Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Review - Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents
by Octavia Butler
1999 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I found the first novel in this series, Parable of the Sower, to be a book with two interpretations. A surface reading of the text wasn't particularly clever or interesting but I interpreted it as a story about a woman filled with the arrogance that only youth can contain who became determined to remold the world in her poorly defined image. I was somewhat surprised to find that Parable of the Talents gave two very different interpretations of events: one very close to my reading of the original book presented by the main character's daughter decades after the events and the continued viewpoint through the journals of the protagonist. I suspect that Butler does come down on her protagonist's side of the philosophical considerations and that's a problem but not one that completely derails the novel.

A few years after the United States suffered an economic collapse brought on by rising gas prices and a collapsing financial industry (or something like that) Lauren Olamina has established a small town based on her religion of "Change is God". Unfortunately for her a president is elected who makes today's fundamentalist religious regimes around the world look progressive. It isn't long before her town is overrun and converted to a concentration camp which she and her dream of building her religion must survive.

It's a risky thing to drop a new philosophy as the center point in a novel. It takes someone exceptionally clever to present a belief system that doesn't come across as the scribblings of a disaffected teenager. Butler doesn't manage to do this but I'm left thinking that she recognizes it. "Change is God" is something that I'd expect a fifteen year old to think was a clever insight; you have to be young and stupid to think that the inevitability of change is a spiritual revelation. That is exactly where the character is when she hits upon the idea. The only ones who would be drawn into such a simplistic philosophy would be the broken and disaffected and those are the people who join until toward the end of the book. On the other hand when someone does have an opportunity to dismantle her religion they set up simplistic strawman arguments for the followers to knock down.

That is a problem with the book: if you read it get ready to be preached at. A lot. This is naturally going to occur in a novel about the early days of a religion but that is something that grates on my nerves.

I may have not liked the philosophy but the characters involved are very interesting. Our protagonist may be smart and tough but she has some serious blind spots to her own faults. Reading between the lines in her diary entries, which most of the book consists of, makes me think that she's engaged in some extreme self-aggrandizement. Similarly the bitterness of the alternative viewpoint colors those statements. It establishes a metaconflict over the course of the novel that helped propel things forward.

I did have a real problem with the plot where the United States would suddenly turn on a dime and start throwing everyone except the president's supporters in concentration camps. To cut off the inevitable response anyone who thinks the camps the US is running/has run in the past needs to take a good look at history; detainment camps are bad but don't have anything on rounding up large portions of well integrated populations to force them to work to death. Even in Germany the camps didn't open in 1933. The policies presented in the novel would make more than fifty percent of the country immediately realize they were at risk of being hauled off. If the novel had built to it I could have believed it but this was a sudden immediate shift.

The style Butler chose for the novel is particularly effective. Each chapter starts with a few verses, followed by some commentary from well after the story is done, and then journal entries to contain the actual plot developments. Having two or sometimes three different voices giving their views brings the underlying conflict in the book to the forefront.

I'm left with mixed feelings on the Parable of the Talents but in the end I have to give it a recommendation. The storytelling and characters are interesting but the flaws in the novel are ones that grated on my nerves quite a bit. If you have a higher tolerance for people treating basic facts of life as a deep truth then you may enjoy it more than I did.