The relevance of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents under Trump

Parable of the Talents, the sequel to Parable of the Sower, is, in my view, simultaneously more compelling and more prophetic than its predecessor. It’s worth noting that President Jarret, one of the principal antagonists of Parable of the Talents, runs on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” It’s also worth noting that this science fiction novel was published not in 2018 but 1998.

Butler’s vision of an America torn apart by growing economic, racial, and sectarian divisions amid ecological collapse and technological upheaval chillingly prefigures our lived experience today. Nevertheless, by the novel’s conclusion, the protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, triumphs. Such an outcome strikes me as wildly implausible, yet it offers valuable insights into how sanity may endure the horrors the 21st century promises to inflict on us all. Jarret’s rise to power begins with witch-burnings and the persecution of racial minorities and culminates in an orgy of violence by state-backed militias. Acorn, as a “pagan” commune that follows Olamina’s new, non-Christian religion, is destroyed and occupied by Jarret’s fanatical followers. These “Christian American Crusaders” transform Acorn into a “re-education camp.” The Christian American faction kidnaps the inhabitants’ children, including Olamina’s daughter, and oversees their adoption by loyal Christian American families in distant cities where they are indoctrinated, physically and psychologically abused, and made to perform manual labor. The adults are enslaved and made to wear collars that allow their “masters” to torture them at will. The parallels between this plot and our own time should, I hope, be obvious to any reader.

Olamina survives because she is respectful of human virtue wherever she finds it. Despite her ideological fervor, she is willing to reach out to people of diverse backgrounds in an effort to rally them behind her revolutionary goals. After she escapes from Acorn and her initial followers scatter, she sets forth to find her daughter. As she does so, she gathers new disciples who each bring valuable skills to the table. Rather than challenge them or alienate them by employing confrontational language, she used tried-and-true rhetorical strategies to bring them around to her way of thinking. Ultimately, she lives to see both the collapse of Christian America after a failed war against Canada and the departure of her movement’s first interstellar vessels for distant worlds.

A glance at left-Twitter reveals a community torn apart by differences in ideology over differences ranging from the significant to the irrelevant. Anarchists, communists and socialists all bicker incessantly over what are ultimately trivial disputes over minutiae. Fundamentally, everyone agrees: the political system is broken and requires radical revision if hope is to survive. That being said, the present state of leftist discourse indicates that such a lofty goal is unlikely ever to be achieved in our lifetimes.

This is not to say that confrontational language should never be employed. For example, booing Hillary Clinton is wholly justified given her reactionary tendencies. That being said, there is little to be gained from an argument between an anarchist and a communist over how best to overthrow the bourgeoisie given how marginal to mainstream politics both such individuals would necessarily find themselves to be.

Surely there is a valuable lesson to be gleaned from Olamina’s experience. What is needed in this moment is not squabbling but unity of purpose. Our circumstances are dire. There is no time for further argumentation over whether it is best to follow a revolutionary vanguard or to employ a decentralized approach. It is possible to do multiple things at once. It is possible to simultaneously employ incrementalist and revolutionary tactics, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X demonstrated seven decades ago.

Recent Posts

See All

Useful Apps for Text Mining

Text mining is one of the most powerful tools in the modern historian's toolkit. Now that truly vast collections of digitized text are freely available, perusing them effectively requires more than si

Citizen History Online

There are myriad ways laypeople can get involved with the historical process, but one of my personal favorites is crowdsourced transcription projects. Many exist, so I'll just feature a handful here.