I think it is fair to say that I don’t enjoy these books, but please don’t jump to conclusions; I’m a human, I’m allowed to have complex feelings about things. Writing this in early 2022, I cannot help but make the comparison to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (among other headlines). The news is bad. It is unpleasant to consume, but one must consume it or live in willful ignorance. It is comfortable to bury one’s head in the sand, but the world is dangerous, people are dangerous. Ignorance may be comfort but it is no defense.
The Parable books paint a bleak picture of humanity. The ugliness of Butler’s portrayal is not imagined. It is, mostly, historical record; she has simply rearranged some events in time and place. Butler’s portrayal of oppression and cruelty is hard to stomach because it is honest. This is how humans have behaved in the past, and this is humans behave now. It is unpleasant and shameful, but it is who we are. This is Butler’s strength. Hers are, at their heart, stories about people, and Butler knows people. Whatever fictional scenario she has imagined, whatever fantastical forces are at work, her characters are instantly recognizable and relatable. There are no heroes or villains; only people.
You need look no further than the slogan “Make America Great Again” used by a fictional politician in Parable of the Talents. It is not the exact phrase that is notable, but rather her understanding of the appeal of that sentiment, the observation of American society and culture, the power of nostalgia, and false narratives about “the good old days”. Butler holds a mirror up and shows us the lies we tell ourselves.
Butler’s writing is plain. Some of her characters may tend to wax poetic, but Butler herself does not mince words, she is a journalist.
These are parables: simple distilled wisdom, cautionary tales. They show how ugly and dangerous and fallible and gullible we all are. It’s an unpleasant truth, but Butler shows us how true it is.