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Critical Essay by Frances Bonner
SOURCE: "Difference and Desire, Slavery and Seduction: Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis," in Foundation, No. 48, Spring, 1990, pp. 50-62.
In the following essay, Bonner discusses how Butler portrays desire and rape in her Xenogenesis trilogy, and how the trilogy is still successful despite its lack of hope.
Octavia E. Butler's recently completed Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago) is a striking addition not just to her already fascinating body of work, but also to the field of s[cience] f[iction] trilogies generally. Too often it seems, especially when the first volume is published as "Book I of the whatever trilogy," the reader is prepared for the second-rate and the too heavy-handedly formulaic. The s[cience] f[iction] reader is often told that trilogies (and even longer sequences) are preferred by publishers because they enhance the predictability of sales, rather than being the result of authors desiring a particular format to enhance the exploration of specific themes or situations. Fortunately, with Xenogenesis, the lowering feeling is unnecessary, and indeed, given her predilection for connected novels evidenced in the Patternist books, perhaps should not have been felt at all. Yet reception of the second volume was characteristic of responses to the second in the less rewarding trilogies—disappointment and let-down, as if the pleasures of the first could not be sustained. My own first reading of Adulthood Rites was no exception, and it is part of my intention in this essay to explore why this may have been so (re-reading dispelled it) and where the pleasure in so downbeat a sequence lies, within a more general exploration of Butler's concerns.
Xenogenesis tells of the activities of an alien race of gene-traders, the Oankali, and the remnants of humanity they salvage after a global nuclear war for use in their incessant quest for incorporable genetic diversity. The first volume, Dawn, is from the point-of-view of Lilith, an Afro-American survivor of the war, who is chosen to train the first group of humans to be returned, with their Oankali mates, to the restored but mutated Earth. Adulthood Rites, the second, recounts the early life of Lilith's first son, the human-Oankali construct Akin, as he comes to realize, and then to convince others of, the need for the humans who resisted breeding with the Oankali to be given a chance to continue the (unhybridized) human race, despite the Oankali certainty that humanity is doomed. The last, Imago, is the story of another of Lilith's children, Jodahs, the first construct ooloi—the third Oankali sex, whose members are the actual gene manipulators. His acceptance by the polity signals the absorption of humanity into the Oankali (there is no question of equal partnership) and the eventual complete destruction of the Earth. The Oankali rescue neither humanity nor their/our planet, they merely delay our demise.
One of the more unusual aspects of the trilogy is that it has no triumphal conclusion. Humanity has lost before the story begins, has still lost and is disappearing as it ends, and their/our short (and we are assured, temporary) victory occurs, as it were offstage, between Adulthood Rites and Imago. Even more disturbing from a feminist writer is, as Rachel Pollack's review of Dawn points out, the centrality and apparent acceptance of rape. This is no easy read; or to put it more precisely, it is quite an easy read, since stylistically it is even less challenging than the Patternist books (the point-of-view only changes between volumes), but it is no easy ingestion. The pleasures are not just fugitive, they are thorny as well, but, to continue the metaphor, once they have hooked in, you cannot readily stop worrying away at them.
Despite a quite ludicrous review in Publishers' Weekly which claimed that in Adulthood Rites "the author gives us a brief ecstatic experience of this utopian alternative to human society", there is nothing utopian about the societies in Xenogenesis, even for the alien Oankali driven by their need to "trade" for genetic diversity. Butler has herself quite explicitly denied utopian intentions. In an interview given at the time she was finishing writing Dawn, she claimed "I don't write utopian science fiction because I don't believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society." And it is the imperfections that interest, even obsess, her. A recurrent concern, especially of the Patternist books, is with child abuse and child murder (generally explained there as resulting from the pressures of uncontrolled telepathy) and in the interview just quoted she says that the Oankali's diagnosis of what is wrong with humanity is hers too—intelligence and hierarchical behaviour (which latter she believes inborn) is a potentially lethal combination. Not only would it be impossible reasonably to consider Butler's work without reference to her race, it would be improper to do so given her foregrounding of it. The specificity of the Afro-American experience is basic to the Patternist books and the one-off Kindred, and central to Xenogenesis. The general absence of black s[cience] f[iction] writers (and readers) has not infrequently been a matter for comment. Kathleen L. Spencer's aside in her review of a combined Starmont guide to the work of Butler, Suzy McKee Charnas and Joan D. Vinge, that Butler was "one of only three Black s[cience] f[iction] writers to date and the only Black woman" led both to protesting letters about the possible existence of "unknown" black s[cience] f[iction] writers and readers and Spencer's admission that she should have written "three recognized Black S[cience] F[iction] writers", but to no new names (the other two given were Samuel R. Delany and Steven Barnes) and not even a comment on Butler's being the only black woman.
Butler has explained the absence of black s[cience] f[iction] writers as derived from the way the lack of black characters in the literature limits its appeal to black readers (and writers of s[cience] f[iction], arguably even more than other genres, come from devoted s[cience] f[iction] readers). Compounding this has been the tendency of editors and publishers to regard the inclusion of black characters as a distraction, acceptable only if the focus of the story is on racism. Even so, there has been the belief that aliens can substitute as all-purpose Others. One big blue extra-terrestrial whose humanity is revealed and accepted can be metaphorically substituted for an examination of any number of actual social divisions, as witness many past discussions on the absence of women/non-Caucasians/homosexuals/disabled people from s[cience] f[iction]. This very point was at the centre of Butler's response in 1980 to a question addressed by Future Life to a number of writers: "What role can and should science fiction writers play in working with America's major corporations in planning for the future of society?"
Adele S. Newson has said that the myth that blacks are uninvolved in s[cience] f[iction] is "fed by the notion that they cannot afford to indulge in fantasy" which may help explain why it is that Delany has to keep defending himself against charges by whites that he is not "black enough". It is not, however, a suggestion he advances in his exposition which, no doubt not fortuitously, chimes very well with Butler's exasperation with expectations that the traces of blackness in black writing will be stereotypical and deal unrelievedly with racism.
Concerned as she is with the specificity of the Afro-American experience, it is unsurprising that Butler again and again explores the phenomenon of slavery, in particular the initial stage in which the self—body, soul and subjectivity—is stolen and declared an item of exchange. While most obvious in Wild Seed and Kindred, people are appropriated by others in virtually all her writings. Furthermore after the appropriation there are usually the issues both of forced reproduction and of love for the captor—the former of these at least, characteristic of the Afro-American slave experience.
It is worth recalling that part of the point of Delany's famous discovery late in his reading of Heinlein's Starship Troopers that one of the characters was Filipino was that it had been possible even for a black reader to assume that the character was white. It is unlikely that any reader could get far into Butler's novels in ignorance of the race or ethnicity of any but the most incidental character. To some extent this is a function of the times and the abjuring of the integrationist model. If only in her assertion of the importance and value of difference, Butler is as post-modern as s[cience] f[iction] writers come. In stylistic concerns it is another matter altogether. She is a traditionalist. She is the absent case in Maria Minchin Brewer's suggestion that male writers of what she terms "surviving fictions" are post-modern only in their experimental style, but not in their attitudes and concerns. (Brewer, who I suspect has not read Geoff Ryman, to name just one male writer who should escape her accusation, cites various canonical feminist s[cience] f[iction] works as escaping into thoroughgoing post-modernity. I am not entirely convinced here either, except, of course, for Joanna Russ.) As well as her insistence on difference, her concern with survival in a (post-)nuclear world and, as I intend to demonstrate later, her attitude to the Oedipal conflict, are characteristically (female) post-modern.
A comparison of Butler's and Delany's treatments of slavery is instructive, for both of them explore the intermingling of slavery and desire in the sexual relationships between slave and owner. The complex meditations on pleasure in perversity, the sado-masochistic game-playing and role reversals of the Nevèryöna series is not for Butler—he is neither that kind of adult writer, nor that kind of postmodern. She is also constrained by different literary allegiances, especially ones which hold her in some ways closer to the mundane world. Not only does she locate her settings geographically closer to home (and usually on Earth), but temporally they are closer too. The far future is not her domain. Nor does she perceive what she writes as fantasy. Indeed the only one of her books she refers to as fantasy is Kindred—the one marketed as mainstream, the one most readily perceived as subject to requirements of historical accuracy.
It may be that it is her gender which is of greater importance to the question of desire, if it is this that results in the various investigations of forced reproduction. In both Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, Doro breeds "his" people, without regard for their own wishes; in Kindred, the time-travelling twentieth-century heroine, Dana, fears her existence depends on her keeping the nineteenth-century white slave owner Rufus alive to father her grandmother on the black servant/slave Alice; in Survivor the alien Garkohn steal humans to breed hybrids; and in Xenogenesis the sole purpose of the Oankali's salvaging of humanity is for breeding, to incorporate some of their genes into the next manifestation of the Oankali. But these are not stories of undiluted outrage. As pleasure and fetishism mut(at)e the power relations in Delany's novels, so love enters Butler's. But love rarely effects her power relations. The moral difficulties such unequal love creates are solved to some extent in Xenogenesis by the announcement that love is chemical. The element of choice has disappeared. Where the slave or captive may have had no choice about bearing the captor's child (or little, if male, in impregnating the designated woman), loving him had been another matter. The Oankali ooloi however create a chemical bond between human and alien. There is still a degree of equivocation however, for while breeders may blame the bond, not all humans succumb. The resisters reject chemical entrapment, even at the cost of infertility and avoidable ill-health.
It is probably fatuous to ask whether gender is less important than race in Butler's work. Possibly it is, and given the comparative scarcities of black and female s[cience] f[iction] writers, who would want to suggest it should be otherwise? The conjunction however is what matters; gender articulates race in a most illuminating way. The point is perhaps best made by Adele S. Newson who says that in Lilith's struggle to remain on terms with the Oankali and her fellow humans, the plot of Dawn parallels "the historical, albeit self-imposed, function of the Afro-American woman". As mediator, Lilith must bear the odium of her fellows as well as her own guilt over the collaboration, tempered only by her belief that without her, things would be worse. That this too is nothing new for a Butler heroine is revealed by Ruth Salvaggio's comment about the heroines of Wild Seed and Survivor: "Anyanwu closely resembles Alanna, accepting the constraints of her world and trying to make something decent and productive out of the indecent situation in which she finds herself." The particular articulation can also be seen in the importance of food and the domestic—not just a sign of the female, but, with for example the emphasis on yams, cassava and African agricultural practices, a sign of the black female of African origin.
That we should privilege the viewpoints of the subjugated, and specifically those of women of colour, has long been the argument of the primatologist and historian of science. Donna Haraway. This is not because they are immune from criticism, but because they are more likely to be aware of the various tricks of the dominant in asserting the adequacy, indeed sufficiency, of its knowledge. Haraway argues most persuasively for situated knowledge, for the acknowledged partial perspective rather than for implicit assertions of universalism. In the specificity of the acknowledged position from which Butler writes, she provides just such an example, and Haraway implicitly accepts this in her most recent work which includes an analysis of Dawn.
I have already indicated that Butler's works repeatedly assert the value of difference. Haraway too sees this as one of Butler's main themes, saying that Dawn, like many of Butler's other fictions "is about resistance to the imperative to recreate the sacred image of the same", and adding that "from the perspective of an ontology based on mutation, metamorphosis and diaspora, restoring the sacred image can be a bad joke". The explicit raison d'être of the Missionaries of Survivor is to maintain the sacred (human) image of the Creator. Likewise, Lilith's name, that of Eve's uppity predecessor, while linking her to the Oankali whose tentacles are often referred to as snakes, emphasises her repudiation of the (human) Creator. The transitions of the mutant Doro's people and their descendants, the Patternists, during which they reveal their psychic powers, foreshadow the metamorphoses of the Oankali and their genetic constructs during which their gender is revealed. Both groups are diasporic. Difference is not just a given that is accepted, it is something which is intensified, enhanced and valued, even if not unequivocally—it is, after all, most desired by Doro and the Oankali whose viewpoints the narratives, but not necessarily the narrative intentions, endorse. The shifting points-of-view themselves also present difference.
Haraway notes one point on which difference is not explored, saying that heterosexuality is not questioned.
The different social subjects, the different genders that could emerge from another embodiment of resistance to compulsory heterosexuality and reproductive politics do not inhabit this Dawn.
Yet perhaps she is being too harsh. A concentration on forced reproduction leaves limited space for the non-heterosexual, but the unease of Tino, the human male with his male Oankali mate (the mixed families of Xenogenesis have five members: one male and one female human and a male, female and ooloi Oankali) raises, even if it does not explore, the issue. It may also be that readers find it explored in the relationship between the part-human ooloi, Jodahs, and his male human mate, Tomas. Although the pronoun "it" is used throughout to refer to an ooloi, and this linguistic choice foregrounded by reference to the impossibility of doing so in languages lacking neuter pronouns, the tendency to read as male a character unmarked by specific gender may result in a perception of Jodahs as a male and hence of Tomas's eagerness for sex with it, as homosexual. Certainly with this mating the question of rape does not occur.
Butler's dealing with homosexuality is characteristically oblique. In Wild Seed, the shape-shifting Anyanwu spends many years married to a white woman, who is however aware that her husband is really a black woman. Although Denice, the wife, appears only as a photograph, Anyanwu explains to Doro that they married not only to save Denice (who saw ghosts) from an asylum, but also "because after a while, we started to want each other". Earlier, however, Amber in Patternmaster quite cheerfully announces her bisexuality. Haraway's comment about Dawn does however retain its force for women, not just in that book but in the trilogy as a whole. Women are not there allowed to opt out of heterosexuality and they escape forced reproduction only by accepting no reproduction at all.
Difference is not however Butler's dominant theme. That is power. Slavery is after all the most dramatic manifestation of unequal power. Butler has commented on the effect of her fascination with power. "I began writing about power because I had so little." Writing before the publication of Clay's Ark or Xenogenesis, Sandra Y. Govan remarked how in each of the novels to that point "the implicit struggle for power revolves around explicit conflicts of will and the contests of survival a heroine endures." Certainly this is Lilith's story too and, and if it is modulated a little when the heroine is replaced by her male and ooloi children, then that serves to emphasise how central the gender articulation is.
I referred above to Butler's endorsement of her Oankali creations' perception of hierarchical behaviour as at the root of humanity's problems. Yet, just because the Oankali claim to have avoided hierarchies, it does not mean they have eschewed power. As Haraway says "hierarchy is not power's only shape." They deny humans choice as a matter of course. The exceptions are moments to remark, or are freighted with such negative consequences that they verge on the suicidal. The Oankali know best. As Rachel Pollack notes "this recalls that favorite White American fantasy, the benefits of slavery for the happy Blacks." Yet as Pollack also emphasises, Butler is not pointing an easy ethical lesson, she is examining a "terrible conundrum": at times the Oankali seem right, for the humans have destroyed their planet by their foolishness. The core of the conundrum, and one suspects the crunch for Pollack, is the question of rape.
Other writers on Butler do not foreground the issue; indeed until Xenogenesis (with the notable exception of Kindred) neither did Butler—it is subsumed under forced reproduction. In Dawn, however, the practice is named, but in circumstances that echo oddly. Lilith, using her Oankali-improved strength, saves one of the women she is preparing to return to Earth from rape by a newly awoken man. The woman questions whether the enhanced Lilith is really human after all. Lilith dismisses the question "If I weren't human, why the hell would I care whether you got raped?" Yet one of the things for which she is preparing her charges is enforced mating with the Oankali. Pollack's paralleling of the ooloi Nikanj's knowing that Lilith's lover Joseph "really" wants to have sex with it, despite his inability to say "yes", with the typical male defense to rape charges, is telling. The unimportance of human verbal consent to Oankali behaviour (and their privileging of what they read the body desiring) recurs when Nikanj makes Lilith pregnant. In a central moment, when asked if she had really wanted a child, Lilith replies "Oh, yes. But if I had the strength not to ask, it should have had the strength to let me alone." The Oankali may have power over the choices of the humans, but over their own mating urge, they are powerless (or choose to declare themselves so). Butler has them revealed as driven by their need to "trade" for genetic diversity as humans are by their hierarchical behaviour.
Yet it remains unclear whether Butler is engaging in her characteristic equivocating, or does not herself regard Oankali sexual behaviour as rape. She certainly calls it by other names. "Rape" is used only of humans—not just on the occasion just quoted, but also intermittently in Imago where it serves as part of the revelation of the degeneration of humanity in the absence of Oankali. As far as the aliens are concerned, it seems to me quite reasonable to apply it to the early instances of inter-species sexual activity, when they drug the humans into insensitivity, even insensibility, and submission (the very figures of "white" slavery). Yet the language used would not be all that inappropriate at a getting-to-know-you party. A quite disquieting moment occurs in Dawn just after that to which Pollack refers. Nikanj has once again drugged Joseph because it "knows" he really wants to repeat the experience (on the first occasion he did not even get the opportunity to refuse, being anaesthetized at the moment consent could have been asked) and Lilith, instead of joining in the experience which is supposedly better with three, sits back and watches. "She was patient and interested. This might be her only chance ever to watch up close as an ooloi seduced someone." Throughout the trilogy much is made of Nikanj's powers of seduction (in Adulthood Rites a human male even makes a friendly joke about it), but this is also our first opportunity to observe an ooloi "seduction" and I for one certainly find the scene, in which a drugged man is subjected not just to casuistry but to a "poor little me" turn from a misunderstood alien, a little hard to take. I wish in some ways that I could say I found it utterly repellent; it would be so much easier. There are points of identification with Nikanj available; the idea that any human would be preferable to the loveable sensitive alien is touching. If only there were not the drugged removal of volition!
It is I think particularly notable that Butler presents this scene with the male rather than the female human and indeed does not show us the scene in which Nikanj first rapes/seduces Lilith at all. It occurs between the first and second sections of Dawn and is not even recalled in memory. It is however a most telling absence. With Lilith there to assure the reader that the sexual experience is pleasurable and something she is all too willing to engage in herself, rape more easily masquerades as seduction. Her own first encounter, devoid of any such commentary, would be difficult to present convincingly as a desirable experience.
The problem of Oankali rape/seduction echoes that in the Patternist books of the sexual activity of Doro and his daughters. The incest is muted not only by Doro's endorsement of it as part of his breeding plans, but by his "wearing" different bodies—the body which sleeps with the daughter is not the one which engendered her. The paedophilic aspect is blurred by the imprecision about the age at which it occurs. The only one of which we are certain is late teenage, but there is a suggestion that this may have been unusual restraint on Doro's part. That the children are not averse, having been brought up to expect it and having a semi-mystical regard for their father, removes accusations of rape. Certainly Butler presents Doro as a monster and yet there are oddities about the general presentation of sexual relationships between beings of unequal power bubbling away beneath the surface of Butler's fictions. One of the problems I have is in determining the extent to which they are in the books' unconscious or hers.
One obvious seat of power is the family, yet, in common with other feminist writers, Butler is concerned with examining alternatives to the nuclear family, at least in part to relocate power. In the Patternist books, children are often adopted to remove them from actual or potential child abuse, and domestic groupings tend to be larger than currently regarded as normal. In Xenogenesis, Butler goes into considerable detail about the human-Oankali families and their operation. Because the Oankali extend life-spans, particularly the reproductive portion of them, the number of children is great, especially as there are two females both giving birth. (In Imago, late in Lilith's life, an aside informs us that in view of her and her mates' age, they are now having "only" a pair of children a decade. Since she is at least 100 and quite possibly 200 or so at this time, the size of her family can only be conjectured.) In any case, Butler avoids Oedipal constructions, with their power determinations, by all the means at her disposal. The incest taboo is rejected both by Doro and by the Oankali, who customarily mate brother and sister through unrelated ooloi. The acceptance of the wandering male, refusing monogamy and family involvement, in both Patternist books and Xenogenesis, not only makes Oedipal passages problematic, but reflects the characteristic asserted to be typical of Afro-American males and in fact increasingly common of males in Anglo-Celtic dominant cultures generally. As a third blow to Freudian normality, in Xenogenesis gender is physically determined by affinity with the same-sex parent, not psychically through rivalry and thwarted desire, or the establishing of Otherness. Although Butler is not one of the female writers of "surviving fictions" that Maria Minich Brewer considers, her comment that they
link the nuclear narrative to a politics of gender that thoroughly displaces the Oedipal narrative-of-conflict with the system by inventing new forms of non-hierarchical mediation and community.
certainly applies. (The term "nuclear narrative" here should not be read in a limiting way; Butler's post-nuclear stories are indisputably such narratives.)
My comments so far have been concerned to demonstrate Butler's common concerns in the Patternist and Xenogenesis books. Yet there are discontinuities too. The webs of connectedness that Govan identified as central to the Patternist books, and evident in Kindred too, are not so important. Controlled creation has overtaken the mix of attempted control and the operation of chance; mutation in Xenogenesis ceases to be accidental. Because, as Haraway points out, the Oankali differ from humans by engaging in self-formation not through non-living technologies, but on life itself, there is an absence of Oankali art. This is not characteristic of Butler—Anyanwu's Igbo pots and Jan's learning blocks and paintings (in Mind of My Mind) testify to this—but it is not an accidental omission. A sustained passage in Adulthood Rites details Akin's Oankali-derived distaste for myths and any stories not based on fact; we are repeatedly told how bare the Oankali living spaces are and how only the humans (indeed only women, though this may not be a meaningful exclusion) paint and draw; for quite some time the Oankali deny Lilith even writing materials. In case readers could get to the end of the trilogy still deluded that Butler was depicting an utopia, they should be warned that the society depicted would have no use for the depiction; s[cience] f[iction] along with all the other "lies" (Akin's term for fiction) would disappear.
I said at the beginning that I would attempt to explore my initial disappointment with Adulthood Rites and where the pleasure in so downbeat a trilogy lies. I trust I have done the second already; the pleasures in teasing out the patterns and preoccupations of Butler's work are considerable, as is the hard work of reconciliation, I suspect that one of the reasons for my initial personal disappointment with Adulthood Rites was something which is not uncommon in Butler's novels, which I think of as the disappearing heroine. Readers of the Gollancz paperback edition graced with John Varley's comment that Dawn "Gives us the best heroine I've met in a long time", are likely to be particularly disappointed, for Adulthood Rites gives us little of her. I agree with Varley; Lilith is a wonderful heroine—strong, competent, flawed, moody, fighting to make the best of a situation over which she has virtually no control. Childlike, I wanted to read more about her in the second book and watch her win out, but Butler is not concerned with satisfying childish longings in adults. Adulthood Rites is from her son's point-of-view and Lilith becomes a comparatively minor character. With Imago the shift in point-of-view to the ooloi, Jodahs, and the continuation of Lilith in a minor role is not unexpected. The change is not as startling however as that from Wild Seed to Mind of My Mind where Anyanwu/Emma not merely becomes a minor character, but also alters in moral evaluation (from heroine-saviour to minor nuisance). Relevant here however are the disjunctions in chronologies—of narration, writing and publication—that do not apply to Xenogenesis. In narrative chronology Wild Seed precedes Mind of My Mind and is followed by Clay's Ark, Patternmaster and Survivor, yet the publication order is Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980) and Clay's Ark (1984), while Survivor, although revised extensively in the light of Patternmaster and Mind of My Mind, was initially written considerably before.
The problems of disjunctive chronologies have been referred to (though not under that name) by Delany in a complaint about publishers' impositions of narrative chronology on collections of works in a series in a way which obscures if not obliterates the writer's self-critical dialogue with her- or himself. This may give an extra clue as to why series, which may lack pre-determined structures, are often more satisfying intellectually than the more predictably-structured trilogies. Nonetheless a comparison of the reappearance of, for example, Lessa in Anne McCaffrey's Pern series with the reappearance of Lilith in the two later Xenogenesis volumes is an indication that trilogies are not always less surprising. (It is, incidentally, hard to imagine anything more heretical than an authorial re-evaluation of Lessa, who even when not the main focus of a novel can never be other than the dominant character in any scene in which she appears.)
I cannot resist concluding with another quotation from Donna Haraway. No reader, one trusts, could leave Octavia E. Butler's work believing she valued the fixity of the Natural. Whether by mutation, transmutation or direct manipulation, in her fictions nature changes. The most negatively valued groups of humans are those who, like the Missionaries in Survivor, attempt to stop variation. Even Xenogenesis's resister humans are only allowed to start breeding again on a transformed Mars. As in so many other instances, I concur with Haraway when she says "I am not interested in policing the boundaries between nature and culture—quite the opposite, I am edified by the traffic." Reading Butler is part of such an edification.
This section contains 5,078 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)