Wednesday, May 4, 2011

1999 Nebula – PARABLE OF THE TALENTS by Octavia Butler

The Nebulas have been sort of rough of late, but I really enjoyed this novel, and its predecessor, Parable of the Sower. Together, they form one continuous story that follows a young woman named Lauren Olamina Oya in the crumbling United States of the 2020s and 30s. The novel is told mostly through Olamina’s journals (though this volume includes a few other excerpts from first person narrators, especially her husband and daughter), and much of it involves her attempts to create a new religion, called Earthseed.

Parable of the Sower begins in Southern California, which is bone dry due to climate change, and is being picked apart but bandits, drug addicts, and even cannibals. Olamina’s modest walled community eventually falls apart, and she and a few survivors must hike north along dangerous interstates in search of better climes to the north. Parable of the Talents picks up with Olamina more settled in northern California, but she must continue to contend with the United States’ fall, this time in the form of a fascistic Christian fundamentalist President.

There’s a lot of high concept science fiction material here. There’s a drug that turns people into pyromaniacs, and another drug causes a birth defect (which Olamina suffers from) that grants near-psychic levels of empathy (more a disadvantage than anything else in a world so full of pain). There are also high tech slave collars, and virtual reality “dreamasks.” And, Olamina’s religion, Earthseed, is all about the dream of interstellar travel as a way to unite humankind in troubled times (as well as the idea that “God is change,” a refrain which did get a little old to be honest). Yet, the books’ real strength is in how grounded they remain. The characters and their relationships feel incredibly real and immediate. As a result, this is one of the best post-apocalyptic works I’ve read. Butler’s prose is folksy and engaging, and the books are consistently dark and yet somehow never despairing. It just feels real.

My only problem is with some of the pacing of this book. Butler throws a lot of material in, and things begin to move very quickly towards the end (including a half-century jump at the very end). I’ve heard that Butler had considered making this a trilogy, and it might have been nice to fill these later years out. Sadly, Butler died suddenly in 2006. I’d recommend these two books, and I plan to seek out more of her work when I finish this project.

I actually liked this a little bit more than To Say Nothing. I thoroughly enjoyed both, but it has been a while since a Nebula-winner won a match-up against a Hugo-winner.

Grade: A-

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