some notes on media and history in Octavia Buter’s Parable of the Talents

These are some half-finished teaching notes on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. I write lots of teaching notes, but I am posting these because they are becoming central to my thinking for my upcoming SFRA paper on genre and media as well as to my ongoing project on genre, Here at the End of All Things. What follows in this post are part of the notes for a class last week. In the next post I will continue some further thoughts on history that intersect with the issue of writing and media.

Again, these are notes. I fill in a lot when I speak and skip some stuff that does not work with the direction class discussion takes.

reading, writing, and media in PotT

  • I noted last time that this is a somewhat more complex novel than many of Butler’s previous ones
    • many if not all of her novels to this point were narrated by a single person from a rather consistent point of view
      • some of these characters were men and some women (one was neither)
      • some were human and some were not (most were something in between)
      • all of these texts were narrated, but none of them (to my recollection) were WRITTEN (except for PotS, which was entirely Lauren’s journals and Earthseed writings)
    • but this text is comprised of various WRITTEN texts (by Bankole, by Lauren, now by Marcos, and by Lauren’s daughter) and compiled by an editor (Lauren’s daughter
      • we can go even further and distinguish between Lauren’s journal and her Earthseed writings as well
    • other texts thematize writing
      • Dawn deals in part with Lilith’s need to write and the fact that the Oankali won’t let her at first
        • and it MAY be that that book is written, but not clear that this is the case
      • Kindred is very much about writing, but it does not make clear that the book is written
  • in any case, the fact is that this novel is composed of writing, and this is very significant for both what it means and for how it works, the latter being relevant for your paper
    • the question that springs immediately to mind is, who are we in this novel?
      • that is, how does the novel position us as readers?
      • WHEN are we reading this novel, given that it has been written down and edited?
  • we are, in fact, FUTURE readers of these texts, no?
    • and we are future readers after an era of mass illiteracy
      • we know that illiteracy is widespread in 2032 and 2033, when the novel takes place
      • 19: mass illiteracy (related to fantasies theme of decline in which skills are lost)
      • relates to the “horrible and ordinary”: 56


history in PotT

  • Butler often thematizes history, perhaps most obviously in Kindred and Wild Seed but also in Xenogenesis (which is a novel that takes place after history in several respects)
  • when we hear the word “history” here we should not understand it to refer to WHAT happened, but the writing down of what happened in the form of a narrative
    • history is, by one definition, human time
    • what is recorded is history, and what is not is prehistorical or ahistorical, before or outside of history
    • when we refer to history we are referring to the human construction of time and the time in which meaningful events take place
      • meaning only takes place within history and for those who take part in history
      • for example, according to Western thought animals do not take part in history because for them the world has no meaning; things simple happen
  • and because history is involved with meaning, it is always involved with interpretation, bias, choice, and power
    • history is never simply “true”
    • we can see examples of conflicting and conflicted histories at several points early in the text
      • Jarret on “a simpler time”: 19
      • mythical golden age of mid 20th c: 52
    • history here is subject to interpretation and the person with the most power has the greatest authority to interpret history, has the greatest ability to make that interpretation stick

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