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Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for Parable of the Talents
Book cover for Parable of the Talents

New Introduction by TOSHI REAGON

Parable of the Talents celebrates the Butlerian themes of alienation and transcendence, violence and spirituality, slavery and freedom, separation and community, to astonishing effect, in the shockingly familiar, broken world of 2032. Long awaited, Parable of the Talents is the continuation of the travails of Lauren Olamina, the heroine of 1994's Nebula-Prize finalist, bestselling Parable of the Sower. It is told in the voice of Lauren Olamina's daughter—from whom she has been separated for most of the girl's life—with sections in the form of Lauren's journal. Against a background of a war-torn continent, and with a far-right religious crusader in the office of the U.S. presidency, this is a book about a society whose very fabric has been torn asunder, and where the basic physical and emotional needs of people seem almost impossible to meet.

As Ms. Octavia Butler herself explained, "Parable of the Sower was a book about problems. I originally intended that Parable of the Talents be a book about solutions. I don't have the solutions, so what I've done here is looked at the solutions that people tend to reach for when they're feeling troubled and confused."

And yet, human life, oddly, thrives in this unforgettable novel. And the young Lauren of Parable of the Sower here blossoms into the full strength of her womanhood, complex and entirely credible.

Don't miss the first book in the Parable series, Parable of the Sower!

Book cover for Parable of the Talents
Book cover for Parable of the Talents

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“The narrative is both impassioned and bitter as Butler weaves a tale of a frighteningly believable near-future dystopia. Lauren, at once loving wife and mother, prophet and fanatic, victim and leader, gains stature as one of the most intense and well-developed protagonists in recent SF. Though not for the faint-hearted, this work stands out as a testament to the author's enormous talent, and to the human spirit.”

“Butler sets the imagination free, blending the real and the possible.”

“Parable of the Talents is the masterpiece. The sequel retains the brutal atmosphere of its predecessor — severe economic inequality, climate disaster, lawless mayhem — without sacrificing momentum or texture… By refining Lauren’s voice, Butler found others scarred by the American apocalypse, from a rising fascist who wants to “make America great again” to new-age slave traders to children who are forcibly separated from their families — and are happy about it.””

“Reeling from environmental, political, financial and military blows, American society is just barely surviving in the opening years of the next millennium… Butler's narrative skills are impressive. We follow the rise and fall of Earthseed's first communal home through a chorus of voices that jump around in time, giving us contrasting perspectives on the heartbreaking events that test the faith and will of the founding mother, her family and her adherents. Most remarkably, the ideas they espouse -- at the risk of their freedom and even their lives -- are presented with the respect they deserve. The tenets of Earthseed arise from a thought-provoking collaboration between the scientific and religious imaginations.”

“In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time… for sheer peculiar prescience, Butler’s novel and its sequel may be unmatched... In the day to day of the Parable books, hyperempathy is a liability that makes moving through the world more complicated and, for tactical reasons, requires those who have it to behave more ruthlessly... In her lifetime, Butler insisted that the Parable series was not intended as an augur. ‘This was not a book about prophecy,’ she said, of “Talents,” in remarks she delivered at M.I.T. ‘This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is: I certainly hope not.’”

blog — December 06

“She writes her way to hope”: Jesmyn Ward introduces “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler

To celebrate the release our new hardcover edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler, we are proud to share renowned author Jesmyn Ward’s moving introduction to this reissue, in which Ward writes of the hope that Butler’s work affords its readers, offering a ray of light to those enduring tragedy.


INTRODUCTION TO BLOODCHILD

By Jesmyn Ward

I can’t remember when I first read Octavia Butler’s work. It wasn’t in high school. I never encountered her in my coursework, as my required reading looked nothing like the books I found in my personal reading: I read The Last of the MohicansCatch-22, and The Catcher in the Rye and little there resonated with the world I knew. I had grown up in a poor/working-class family in rural Mississippi, where I spent years eating government cheese, red beans, and rice, and drinking powdered milk. I lived in my grandmother’s four-bedroom house with fourteen other relatives and watched my extended family bear the brunt of poverty and racism throughout my childhood and adolescence. I spent those years wandering through my school library stacks, finding books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Richard Wright, Gabriel García Márquez, and Margaret Atwood. I found sustenance in literary writers and in science fiction and fantasy writers, too, needing the escapism of that kind of storytelling, which I had been drawn to since I was a small child and first read Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley—but the only science fiction and fantasy I could find in my school library were by Frank Herbert, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Isaac Asimov.

I didn’t encounter Octavia Butler’s fiction in university, either. I majored in English, and I sought out creative writing classes and literature classes that specialized in the African Diaspora. I read African writers and Black British writers and Black American writers and Black Caribbean writers, but all the work I read was poetry and literary fiction. It was good to study these artists, to seriously consider the kind of work I had been starving for in high school, but even though I attended school in the mid- to late 1990s, when Octavia Butler was a living writer, full in her artistic flowering, I never found her work in the bookstore stacks or on the syllabi of my courses. I never really encountered any sci-fi or speculative fiction: when students submitted science fiction short stories or fantasy in creative writing workshops, my peers shunned them. They said the work was amateur, not serious, wasn’t about real people and therefore, real issues. I sat quietly at my desk, swallowing their critiques whole, quietly ashamed of the pleasure I got from reading sci-fi and fantasy.

I must have read Octavia Butler’s work for the first time in the early 2000s, when I was living in New York City as a young twenty-something, working as a publishing assistant. I had more money, not much, but more than I’d had in college and high school, so I’d take the train to The Strand, where the stacks stretched on and on. My browsing blossomed; I needed that. I was floundering through life. Tragedy had loosed me from my moorings, my understanding of what the world was and how it worked, and it sent me spinning: a drunk driver killed my brother Joshua in October 2000, and his killer was never held accountable for his death. I’d voted in my first presidential election and watched in confused horror as Bush was appointed by Supreme Court ruling. I’d watched smoke billow from the Twin Towers on 9/11 and then spent hours walking from midtown to Brooklyn, peppered in ash. I’d marched through Manhattan to protest Bush’s pre-emptive war with Iraq, foolishly thinking our collective uprising would have some kind of impact, bitterly disappointed when I discovered it did not. I’d visited home and jumped from my car’s window and swum through the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, and then lived in shock in the desolation of the aftermath.

I found Parable of the Sower by chance in The Strand’s stacks. I devoured it. Butler’s prose was forthright and rhythmic. Her imagery was stark and startling. Her character development was disturbingly true to what I knew of the world, of poverty, of desperate human beings. It was harrowing and dark, and it seemed to reflect some ineffable terrible truth I found mirrored in the world. It reminded me that worse presents were possible. I sought out more of her books and found Parable of the Talents, the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, and Bloodchild and Other Stories. In Bloodchild, Butler says this about readers: “Actually, I feel that what people bring to my work is at least as important to them as what I put into it.” In my twenties, I found this to be true, sunk in grief, bewildered at the savagery and terror of the 2000s; when I discovered Butler’s work, I discovered myself. I saw myself in her characters, empathized with them as they struggled to live in untenable worlds, in untenable circumstances. I knew they knew the taste of ash, the black scramble of floodwater.

I’m in my mid-forties now. If life revolves in cycles, I find myself in another crucible, another terrible span of time. The COVID-19 pandemic lingers and evolves, leaving weakened immune systems and millions of bodies in its wake. The Supreme Court struck down Roe, and the politicians in power can’t seem to grasp the urgency of the moment, to understand that not only are childbearing people uniquely disenfranchised by this ruling, but that we will die without access to abortion health care. My partner of thirteen years died at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, leaving me with two grieving children and the charge of living in a fractured, unthinkable present. His death tasks me with this: every day I must wake and live. I must choose to move and breathe and speak and believe that there can be good in this world, in humanity, even though this fresh grief invites a drift toward despair, even though, as the ill characters do in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” I have wanted to claw out my own heart in hopelessness.

In multiple allusions in the preface and afterwords in Bloodchild, Butler alludes to the despair and bewilderment she encounters in her own life, and how she wrestles with it in her work. “Amnesty” is about an interpreter, kidnapped and tortured by aliens as a child, who works for and with that same alien race as an adult to improve communication between humans and their visitors. In the afterword to “Amnesty,” Butler writes that the story was inspired by “the things that happened to Doctor Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos—back in the 1990s when I could still be shocked that a person could have his profession and his freedom taken away and his reputation damaged all without proof he’d actually done anything wrong.” “Speech Sounds” follows a pandemic survivor who has witnessed the devolution of humanity after a fast-spreading disease robs those left of speech or the ability to read and write. In the afterword to “Speech Sounds,” Butler writes: “‘Speech Sounds’ was conceived in weariness, depression, and sorrow. I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back. It always seems to do that.” She elaborates on this in the afterword to “Bloodchild,” the title story, with:

When I have to deal with something that disturbs me . . . I write about it. I sort out my problems by writing about them. In a high school classroom on November 22, 1963, I remember grabbing a notebook and beginning to write my response to news of John Kennedy’s assassination. Whether I write journal pages, an essay, a short story, or weave my problems into a novel, I find the writing helps me get through the trouble and get on with my life.

This is how Butler finds her way in a world that perpetually demoralizes, confounds, and browbeats: she writes her way to hope. This is how she confronts darkness and persists in the face of her own despair.

This is the real gift of her work, a gift that shines in Bloodchild: in inviting her readers to engage with darker realities, to immerse themselves in worlds more disturbing and complex than our own, she asks readers to acknowledge the costs of our collective inaction, our collective bowing to depravity, to tribalism, to easy ignorance and violence. Her primary characters refuse all of that. Her primary characters refuse to deny the better aspects of their humanity. They insist on embracing tenderness and empathy, and in doing so, they invite readers to realize that we might do so as well. Butler makes hope possible. That hope might be tenuous, and our lives might not be what we envisioned in these ruptured realities, but new ways of being are near. These are futures where we might turn from despair and build another family after a pandemic. Where we might elect to foster life and connection. Where we might wake every day and choose to breathe, to walk, to do work and heal ourselves and others even though we struggle with suicidal ideation, with nihilism, with grief. Bloodchild is a template for how to survive, how to thrive, in broken worlds, and Butler’s work is ever prescient, ever powerful. Her voice: a rough balm.

—Jesmyn Ward

DeLisle, Mississippi, August 16, 2022

Octavia Butler

A writer who imagined the dark future we have chosen for ourselves in book after book, OCTAVIA E. BUTLER  (1947–2006) is recognized as among the bravest and smartest of late twentieth century fiction writers. Her work includes Parable of the SowerParable of the Talents, Fledgling, and the short story collection Bloodchild. A 1995 MacArthur Genius Award winner, Butler transcended the science fiction category even as she was awarded that community’s top prizes, including the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Not merely a prophet of dystopia, Butler also wrote of the ways human beings might subvert their dismal destiny. “I write about people who do extraordinary things,” Butler has said, “it just turns out that it was called science fiction.” Her novels and stories have reached readers of all ages, all races, and all religious and sexual persuasions. For years the only prominent African-American woman writing science fiction, Butler has encouraged many others to follow in her path. The Octavia E. Butler Scholarship was established in her memory in 2006, providing scholarships for young people of color to attend the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, where Butler herself began writing science fiction.