the text of greeting card, as compared with the classic Christian mode of the sermon, often strongly narrative based and emotive. This is reflected in the structure of the groups. Christian America, and indeed many major religions use big narrative structures of redemption, heaven and eternal life in order to maintain small micro level structures such as the family and gender relations (for example). Earthseed in contrast uses everyday useful sayings that might aid on the micro level, to build into an alternative non-hierarchical community.
Earthseed is in many ways comparable to the colonial project. Unity through turning towards an ‘empty’ outside (Earthseed preaches that the final aim of the religion is to colonise space). However, this seems to be at odds with the generally anti-colonial message of the novel. It was pointed out that this tension is explored through the naming of the first Earthseed ship into space the Christopher Columbus—Lauren is not happy with the name because of its colonial connotations and yet agrees to it so that the ship will be allowed to take-off.
It was also pointed out that the spread of religion and of colonialism came under the guise of trade. Colonialism, Capitalism, and the dominance of Christianity develop hand in hand. Earthseed in many ways does not do much to transform the economic system but instead seems to work with in it. Later in the novel, as it comes to a close, Earthseed becomes quite wealthy and it is not clear where the money is coming from. Lauren does talks and gains donations from the wealthy. It appears to use neoliberal structures to spread the gospel rather than questioning the system, which has led to such destitution and misery in the first place. The imperfect system is used in order to reach goal of getting in to space. This is at odds with the ethos of the Acorn commune in which alternative forms of social organization is put before the goal of space colonization. We discussed the politics of finance for space projects: where does the money come from? Is it public or private money? Lauren is vague on these points. This may be deliberate or it may be that there was not enough space in the novel to fill in these gaps. I was reminded of Rachel Hill’s research into the politics of contemporary privatsed space initiatives, which use Utopian imagery to justify privatisation of the space industry.
Both Earthseed and Christian America valorise labour. At Acorn all members work hard and are expected to work hard, and when Christian America turn Acorn into a reeducation camp they also stress labour as a virtue. Both preach labour as a means of salvation—for Christian America for the heavenly salvation, and Earthseed for getting into space. However, Christian America are shown to be hypocrites, using religious doctrine to oversee and legitimise slavery just as the religious rhetoric of work in the past was used to legitimise slavery. For Earthseed, the labour is always put to good use for the good of the community. I suggested that there was a connection with the title of the novel, The Parable of the Talents, in that for Earthseed and for Lauren, value is created through work—investing and spreading the word of religion. However, it was suggested that in fact the burying of the talent is a form of labour as well, and that the Talents story is as much a move away from Old Testament emphasis on The Law and material goods/works towards love. A comparison was made between the labour in the novel and Octavia Butler’s own struggle to complete the novel, caused by a medically induced writer’s block.
We had a long and fruitful discussion about the exploration of empathy in the novel. Lauren is a Sharer; a person who has the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others, caused by the parent of the individual using/abusing a particular drug. This was described as a classic Butler move by one of the participants of the reading group. She takes a relatively simple attribute and exaggerates it. The attribute becomes both a super-power and a disability. It was pointed out that in Butler’s work these ability/disability paradigms are usually genetically inherited; for instance the inheritable disease in her short story ‘The Evening, The Morning and The Night’ (1987) and Cancer in the Xenogenesis Trilogy (1987-89). It is fitting that the disease of the Sharer should be caused by the parent attempting to work harder via drugs (the drug which causes the genetic condition is a concentration drug).
Empathy in the novel exaggerates the trauma of the text, which in turn is a trauma of African American experience in the past and present projected by Butler into the near future—i.e. the ongoing legacy of slavery. The scarcity of the description of violence was praised as successfully addressing both the impossibility of representing trauma as well as reflecting Lauren’s own need to avoid such descriptions so that she would not relive the experiences (an exploration in many ways of PTSD). A comparison was made between the narrative technique in trauma fiction (such as Primo Levi and Toni Morrison) and Science Fiction. What is not described suggests a reality, which is beyond description. The absence is then filled in by the reader causing an empathetic relation to the text.
The virtual reality technology of the Dreammask, which attempts to indoctrinate users into empathising with the suffering of Christ, was contrasted to the true empathy of Lauren and Sharers who actually do suffer like those that they see suffering. Someone suggested that it was similar in that respect to the religion of Mercerism in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), in that followers must use the empathy box in order to actually feel the death and sacrifice of Mercer. Empathy in that sense becomes a power relation. The way in which Butler sees the bigoted and corrupt decline of President Jarett, was contrasted with Baudrillard’s reading of the Watergate scandal. Baudrilliard argues that contrary to media representation, Watergate only reinforced government power and corruption, as it suggested that it was an aberration rather than the proper functioning of a system, which is corrupt in itself.
We ended with a discussion of the particular entanglement of optimism and pessimism, in Butler’s work. Butler never allows either a fully utopian or dystopian mode to dominate the other, rather staying with the trouble to produce a militant call to work through suffering and trauma towards a better world. There was then a shout out for the work of adrienne moree brown who edited Octavia’s Brood (2015)—an anthology of original fiction by activists inspired by Butler and also her podcast with autumn brown ‘How to survive the end of the world.’