EMBRACING OTHERNESS

An Examination of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenisis Trilogy

by Mary M. Talbot

This article was adapted from a paper given at the SPEAKING SCIENCE FICTION Conference at the University of Liverpool (11-13 July 1996) by Mary Talbot.

Aliens and encounters with them are long-established sf clichés. They may be malevolent or benevolent, but bearing in mind that the ‘alien’ in sf can usually be interpreted as a representation of a human threat in reality (the fear of invasion and the fear of infiltration) the route to acceptance of the ‘alien’ is a fairly pessimistic one. The ‘alien’ may be of a different colour, sex, country, religion or mutation. In fact, any difference at all can lead to alienation. Is such racism inherent? Must we always, deep down, distrust those that are different or is it possible to somehow ‘embrace otherness’?

Octavia Butler gives a new slant to the alien human encounter in her Xenogenesis series of books, where the aliens are genetic engineers and gene traders. But is it a more optimistic view of humanity?

DIFFERENCE-EMBRACING ALIENS

Octavia Butler uses sf to explore cultural possibilities, rather than scientific and technological ones. She writes about class divisions, particularly racism and sexism, about slavery and the power relationships nurtured by such an institution. She writes, too, about unrealised human potential, largely in terms of latent mental abilities. Her stories usually involve a motley group of culturally diverse people striving to form a community. These observations are true of the Patternist books, of Kindred and The Parable of the Sower (except I don’t think Parable shares the preoccupation with slavery). They are elements that are all manifest in her Xenogenesis books.

From the outset, Humans are a degraded people, to say the least. Before the narrative begins, humanity is on the point of extinction as a result of nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. The few lingering remnants are dying in the nuclear winter. They are rescued by aliens and put on ice; that is, restored to health and kept in suspended animation. Until Needed. The aliens, called Oankali, are gene traders. More than this, they are gene manipulators. The Xenogenesis series is about the human race which, having all but wiped itself out, is being given a second chance as ‘trading partners’, as the Oankali cutely put it; that is, as breeding stock for a genetically-engineered new species combining Human and Oankali. The Humans are not keen on the idea (‘But it won’t be human [...] It will be a thing. A monster’ (Dawn p262)). The remnants of humanity are given a Hobson’s Choice between extinction and compliance. They are reduced to no more than livestock, experimental animals.

We need some character detail about this alien species, the Oankali. The Oankali have three sexes: male, female and ooloi. The third sex, the ooloi, are the gene manipulators, natural-born genetic engineers. Intermingling with new genetic material is necessary for Oankali survival. To a limited extent, it is the same for us humans, with our need for genetic diversity of a large gene pool. But with the Oankali, it is far more deliberate and involves very drastic changes. They mix with new species altogether. Among their ancestors and relations they count ocean-dwelling, cetacean-like creatures and giant centipede-like ones capable of living in deep space. They are constantly seeking new, unfamiliar forms of life:

‘We do what you would call genetic engineering. We know you had begun to do it yourselves a little, but it’s foreign to you. We do it naturally. We must do it. It renews us, enables us to survive as an evolving species instead of specializing ourselves into extinction or stagnation.’

‘We all do it naturally to some degree,’ she said warily, ‘Sexual reproduction-’

‘The ooloi do it for us. They have special organs for it. They can do it for you too - make sure of a good, viable gene mix. It is part of our reproduction, but it’s much more deliberate than what any mated pair of humans have managed so far.

‘We’re not hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life - seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a miniscule cell within a cell - a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies. Do you understand me?’

‘I understand your words. Your meaning, though... it’s as alien to me as you are.’

That’s the way we perceived your hierarchical drives at first.’ He paused. ‘One of the meanings of Oankali is gene trader. Another is that organelle - the essence of ourselves, the origin of ourselves. Because of that organelle, the ooloi can perceive DNA and manipulate it precisely.’

(Dawn p41-42)

The Oankali are excited by the prospect of an endangered species -- humanity --- and particularly excited by the talent, as they call it, for cancer that some of the survivors have. They are, however, horrified by Human self-destructiveness, a trait which they can see written in the genes. They call this fatal flaw the ‘Human Contradiction’. It is the result of the combination of two incompatible genetic traits: hierarchical behaviour and intelligence.

The greatest and most fundamental difference between Human and Oankali people is precisely their perception of difference. Humans fear it, the Oankali crave it. As one of the Oankali graciously acknowledges, ‘different is threatening to most species’ (Dawn: p196). Not for the Oankali. The protagonist of the first book, Lilith, sees that the Oankali have a lot going for them, in particular, their perception of difference. For them, the confrontational process involves studying, gaining understanding and eventually, bizarrely, blending with it. The Oankali passion for difference contrasts with the Human’s dread of it, brought in to serve our hierarchical tendencies, and our constant obsession with them and us. In the following extract, Lilith is talking to one of her Human-Oankali children:

 

‘Human beings fear difference,’ Lilith had told him once. ‘Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. [...] You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behaviour.’ And she had put her hand on his hair. ‘When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.’

(Adulthood Rites p80-81)

Lilith loves the Human-Oankali children she produces; she doesn’t blame them for what they are. And she gives the Oankali credit where it’s due.

The aliens of the Xenogenesis books are not simply the villains of the piece, although Human characters frequently refer to them as the enemy. On the plus side, life with the Oankali means that Humans have greatly extended lifespans and superb health to look forward to, not to mention accelerated learning, edetic memory, life in an agrarian paradise. The possibilities of diversity the Oankali offer are immensely enriching. They offer exciting possibilities for developing unrealised potential. Most importantly, they offer continuation, the breeding out of our self-destructive hierarchical tendencies.

But on the down side, of course, are the loss of humanity and slavery. The Humans are experimental animals. Lilith, chosen by the Oankali to Awaken other Humans from suspended animation and prepare them for their new lives, is both hated and feared, being viewed as a Judas goat who betrays her own kind. There are many slavery parallels, especially early on in the first novel, Dawn, when the Humans are still confined in solitary cells and connections with their own cultures are deliberately severed. At best, it seems that the ooloi treat Humans as a combination of lover and pet. A frequent form of ooloi contact with a Human partner is to place ‘a sensory arm around her neck forming an oddly comfortable noose’ (Dawn: 165).1

Even grimmer than the loss of basic freedoms the Humans have to endure is the prospects of homo sapiens (as we like to call ourselves) ceasing to exist as such at all. The descendants of the survivors rescued by the Oankali will quite simply no longer be entirely human; and the Humans would find no consolation at all in reflecting on human symbiotic relationships with lower organisms, such as bacteria in the gut.

It’s not just a matter of having to get used to in-laws with tentacles. Fundamentally, intimate human relations are rendered impossible by symbiosis with the Oankali. Once matched with an ooloi, no direct genital contact is possible between Humans; they can’t even hold hands! All sexual contact has to be mediated by the ooloi with whom they are coupled (or should that be tripled?!). This control of all sexual activity by the ooloi is especially horrific for men. According to several male characters, the ooloi take men as though they were women. This forms a major part of men’s fear of the Oankali people. To quote one male character from the final book, Imago, ‘Your kind and your Human whores are the cause of all our trouble! You treat all of mankind as your woman!’ (Imago: 92). The ooloi, the third sex, are the givers of pleasure; female and male are both entirely passive. This is a source of humiliation for Human males: ‘His humanity was profaned. His manhood was taken away’ (Dawn: p203). For men, a symbiotic relationship with the Oankali means loss of independence and their privileged position of dominance, not only in sexual activities but in other social roles too. Butler presents men as having an urge to dominate and a tendency to violence, not as a matter of upbringing but because of an implied genetic trait. They are supposed to bear more of the Human Contradiction in them (the deadly combination of hierarchical tendencies and intelligence).

Although Human characters do refer to the Oankali in general as the enemy, Butler does not present the reader with a clear-cut us/them. Humans are breeding with, hence, in a very real and troubling sense, becoming their oppressors. There is a link here with an explicit theme in Kindred, Butlers novel dealing most explicitly with slavery: namely African-American history. All Black Americans have ‘white’ genetic material (i.e. European elements in their genome). They all have white as well as black ancestors, largely as a result of the widespread, indeed, endemic, abuse of black women by white slave-holding men. The mingling with European-ness is not only genetic, it is cultural too. Dana in Kindred arouses suspicion among the slaves because she talks like the masters. She is an educated woman, so her voice is white. But, of course, they are all speaking a European language anyway: some form of English.

Going back to Xenogenesis, the constructs (that is, people the ooloi have constructed from a mixture of Human and Oankali genetic material) cannot understand the Human need for one-hundred-percent humanity. One of the Humans who has rejected the Oankali’s offer of ‘partnership’, a ‘resister’, tries to explain to a construct child that she wants a child who is Human like herself.2 The child replies: ‘I’m Human like you -- and Oankali like Ahajas and Dichaan’ (Adulthood Rites: p158). Ahajas and Dichaan are the child’s female and male Oankali parents. He also has an ooloi parent and two Human ones.

In Dawn, the narration is focused in on Lilith, so we know, just as she does, that she has no real options and that what she does for the remnants of humanity is the best she can do. The other books leave Lilith and close in on her construct children. Most of the second, Adulthood Rites, is from the perspective of one of Lilith’s children, starting just before his birth (the book opens with the construct foetus’s perceptions). The third book, Imago, is narrated in the first person by the construct who becomes the first Human-Oankali ooloi. The effect of this character focalization in the narrative discourse is to make us very sympathetic with the new species replacing humanity. They certainly seem to have a lot more going for them than we do (even if they can’t hold hands).

CONCLUSION: SOME MISGIVINGS

Butler maintains that she is not a utopian writer, but there are utopian elements creeping into the Xenogenesis trilogy; it’s just that she can only manage them with the help of aliens. Perfection/utopia is only possible with severe alien intervention. We are given the impression that ‘What the bomb started, they’ll finish’ (Dawn: p95) is not such a bad thing. She has a very dark view of humanity altogether, not only in the Übermensch forms of it envisaged in her Patternist stories, but also in her depiction of humanity’s inevitable demise in the Xenogenesis books. This is a view I have a lot of sympathy with, although such pessimism is stultifying. The main problem I have with her books, though (in agreement with Hoda Zaki, who has written on utopian trends in feminist sf (Zaki 1990)) arises from another -ism: her essentialism. In the Xenogenesis series, she establishes direct links between biology and behaviour, as sociobiologists do, from which there is no way out (apart from the direct intervention of alien genetic engineers, which, outside her story, isn’t a realistic option). There are two such links. Firstly, our hierarchical tendencies combined with intelligence mean that we are going to self-destruct no matter how we try to prevent it, so you might as well quit CND now. Secondly, men are inherently violent, so there is no point looking for excuses in their upbringing or in social problems. I must say, I think the first is probably right; I fear we will succeed in wiping ourselves out, if not sooner then later, although I don’t think we should just look at our genetic makeup for the cause. The second I disagree with altogether.

In conclusion, Butler’s vision in her Xenogenesis series does not work as the empowering fiction it might be, because when it comes down to it she doesn’t really believe in Humans enough. The only kinds of positive social change possible in the series are brought about by direct alien intervention, so that, despite its marvellous other-embracing aspects, it ends up being politically pessimistic.

 

ENDNOTES

1 Butler is notable for the way she examines both sides of oppressive relationships, how the subjected learns to live with subjection. It sounds as though her best example of this is ‘Bloodchild’. This short story (for which I rely on a précis in Barr and Law 1986) is about a child who learns to come to terms with being the host of alien grubs. It sounds like the nearest think to Alien that Butler has written, but altogether more chilling.

 

2 Are we to read this character’s concern for racial purity as racist? I’m not sure, but it does seem a possible interpretation. Elsewhere, she has presented Humans in contact with other species as racists. Take for example, Survivor, Butler’s only novel set on a distant planet. Human missionaries refuse to acknowledge a marriage between the protagonist, a fellow Human, and one of the local people, colourful furry people called the Kohn. The people, although apparently seen as suitable material for conversion to Christianity, are considered to be little more than animals. It is the missionaries’ horror and disgust at the mixed marriage that is the problem. The protagonist’s husband by the way is blue.

 

References

Barr, M and R Law 1986 Suzy McKee Charnas: Octavia Butler: Joan D Vinge Mercer Island, Washington: Starmont

Butler, Octavia [1979] 1988 Kindred Then Woman’s Press

Butler, Octavia 1988 Dawn. Xenogenesis I Gollancz

Butler, Octavia 1989 Adulthood Rites. Xenogenesis II Gollancz

Butler, Octavia 1990 Imago. Xenogenesis III Gollancz

Zaki, Hoda 1990 Utopia, dystopia and ideology in the science fiction of Octavia Butler. Science Fiction Studies, Volume 17, Part 2: 239-251.

 

 

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