Octavia E. Butler | Critical Review by Adele S. Newson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Octavia E. Butler.
This section contains 3,080 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Adele S. Newson

Critical Review by Adele S. Newson

SOURCE: A review of Dawn and Adulthood Rites, in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 389-96.

In the following review, Newson discusses the subjects of Butler's Xenogenesis series, including prejudice and genetic arrangement.

It is a widespread myth that Blacks don't write or read science fiction. The myth is fed by the notion that they cannot afford to indulge in fantasy. Octavia Butler's latest works, Dawn and Adulthood Rites, prove that Blacks can ill afford to remain ignorant of the genre.

Dawn, Octavia Butler's seventh novel and the first in the Xenogenesis series, introduces new possibilities in the scientific realm of genetic arrangement coupled with observations about the conflicts between the sexes and racial groups. Her canon includes the novels Patternmaster (1975), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Kindred (1979), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay's Ark (1984), which treat timescape, mutants, mental telepathy, and genetic rearranging through disease. Thematically they concern themselves with the inevitability of prejudice in human society, with its subsequent oligarchy, the powerlessness of women, and the meaning of humanity.

The narrative of Dawn is engaging; the prose flows with a single-minded intensity. Divided into four sections—"Womb," "Family," "Nursery," and "The Training Floor"—, it chronicles the nontraditional science-fiction heroine's (a black woman's) rebirth, development, and adjustment to a foreign environment. The reader roots for Lilith Iyapo's development from the dawn of her new existence as a more complete, compassionate human being and struggles with her as she attempts to champion the causes for all humans who survive a devastating war on Earth.

In Dawn, Butler seems intent upon propounding a single didactic message: Until a solution is found (it is not a problem that is likely to be resolved unaided), future societies will be plagued with the same sexual and racial prejudices faced in the present. This suggests that the battle of the sexes and the battle for dominion over racial groups are not battles at all, but rather full-scale wars. Butler's characteristic ambivalence toward her message is also present in this novel. At once the novel gropes for solutions to the problems, while suggesting that wherever there are humans, this discord will be present. The black heroine (Lilith Iyapo) in Dawn must choose allegiances between bigoted humans or seemingly bigotless aliens. Through this conflict, many of the heroine's own prejudices (presumably those of the author's as well) are revealed.

The novel is set aboard an alien spaceship, some 250 years after a war on Earth. Lilith Iyapo has survived the war and has been held on board the spaceship. The spaceship is home to the Oankali, a race of gene-swapping extraterrestrials. The Oankali maintain a symbiotic relationship with the "ship"—they serve the ship's needs (it is alive), and it serves theirs (without it the Oankali would be planet-bound and eventually die).

The Oankali rescue Lilith, one of a few to survive the war on Earth created by a handful of people who attempted to commit humancide. The first of the surviving humans to be awakened from the 250-year dreamless and isolated sleep induced by her captors, Lilith confronts very real questions about what it means to be human and the nature of human prejudices. To be human is to thrive in the company of humankind. Lilith explains to the alien Jdahya, "'You shouldn't have isolated any one of us unless your purpose was to drive us insane. You almost succeeded with me more than once. Humans need one another.'" While it may be true that humans need each other, Butler also demonstrates that, when, a group of humans gather, regardless of the circumstances, prejudice will rear its ugly head. Lilith's own struggles with human prejudices are demonstrated early in the novel through her response to Jdahya, the extraterrestrial assigned the task of acclimating her to the appearance of her hosts:

She did not want to be any closer to him. She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alienness, his difference, his literal un-earthliness. She found herself still unable to take even one more step toward him….

She frowned, strained to see, to understand. Then, abruptly, she did understand. She backed away, scrambled around the bed and to the far wall. When she could go no farther, she stood against the wall, staring at him.

Medusa.

Some of the "hair" writhed independently, a nest of snakes startled, driven in all directions.

Revolted, she turned her face to the wall.

Lilith associates evil, as does the reader, with the Medusa-like aliens, thereby creating a challenge for her to prove herself the worthy/heroic character into which she develops. Ultimately, Butler makes Lilith a champion among weak characters; later she overcomes her repulsion to her hosts, while other characters are unable to. Additionally, this episode serves to illustrate the frailness of the human psyche—the idea that all humans have prejudices taught through one institution or another.

After successfully acclimating Lilith, the Oankali decide it is time to begin to awaken other people to prepare them for the return to Earth—an Earth whose elements are now stable enough to accommodate them. During the process, Lilith becomes the object of the awakening humans' mistrust. They are suspicious of her powers (the Oankali have endowed her with a limited number of powers to ensure her survival). The humans believe her to be alien, because of the dubious liaison she has formed with the grotesque extraterrestrials. After all, she was the first to be awakened and acclimated. Also, the fact that their leader/teacher is a black woman does not help her cause any.

Lilith's task becomes one of convincing the humans that their captors are indeed superior—capable of altering, combining the human gene pool with their own—and that they reside on what roughly translates as a ship. She struggles to maintain her humanness and cordiality towards her hosts, while trying desperately to lead her people and devise a plan of escape.

Here, the plot roughly parallels the historical, albeit self-imposed, function of the Afro-American woman. Substitute blacks for fellow humans and whites for captors, and the parallel becomes clear. Entrapped in a society with different values (the least of which does not embrace her blackness), with the understanding that, no matter how she might want to assimilate, she won't be able to because of her color, she tries to accommodate both her people and her captors. The double jeopardy is familiar, I'm sure, to all black women.

Eventually, more and more humans are awakened—white Americans, black Americans, Oriental, ordinary, and eccentric. In short, Butler provides a microcosm of humankind, equipped with age-old bigotries and prejudices. In this alien world, they ultimately fare no better than they do on Earth. Jdahya, the alien, identifies the problem that caused the destruction of human society on Earth—something that the reader understands will again transpire on a newly replenished Earth, if their genes are not intermixed with those of the aliens. He tells Lilith that humans are endowed with "two incompatible characteristics":

"You are intelligent…. That's the newer of the two characteristics [in the evolution of the human gene pool], and the one you might have to put to work to save yourselves. You are potentially one of the most intelligent species we've found, though your focus is different from ours…. You are hierarchial. That's the older and more entrenched characteristic…. And a complex combination of genes that work together to make you intelligent as well as hierarchial will still handicap you whether you acknowledge it or not."

There is nothing new in any of the novel's major themes. Indeed, in Butler's 1978 novel Survivor, the heroine, Alanna Verrick, is thrust into a similar situation, both in circumstance—"leaving earth settling in a new world of aliens"—and in effect—"I became something else entirely," someone human but above the pettiness characteristic of human prejudices. In the novel Dawn, however, Butler seems to want to suggest that gene swapping is the answer to the problems of a hierarchial species—the characteristic from which sexual and racial prejudices grow with their accompanying oligarchy. Her ambivalence is evident in that the most promising of her characters would never sacrifice an ounce of his humanness to improve his lot (i.e., he would never succumb to gene swapping).

What is and remains a hallmark of her work is her deftness at creating the sensual, vis-à-vis unlikely, male/female alliances. In the informal dawning of human society on the space ship, the awakening humans choose mates. Lilith chooses Joseph (an Oriental, shorter in stature than she) as mate. They, in turn, form a physical alliance with Nikanj (an ooli both male and female of the Oankali species):

Nikanj freed one sensory arm from Joseph's waist and extended it toward her.

She stayed where she was for a moment longer, proving to herself that she was still in control of her behavior. Then she tore off her jacket and seized the ugly, ugly elephant's trunk of an organ, letting it coil around her as she climbed onto the bed. She sandwiched Nikanj's body between her own and Joseph's…. She could lift a free hand across Nikanj to take Joseph's cool, seemingly lifeless hand.

"No," Nikanj said softly into her ear—or perhaps it stimulated the auditory nerve directly. It could do that—stimulate her sense individually or in any combination to make perfect hallucinations. "Only through me," its voice insisted.

Joseph and Lilith are not traditional science-fiction heroes. Neither would they be regarded as people likely to form an alliance. This refreshing approach to human relationships makes a good bit of Butler's literature sensuous.

The driving force of the narrative rests with the concept of genetic swapping—trading essence or genetic material. The Oankali trade genes for surviving "as an evolving species instead of specializing into extinction or stagnation." Butler offers the Oankali as the model for fruitful existence. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship with all living organisms. Yet the reader experiences discomfort over the idea that the Oankali are not the species that they originally were. They constantly become something of the organisms with which they trade. Feeling sentimental over this idea, Lilith notes to Jdahya that Jdahya's descendants "probably won't even know one another. They'll remember this division as mythology if they remember it at all." This notion echoes the history or nonhistory of the African in America, who was forced to mix genes and robbed of a history. Yet, the appealing feature of the Oankali heritage is that they are able to pass on memory of a division biologically.

Moreover, Butler is adept at challenging the reader to evaluate his own moral codes. Dawn is philosophical in that it asks the reader, by virtue of circumstances surrounding the human characters, to pose the basic question, What does it mean to be human?

The heroine is independent, intelligent, capable, and, in most instances, disliked by her peers—the epitome of heroic womanism. It is easy for the reader to sympathize with her quest for autonomy in the environment of aliens. Again we see Butler's signature—a black heroine thrust into unusual circumstances and compelled to survive. Lilith's life, like that of the black woman's, is a metaphor for the quest which would resolve the problem of her being both revered and despised by those with whom she inhabits society.

Adulthood Rites, the second novel in the Xenogenesis trilogy, chronicles Akin Iyapo's development into adulthood. Akin, the son of Lilith Iyapo, is the first male child born of a human woman on Earth since the war that destroyed Earth some three hundred years before. The Oankali have restored Earth (with the aid of genetic engineering) and returned the survivors of the holocaust to Earth to go about the business of gene swapping to form a hybrid of the Oankali and human species. Akin, part human and part Oankali, is bred to become the champion of the resisters (the humans who would remain childless rather than mate with an alien). He declares his life's work to be the restoration and propagation of a wholly human society.

Dawn ends with the question, Will Lilith Iyapo trade with the Oankali and bear children? Some thirty years and three children later, Adulthood Rites begins. Divided into four parts—"Lo," "Phoenix," "Chkahichdahk," and "Home"—, the rubrics designate locations where environment significantly contributes to Akin's development.

The story begins in Lo, a trading village, where Akin is born. There he is nurtured by female and male, human and Oankali entities. As a child, his features are cosmetically altered to give him the appearance of being human. When he is seven months old, he is kidnapped by raiders who hope to sell him to a rich resister village (where there are no children) for goods and a woman. In the hands of his captors, he encounters brutality and violence. By the time he is eight months old, he is sold to a resister couple (Gabriel Rinaldi and Tate—two of the first humans awakened by Lilith in Dawn) in the resister village of Phoenix. He spends over a year in the Phoenix village, in which he learns more about the so-called human contradiction that destroyed Earth—"intelligence put at the service of ancient hierarchial tendencies"—and decides that one day he will be the voice of the human resisters.

In part 3, "Chkahichdahk," Akin is twenty years old and anticipating metamorphosis (transformation into adulthood). As a result of his propensity to wander, especially among the resister villages, he is taken with the Oankali nature. His intellect and skills expand, yet he finds the environment of the Oankali sterile and unnatural. He even exhibits signs of repulsion to the Oankali ooli's appearance. By part 4, he has returned home (to Earth) more determined than ever to help the resisters. The people (Oankali adults) agree to permit him to take willing resister humans to Mars to try again to propagate humanity—"The salvaged Earth would finally die"; left would be little more than a small corpse of a world. Fearing his metamorphosis would repulse the humans, he hurriedly returns to the village of Phoenix to inform the resisters there of his mission. While there, he is prematurely thrown into metamorphosis after which time he resembles a child Oankali, although he is indeed fully grown. A small band of humans joins him, and the novel ends with the larger question—Will human society survive on Mars?—in anticipation of the third and final novel in the Xenogenesis series.

Adulthood Rites is the middle point in the Xenogenesis trilogy. Because of this, it serves an important function as a bridge in the development of both character and story. Yet Adulthood Rites is also disappointing. It makes promises that it does not fulfill. It is indecisive in its characterization. It flirts with developing a relationship between Lilith and Augustino Leal (Tino), which is never realized. Other Butler novels feature (mentally and physically) powerful black female heroines. Lilith fits this pattern—she is described as being somewhere between human and construct in ability—but for all her ability, she is mute. Having "deserted" the cause of the resisters to have children, she does little more than sulk silently away, sometimes for days at a time, to appease her aching conscience. Yet she always returns to her children. This is the extent of her wandering (that nontraditional questing of female characters). Tino, the man with whom she might have formed an engaging alliance (as is Butler's trademark/signature), is just as ineffective as she. Were it not for his ooli, he might long ago have committed suicide.

Additionally, the story relies too heavily on dialogue, making it more or less a treatise on the contradictory and often violent nature of humankind. While in Phoenix, Akin encounters two constructs who were also captured by raiders and sold to the resisters. In the following passage they consider the human condition:

"We are them! And we are the Oankali. You know. If they could perceive, they would know!"

"If they could perceive, they would be us. They can't and they aren't. We're the best of what they are and the best of what the Oankali are. But because of us, they won't exist any more."

"Oankali Dinso and Toaht [genetic divisions of Oankali] won't exist anymore."

"No. But Akjai will go away unchanged. If the Human-Oankali construct doesn't work here or the Toaht. Akjai [full-Oankali] will continue."

"Only if they find some other people to blend with." This came directly from Amma.

"Humans had come to their own end," Shkaht said. "They were flawed and overspecialized. If they hadn't had their war, they would have found another way to kill themselves."

"Perhaps," Akin admitted. "I was taught that, too. And I can see the conflict in their genes—the new intelligence put at the service of ancient hierarchial tendencies. But … they didn't have to destroy themselves. They certainly don't have to do it again."

While the dialogue is both engaging and revealing, it appears a bit too laborious. Still, Butler would have the reader note an independent thinker in the infant Akin, even at this time. While few constructs would question the omniscient authority of the Oankali people, Akin questions whether it is true that humans, if given the chance, would indeed again try to commit humancide, and he further supports their right to an Akjai (a species whose genes are not mixed).

And because he is a first, the first male construct to be born to a human mother, his then will be a marginal existence. And in this feature of the novel, characterization, Butler's signature is more than a little evident. She openly acknowledges her task as being that of expanding the range of racial and sexual experiences provided in science fiction. The Oankali, humans, and constructs (the product of human and Oankali mating), who inhabit Akin's home, attempt to provide him with the nurturing necessary to ensure his survival. Early in the novel, Lilith proclaims to Tino, who has come to investigate the activity in the trading village of Lo, "I don't want to know what you call us. But spend some time with us. Maybe you'll accept our definition of ourselves." This passage is the key to Butler's intention in the novel. She invites the reader to examine the lives that human nature and fate have dictated for the survivors of the war on Earth. The reader watches as a myriad of activity whizzes past. The action of the story begins with the abduction of Akin and ends with an adult Akin, watching from Gabe's shoulder as the city of Phoenix (symbol of hope) burns. The hope for the future of human civilization rests with a black man, who also happens to be alien.

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This section contains 3,080 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Adele S. Newson