Octavia E. Butler | Critical Essay by Michelle Erica Green

This literature criticism consists of approximately 32 pages of analysis & critique of Octavia E. Butler.
This section contains 9,300 words
(approx. 31 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Michelle Erica Green

Critical Essay by Michelle Erica Green

SOURCE: "'There Goes the Neighborhood': Octavia Butler's Demand for Diversity in Utopias," in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten, Syracuse University Press, 1994, pp. 166-89.

In the following essay, Green discusses Butler's fiction in terms of its criticism of popular science fiction utopias and its social critique on such topics as racism and sexism.

Octavia E. Butler's Dawn, the first novel in the trilogy Xenogenesis, is an angry utopian novel, a scathing condemnation of the tendency of human beings to hate, repress, and attack differences they do not understand. It pleads for an end to fear and prejudice, insisting that aggressive social intervention must counteract the ancient hierarchical structures of thought that humans share with their closest animal relatives. The illustration on the jacket sleeve of Dawn ironically emphasizes Butler's cause for anger. Though the novel clearly identifies its heroine, Lilith Iyapo, as a muscular black woman in her late twenties, the cover depicts a slender white girl apprehensively unwrapping what looks like a blanket from the body of a naked white woman. The girl is Lilith, here young, fair-skinned and delicate, peering shyly at the first potential friend she has had in years because she cannot look with eagerness at naked woman. Following Audre Lorde's description of the role of difference within a capitalist economy, the mass-market paperback industry thus puts its desire to reap profits from off-the-shelf sales of Dawn over the demands of the novel itself. In redrawing Lilith as a modest white girl rather than the powerful black heroine her creator described, the publishing industry allows forms of sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobia to be perpetuated on the cover of a novel that demands an end to prejudices and acceptance of differences.

I want to look closely at Butler's fiction and the criticism it directs at popular discourse, particularly at science fiction utopias created by recent feminist writers. I also want to consider the transformation of the utopian form when a writer such as Butler, who challenges various forms of cultural hegemony, adapts it for the purposes of social critique. Several of Butler's critics label her work "essentialist"—a term often used pejoratively by poststructuralist feminists to attack biologically based models of human behavior—because of her insistence that humans will behave inhumanely without a series of checks upon them. But Butler's "essentialism" is tricky; her novels focus on the exceptions to the rules she posits as human norms rather than on those who exemplify them.

Many recent women's utopias deal with contemporary problems by defusing the differences that cause conflicts to develop among people. Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin experiment with biological androgyny as a means for ending the battle of the sexes. Marge Piercy and Melissa Scott explore futures in which skin color and racial identity are unrelated. Sheri Tepper unites all people under one religion, while Suzy McKee Charnas erases political struggles under a classless anarchy. Feminist utopias of the past twenty years have launched a powerful attack on the ideologies, practices, and textual strategies of the patriarchy, which their authors posit as the principal source of the rejection of differences. Some texts, like Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness and Scott's Kindly Ones, have done so by rejecting the binary construction of sexuality, insisting that the gender-defining characteristics of males and females are socially rather than biologically based. Others, like Cynthia Felice's Double Nocturne and Pamela Sargent's Shore of Women, have rescripted gender relations with the assumption that, even if men and women are fundamentally different, those differences need not lead to the oppression of women under patriarchy. By refusing to allow women to be posited as Other in a binary social and conceptual system, these and many additional novels defamiliarize patriarchy, calling for a world in which men and women can benefit rather than suffer from one another's differences.

Yet many of the texts that challenge that gender status quo ignore, erase, and repress other differences among people. Though Mattapoisett—the utopia in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time—nurtures people of many different ages, races, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and interests, the differences among them seem only skin-deep. Some people have Southeast Asian features without any sense of Southeast Asian heritage, while others participate in Jewish religious services without any connection to the thousands of years of Jewish culture that preceded the founding of Mattapoisett. Again, in Charnas's Motherlines, because of the emphasis on the vast gulf between the genders, little attention is paid to the material differences between the women protagonists, who at times seem interchangeable. In The Left Hand of Darkness, neither race nor sexual preference operate as conceptual categories; if they exist at all, they pass unnoticed. Thus, despite their insistence that patriarchy can be overcome, relatively few utopian feminists seem able or willing to tackle even their own tendency to ignore, erase, and oppress human difference.

This tendency is the focus of Butler's critique of both human society and recent utopian fiction. Difference, disagreement, and diversity provide the life force of her utopias. Though the need to rethink women's roles in human society is a central concern, it is by no means the only problem attacked by Butler. Racism, class oppression, nationalism, religious intolerance, homophobia, and mistreatment of animals and handicapped people are all touched upon in Butler's critique of humanism—itself a form of prejudice here, for "humanism" accepts that human beings should be at the center of their own universes. Butler refuses to categorize people through biology, behavior or even species, demanding new solutions cultivated through a community based on differences. And just as Butler insists upon differences among people, she insists upon differences among utopias. Her work implicitly criticizes utopias by women that avoid conflicts stemming from difference and reject challenges and change from within. Her social critique resembles that of another feminist African-American, Audre Lorde, who writes,

In a society where good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior…. Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing. The future of our earth may depend upon the ability … to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion.

Expanding on Lorde's critique of capitalist society, Butler blames not only human greed for the creation of prejudice, but also the deep-rooted human compulsion to structure societies and thoughts hierarchically. Butler's fictions contain an oft-repeating warning that the human race has long been in the process of destroying itself—a warning that leads several critics to label her work dystopian rather than utopian. Butler's characters often do seem to be living in a nightmare rather than an ideal society; they find themselves trapped among aliens, powerless, angry, and frightened. All of them face the same dilemma: they must force themselves to evolve, accepting differences and rejecting a world view that centers upon their lives and values, or become extinct. In the Patternist books, the Xenogenesis trilogy, and "Bloodchild," such evolution requires pan-human acceptance of alien ideas and values, leading to a merger with the aliens to create a new form of life. In Kindred, "Speech Sounds" and "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," evolution involves one group of humans accepting "alien" ideas and values from another group of humans, taking personal responsibility for transforming themselves and the species.

Miscegenation: Bloodchild and Patternist Series

Octavia Butler once told an interviewer that she did not write utopian fiction: "I don't believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society." But, as any number of texts from Thomas More's prototype onward have indicated, a utopia does not have to be a "perfect" society. "Utopia" is a Greek pun that can be read as "nowhere" (utopia) or "good place" (eutopia); literary utopias engage the paradox between these two meanings, straddling issues of locality, textuality, and ideology in an attempt to bridge the gap between fictional discourse and everyday life. Thus the utopian form is already a miscegenation of sorts, a blending of pragmatic local concerns with transcendent idealism. For women, utopian fiction permits reimaginings of worlds without patriarchy, without biology-based notions of gender, even without men—all within the context of a critique of contemporary politics. As critic Jean Pfaelzer notes, the question "What if the world were perfect?" is not the same as "What if the world were feminist?"

The latter question seems to interest Butler more than the former, for her utopias are certainly far from perfect. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" relates the events that follow a "cure" for cancer that turns lethal; Clay's Ark, the last of the Patternist books, tells of the eatastrophic spread of an extraterrestrial virus that transforms human genetics: Dawn, the first book of Xenogenesis, begins shortly after the earth has been rendered unhabitable by a nuclear war. Butler's worlds often seem far from feminist as well: few possess egalitarian social structures or communities of women; none has eradicated rape, incest, or compulsory heterosexuality; and the females who inhabit those worlds often rely on threats, coercion, and violence to achieve their own ends. As Dorothy Allison observes, Butler's female characters must "heroically adjust to family life and through example, largeness of spirit, and resistance to domination make the lives of their children better—even though this means sacrificing personal freedom."

Both the utopianism and the feminism of Butler's work are slippery because neither emerges in isolation from a variety of other interests. Butler is not interested in creating a utopia of human beings who seem too gentle to be believed, like those who inhabit Piercy's Mattapoisett and never get into fistfights; nor is she interested in glorifying either women or some abstract notion of the feminine. In fact, despite her insistence that human beings can transform themselves and their world, Butler often seems not to like people—men or women—at all. Her works border on the dystopian because she insists on confronting problems that have occurred so often in human communities that they seem almost an unavoidable part of human nature, such as greed, prejudices based on appearances, oppression of women, and might-makes-right ideologies. Rather than create utopias in which these problems have simply ceased to exist, Butler demonstrates time and again in her fiction that they must be worked through—even if that process involves the use of dangerous human tendencies like aggression and coercion to counter similar dangerous human tendencies like violence.

Both "Bloodchild" and the Xenogenesis books have one explicitly feminist project: to make male characters experience sex and reproduction from the position of females in male-dominated culture. "Bloodchild," which offers a very short glimpse at a fascinating world, reflects on the extent to which patriarchal cultures find it necessary to use ideology, violence, and oppression to force women to participate in "natural" reproduction. In "Bloodchild," men get pregnant, an ironic twist on a slogan made popular by supporters of abortion rights: "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." In "Bloodchild," an alien race called Tlic require the bodies of healthy young men in which to incubate their eggs. When the eggs hatch inside the men's bodies, the aliens cut the men open to remove the alien grubs.

Although the Tlic attempt to make the process bearable for the men by incorporating them into nuclear families and creating an ideology of spousal love to persuade the men that their participation is voluntary and beneficial, the human male narrator stresses that the men—or, as in his own case, boys—may be "raped," impregnated against their wills, and forced to carry to term fetuses that have never been a part of themselves if they do not submit.

Tlic society is hierarchical, with fertile females possessing the most power—which they use to compete, sometimes violently, for human males. The Tlic who will mate with the narrator is particularly important; she is in change of the Preserve, the human dwelling on the Tlic planet (an animal farm, ghetto, Native American resettlement, and Nazi concentration camp all at once). As such, she is both protector and pimp. "Only she and her political faction stood between us and the horded who did not understand why there was a Preserve—why any Terran could not be courted, paid, drafted, in some way made available to them. She parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support." Despite the fact that they are all female, the adult Tlic employ many of the ideologies and practices of patriarchalism: compulsory heterosexuality, reproductive colonization, marital rape, and oppression of the childbearing sex, to name the most deadly. For, like childbirth, Tlic deliveries can be lethal to humans; if the grubs are not removed at the right moment, by the right Tlic, the infants devour their hosts from the inside out.

Though the interference of the aliens has brought about an end to the struggle between the sexes, human women are as subject to Tlic oppression as men; they are not used as Tlic breeders only because bearing Tlic young leaves them too weak to bear the next generation of humans to carry a subsequent generation of Tlic. Familial relationships are quasi-incestuous. The narrator, Gan, and the Tlic whose children he will carry, T'Gatoi, are both children of the same father, whose sperm produced Gan and whose belly carried T'Gatoi. Gan's mother, who is many years younger than his father, grew up with T'Gatoi as a sort of sister; T'Gatoi has thus served as sister and aunt to her future spouse, and has been a second mother to him as well. Gan's relationship to her is laden with Oedipal conflict—he is grateful that he can stroke her as he cannot caress his mother, but feels revulsion and horror at the thought of their eventual mating—and T'Gatoi's desire for him, expressed alternately through parental and romantic clichés, smacks of pederasty. Under Tlic ideology, biology is destiny; none of the beings involved in a human-Tlic mating perceives an alternative.

"Bloodchild" hardly seems a feminist fantasy. It is impossible to perceive the planet of the Tlic as a radical utopia that empowers women, like Joanna Russ's Whileaway in The Female Man; Butler's human women are as oppressed as her men, and her female Tlic begin to act like human male oppressors. But "Bloodchild" is neither dystopian nor essentialistic. The circumstances that oppress the narrator do not stem from any metaphysical imperative; they are not historically inevitable, and therefore can be altered. The "biology" that complicates human-Tlic relationships is neither transparent nor predictable. The traits of human and Tlic nature that have placed Gan and T'Gatoi in the perverse relationship they negotiate are not "essential"; they are constructed out of social and material conditions that result in the appalling, crisis at the start of the story—the Tlic have changed themselves and the humans before, and can do so again.

More important, Gan's human agency begins a process of reform that may lead to Tlic recognition of the subjectivity of all humans. Gan does not believe or expect that an ideal space of perfect equality can be created, given the material difficulties of life on the Tlic world for humans and Tlic; he does, however, insist on new social structures with the potential for ongoing evolution. Butler's insistence on maintaining a closed family structure, which Haraway and Zaki criticize as a sign of her "conservatism" in sexual matters, serves as her means of emphasizing the vital need for collaboration underlying both the Tlic-human and the male-female relationships of the story; the future of both depends on a joint solution, with mutual extinction the only alternative.

Butler might have chosen to transform reader expectations about "normal" gender behavior by demonstrating how natural giving birth seems to human men, rather than how unnatural. Yet if Butler truly believed that human biology makes rape, compulsory heterosexuality, and enforced childbirth inevitable, she would have no motivation for writing "Bloodchild" in the first place. Like the circumstances of Gan's oppression, the production of the story must be situated within a historical framework. Butler published "Bloodchild" during a year when controversies over abortion, in-vitro fertilization, and the prevalence of unnecessary caesarean sections—topics cloaked in the metaphors of the story—reached a peak. 1984 also witnessed a political campaign characterized by the polarization of complex constitutional issues into monolithic positions: school prayer versus religious freedom, welfare abuse versus urban poverty, "pro-life" versus "pro-choice," apartheid versus sanctions. Rather than accepting such binaries, which lead neither to productive debate nor to a synthesized answer, Butler insists that individuals consider what is left out of such formulations. The social problems of "Bloodchild" cannot be broken down into anything so simple as "Tlic versus humans" or "female versus male." The fundamental problem stems from the need for cooperation rather than binarism—and accompanying hierarchialism—to structure an imperfect but just society.

This problem creates the crux of the Patternmaster novels as well. The last book of the series, Clay's Ark, constitutes the beginning of a history played out in the earlier volumes. A man returns to earth from a distant galaxy, inadvertently carrying a disease organism that begins the transformation of the human race. "The organisms were not intelligent. They could not tell him how to keep himself alive, free, and able to find new hosts. But they became intensely uncomfortable if he did not, and their discomfort was his discomfort." The organisms invade and recode human DNA, threatening the lives of their hosts if they are not transmitted to other humans. Because transmission requires the breaking of the skin of the uninfected person, the organisms trigger violent behavior and overwhelming lust. The children of the inevitable sexual couplings between infected individuals are not human; they look like catlike, graceful "animals" and mature rapidly into highly intelligent quadrupeds with superhuman senses of smell and hearing. Resistance to the organism's need to spread, which is impossible except in the case of isolated individuals, ensures physical and mental anguish culminating in death.

Clay's Ark—the least utopian of the Patternist books—presents three recently infected individuals attempting to maintain their "humanity," which in this context signifies their control over biological drives. Blake Maslin, a doctor, believes physical strength and medical technology can prevent the disease's spread; his beautiful and brilliant daughter Rane relies instead on mental willpower and morality. Both try to escape the consequences of the disease, refusing to adapt to the physical and psychological changes it demands, and both ultimately lose their lives in the struggle. Only the younger daughter, Keira, who was wasting away with leukemia before surrendering to the new disease, survives. In progressing toward death, she has already begun to transform into something "ethereal not quite of this world," with a vastly different physiology and psychology from her father and sister. Keira survives because she takes the step neither her father nor sister is willing to take; she bonds with the disease and its carriers, willingly accepting the inevitability of the changes necessitated by the organism. Such evolution represents the only possibility for saving Keira's life, for the recently invented epigenetic therapy, a process that has all but eradicated leukemia by reprogramming faulty genes, has failed to correct her cells. Keira may have less of a stake in "protecting" human biology because her own biology has never been normatively human; she has less of a stake in protecting human morality because, unlike her sister Rane, she understands it as a utilitarian construct that can be discarded when its social value ceases to function.

The humans "lose" to the organism and to another group of humans carrying a different mutation. The species divides into three competing groups. The self-destructive, telepathic "Patternists," bred by the ancient patriarch Doro for their psychic skills, develop from victims to oppressors in their struggle against nontelepathic humans and "Clayarks" (the descendants of the characters in Clay's Ark). Telepaths treat the nonpsychic humans as an inferior race, referring to them by the denigrating label "mute." The nomadic Clayarks, considered non-human by the others, are despised and shunned as carriers of the terrifying disease. The Patternist novels share the interest in "Bloodchild" in the prevalence of patriarchy, tyranny, and slavery across many different human cultures. None offers a universal utopia, though several characters create utopian spaces within a primarily hostile world. In Survivor, Alanna resists deep prejudices to join an alien tribe; in Mind of My Mind, Mary becomes a tyrant with the hopes of single-handedly achieving the peace and group survival her father Doro made impossible. In these books human nature again proves more flexible than some of the characters would like to admit. They cannot preserve an "essential humanity" in the face of mutation and disease; instead, they learn to recognize the extent to which human morality and even human biology are constructed through careful breeding and teaching, and can be changed a good deal.

Ex-communication: "speech Sounds" and "the Evening and the Morning and the Night"

Donna Haraway writes: "[Competing stories of human evolution] have been bound together in a contentious discourse on technology, often staged in the high-technology media that embody the dream of communication promised by international science and global organization." Having argued against claims for Butler's essentialism, I would like to turn to her two most "essentialistic" worlds, found in the acclaimed short stories "Speech Sounds" and "The Evening and the Morning and the Night." Both involve the destruction of "the dream of perfect communication promised by international science," to quote Haraway. Each of these fictions is set on earth and begins with a devastating disease that challenges human myths of control over their physical selves and destroys the capacity for traditional verbal expression among victims. Though the diseases are very different—the illness in "Speech Sounds" affects all people, while that in "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" afflicts only children of drug-damaged parents—both trigger acts of violence capable of destroying entire societies. Butler never explains whether the violence stems from the diseases themselves, or from the rage and terror felt by the diseased individuals whose bodies no longer respond to their commands, although the latter seems more likely. The stories thus concern methods for interpersonal contact when verbal communication fails, and when the possibility of life-threatening violence is just under the surface of all relationships. Although grounded in the biology of individual bodies, the problems that arise are primarily social in nature.

"Speech Sounds," set in California, follows a devastating worldwide epidemic that, though initially blamed on the Soviets, has no traceable cause or cure. The illness is "highly specific … language was always lost or severely impaired…. Often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, death." Some victims abruptly lose the capacity to read and write; others can still read, but no longer speak; some can do neither, while others can do both but cannot remember what words mean. Of course, one immediate result is the breakdown of late capitalist civilization. The mass communications gone, the vast social apparatus rendered useless, people become like children cut off from parental discipline and love. They are forced instead to struggle for survival against armed criminals, suicidal thoughts, and jealous individuals who will kill for spite those who can speak, read, or write. The protagonist, Valerie Rye, has lost her husband and children to the disease; she can no longer read, write, or remember many things, and her ability to speak can put her life in danger if she demonstrates it in public. Maddened with illness, loneliness, and envy, she is overwhelmed at times with the desire to murder those who can still read; at other times she is overcome by the need for any nonviolent contact with any human being, willing to make love with a man she can never converse with.

Set in Los Angeles—a city where in the 1990s rival gangs fight territorial battles over who has the right to speak which language in which section—"Speech Sounds" reflects and explores the relationship between modes of communication and social structures. Like the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, Butler indicates that, deprived of the ability to share a primary language, individuals will leave off building their cities and wander into isolation. Certainly everyone in the story leaves off constructing skyscrapers and focuses on basic survival issues: scavenging for and growing food, finding shelter, establishing defenses against the robbers and rapists who patrol the streets. Although a large series of gestures to represent curses have sprung up, no real sign system has been developed. Violence is a universal language: people take what they can, keep what they defend, and destroy what they resent, without the need for debate or defensiveness.

The loss of speech is less the cause of social breakdown than the loss of literacy. The necessities for remaining alive have continued—food and fuels still circulate, transportation still runs between cities, and apparently firearms are still manufactured—but without the electronic media, capitalist society cannot function. It is in the process of reverting to feudalism when the story begins. "Speech Sounds" thus tells the tale of an extremely public society forced to "go private" without any warning. Without the printing press and descendant machines, the public sphere falls part. Everything from government and law enforcement to scientific research and social aid ceases to function, leaving people to an anarchistic state where, although some of the machinery still functions, the superstructure that controls it does not. Society is at best vestigial. Soon the gas will run out, the cars will break down, groups sharing food and protection will begin to disintegrate, men will forget that rape was ever a crime.

Rye, the protagonist, thinks she is lonely because she is not a "private" person; she tells herself she needs people out of a biological need for communication, nurturing, and sex. But she is not a "private" person in a far more important sense: she depends upon a public sphere to satisfy her as a consumer. Not coincidentally, the man she links up with still wears the uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department. Rye finds this anachronism amusing because it reminds her of a little boy playing cop. But it also reminds her of the public life she had before the disease, and she longs for her lover—whom she calls Obsidian, having no way to ask his real name—to protect her, to take her places, to help her get to Pasadena where she may have relatives.

But Rye and Obsidian cannot go back; the world of instantaneous communication, across a room or across the globe, has been destroyed. Obsidian is shot for attempting to interfere in what would once have been called a "domestic disturbance." The police have minimal power because "domestic violence" is still considered a private matter in some areas, but Obsidian is still trapped in a code of ethics from the world before. Rye is as well. Despite her longing for her own lost nuclear family, she feels little sense of social obligation to the two children orphaned in the fight that killed Obsidian, as though she expects a social welfare agency to step in. "She did not need a stranger's children who would grow up to be hairless chimps." But finally the desperateness of their situation reaches her; she realizes that if she does not take them with her, they will die, and she wants no more death on her hands. Then comes the greatest shock: the children can speak normally. Whether the disease has run its course or these two have a rare immunity, they can talk to her.

"Speech Sounds" are not the same things as "speech"; they are less determinate. To those accustomed to a delimited sign system, speech sounds are crude and incoherent; in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books on American slave and subaltern cultures, for example, the dialects spoken by the oppressed were assumed to be "speech sounds." not language. Butler's "Speech Sounds" ends with Rye contemplating what it will mean to be a teacher to the children—to educate them in the use of a skill that may no longer be of any use, that others will envy enough to murder them. What will she teach them? The value of the old language, or the need for a new mode of communication? The hierarchical difference between "speech" and "speech sounds." or the need for a common language between the verbal and the mute? The story ends before such questions can be resolved, but it ends on a hopeful note. Rye knows that, speech or no speech, the next generation will never bring back the world as it was. They will have to create instead a new public order, more diffuse in form and more accepting of difference than the old. They will have to be different.

The disease in "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" also leaves different children as the hope of the future. A late twentieth-century "wonder drug," which cures cancer and most viral diseases, causes a genetic disorder in all the descendants of every individual who uses it. The disorder, called DGD (Duryea-Gode disease), initially causes an inability to concentrate, then a psychotic retreat into fantasy; finally, it spurs horrific self-destructive and species-destructive behavior. The father of Lynn, the narrator, killed and skinned her mother completely before dying in an attempt to skin himself alive. This rending of the flesh—"digging out"—is common to all end-stage DGD victims; when they reach this point, they are locked away in exploitative DGD wards, usually chained up, but sometimes allowed to kill themselves if they prove too inventive in attacking their jailers. Although maintaining a medically supervised diet can put off the worst symptoms for several years, eventually the "digging" becomes inevitable. The only alternative to a horrible death in a DGD ward is an innovative private hospital called Dilg, which has a long waiting list. Dilg—named for the Dilg family, which made capital profits from the drug that caused DGD, and then funded research to cure it—also funds scholarships for DGD victims. Lynn is the recipient of such a scholarship. When she visits Dilg, she discovers that the reason has more to do with her biology than her scholarly ability: Lynn is the daughter of two parents with DGD, and as such carries pheremones that enable her to control violent DGD victims.

The Dilg retreat is Butler's strangest utopia, though in some ways her most successful. Under the guidance of "double-DGD" females, patients who would otherwise destroy themselves invent life-saving technology, produce brilliant artwork, and lead otherwise productive lives. Although most of the patients work in isolation because the illness makes collaboration impossible—particularly among members of the same sex—the Dilg community provides a space for education, productivity, and care while protecting DGD victims and their families from exploitation at the hands of high-priced private wards or mismanaged government institutions. The pheremones are both a blessing and a curse. Two females of double-DGD parentage cannot abide contact with one another; Lynn has to fight overpowering urges to inflict violence on Beatrice, the woman who explains Lynn's rare privilege to her. As Lynn acknowledges, she has little choice but to join Dilg, although the thought of spending the rest of her life "in something that was basically a refined DGD ward" does not appeal to her. She shares her lover's suspicion that Dilg's complete control over its patients could lead to exploitation, even though the supervisors are DGDs, too—people who have not yet developed end-stage symptoms. However, she sees little alternative for herself or for the violent victims men like her lover will inevitably become. "If the pheremones were something only men had, you would do it," she tells him.

Like the patients aboard Clay's Ark, the DGD sufferers subtly resemble AIDS victims. Butler portrays them as heroic, attempting to commit suicide or quarantine themselves to avoid injuring the healthy. As in the case of AIDS, some people angrily blame irresponsible sexuality for the spread of DGD: "The damned disease could be wiped out in one generation, but people are still animals when it comes to breeding. Still following mindless urges, like dogs and cats." Although this sounds like essentialist rhetoric—"People are at the mercy of their biological urges"—it is important to note that the speaker has undergone voluntary sterilization, proving that biology does not have to be destiny. Lynn's response to his urging that she do the same is to insist on maintaining control of the one part of her biology functioning normally. "I don't want kids, but I don't want someone else telling me I can't have any…. [Would] you want someone else telling you what to do with your body?" she asks. The DGD victims also share some parallels with babies born addicted to crack. They suffer from specific motor and speech dysfunctions; some have never met their fathers for their own safety, while others have met only the brain-damaged ruin of their mothers; the "crimes" that cause prejudice against them are not their own.

Butler's appeal for victims' rights, however, shifts dramatically in light of her insistence that the disease may actually benefit society in the long run. Just as AIDS research has led to new discoveries about the immune system and provided valuable information in treating cancer, leukemia, and chronic viral infections, DGD produces highly intelligent individuals who devote their lives to improving life for others; the special value of double-DGD females was discovered by DGD victims, and their own laboratories represent the best hope for a cure. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" would thus seem to offer the most essentialistic position yet in a Butler story, dividing humanity into the haves and the have-nots. But even here Butler demands diversity. The first half of the story focuses on the prejudice still-healthy DGD carriers suffer; although many of them have spectacular careers as scientists (ironically, DGD victims cure many forms of cancer), they are ignored or abused by uninformed and frightened associates. Lynn rooms at college with a DGD victim who becomes a special education major, hoping "the handicapped would accept her more readily than the able-bodied." They share a house with other DGD victims because they have "all had enough of being lepers twenty-four hours a day."

As always, Butler subtly points out the multiethnicism of her character—Lynn is the child of two American fundamentalist Christians, while her lover Alan is half-American Catholic, half-Nigerian polytheistic. Butler also indicates that many of the scientists and doctors are female, black, or another minority. The disease itself trivializes most other forms of prejudice in a transformation similar to that caused by the presence of aliens in the Xenogenesis books.

Dilg is feminist by necessity; females simply handle certain aspects of the disease better than males. But never does Butler consider the possibility of having the females shun male society to protect their assets. In what appears to be a calculated attack on Russ's The Female Man and Charnas's Motherlines, Butler insists that sexual cooperation is absolutely vital; the segregation of the genders would be deadly for both. Women take on the roles of leader and nurturer not because they are innately more equipped to do so than men, but because the DGD pheremone coincidentally attaches itself to double-DGD females; as Lynn says, if men had the pheremone, they would take on the guidance positions. Women are certainly no less prone to violence than men. Next to Lynn's father, Alan's mother is the most violent character in "The Evening and the Morning and the Night."

Similar ideas about gender permeate "Speech Sounds," though the roles are reversed. Left-handed men suffer less brain damage than any other group. Rye kills people more easily than Obsidian. Biology thus is never destiny, even when it seems to be so. Even without the ability to read, Rye has a choice: she can work with people, attempting to create a new society, or become destructive like some of the people she witnesses. And Lynn has a similar choice: she can commit suicide, or live for the moment until the illness takes her, or she can work with Dilg to develop a haven and a cure. The characters in these two stories share some basic similarities, but their best chances for survival come from putting their differences to work.

Re-creation: Kindred

In an essay on fiction set in the antebellum South, Deborah E. McDowell writes: "Contemporary novels of slavery [witness] slavery after freedom in order to engrave that past on the memory of the present but, more importantly, on future generations that might otherwise succumb to the cultural amnesia that has begun to re-enslave us all in social and literary texts that impoverish our imaginations."

Kindred, Butler's fantasy of time-travel into the past of her race and gender, engraves that past into the flesh of her heroine as well as her memory. Kindred is Butler's most troubling novel—yet also, in many ways, her most optimistic. The mechanism for the temporal shifts is never explained; this novel is not interested in alien sciences, and can scarcely be described as "science fiction." Rather, the "aliens" in Kindred are all too human. They are white Americans from the antebellum South, and they are more frightening than the Tlic. Dana, the black contemporary protagonist, unexpectedly finds herself transported to Maryland before the Civil War. Her great-great-grandfather Rufus calls her there to save his life, which she does several times. Rufus, much to Dana's shock, is not black; her grandmother never told her that not all of her ancestors were slaves.

Dana finds herself faced with a dilemma similar to those of Butler's other heroines: she must decide whether to collaborate with an oppressive agent that threatens her identity as a human being, or whether to cause her own extinction. Kindred's particular situation requires that Dana cooperate with her white ancestors as they beat, rape, and murder her black ancestors; if she does not, her great-grandmother may never be born, and she may cease to exist. Rufus, who fathered this great-grandmother, closely resembles Dana's white husband. As he grows from a confused child to a murderous patriarch, Dana finds herself forced to suppress every moral, value, and desire she has ever held dear.

Dorothy Allison's criticism of Butler stems from what Allison perceives as Butler's assumption that children and family always come first. Though Butler's black female characters are aggressive, independent, and in control, they often sacrifice personal freedom and autonomy in order to make the lives of their children better—a tendency that makes Allison "want to scream with frustration." Since utopian thought is optimistic, holding out hope for a better future. Butler does insist time and again on the need for people—especially for women—to make sacrifices for their children. But she indicates that such a demand compromises the present, forcing characters to submit to situations they find unbearable. Women make such sacrifices more often than men not because they are genetically more prone to do so, but because they have been socially driven to do so. They refuse the consequences of not being the ones to take action: the deaths of their children and their future.

If "Speech Sounds" and "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" may be interpreted as theorizing a biological view of human nature to a greater degree than Butler's other texts, then Kindred is their opposite; it insists absolutely that personality and behavior are constructed within a social frame. Rufus beats, rapes, and kills not because white men are inherently more prone to do so than black men or white women, but because white men happen to hold the power in his society and he has been taught from a young age that he can beat, rape, and kill. Even Dana insists that the differences between herself and Rufus stem from culture rather than birth.

Could I make him see why I thought his blackmail was worse than my own? It was. He threatened to keep me from my husband if I did not submit to his whim…. I acted out of desperation. He acted out of whimsy or anger. Or so it seemed. "Rufe, there are things we just can't bargain on. This is one of them."

"You're going to tell me what we can't bargain on?" He sounded more surprised than indignant.

"You're damn right I am…. I won't bargain away my husband or my freedom!"

"You don't have either to bargain."

"Neither do you."

Rufus is both more reasonable and more impossible than Dana expects: more reasonable because he will listen to her debate, more impossible because he refuses to change even when he understands her. But Rufus shares this flaw with the other men in the novel—including the sympathetic men. On one of her journeys back through time, Dana's husband accompanies her, and she is horrified to discover the extent to which Kevin acts like a patriarchal white man when people treat him as one. In his own time, he is another person. Kevin becomes horrified as well, although he strongly resists acknowledging that the new conditions have altered his behavior; he wants to believe that his personality cannot be changed by circumstance.

Dana is even more horrified to learn that, treated as an enslaved black woman, she will act like one. Her personality, which she always thought of as her fundamental self, modifies in response to Rufus's and Kevin's betrayals until she is no longer sure who she is in her own time or in the past. Dana helps Rufus against her every instinct, not because her nurturing instincts prove stronger than her need for autonomy, freedom, and self-pride, but because she recognizes the strategic importance of doing so. When she does not assist Rufus, she risks not merely her biological ancestry, but the lives of other slaves. Only when he threatens her autonomy by trying to seduce her—only when she realizes "how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this"—does she strike at him: "I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master."

People in Kindred do not change because of humanist impulses or moral imperatives. They respond to the agency of others, either immediately or over time. Readers are meant to feel real horror at Dana's periods of complacency as a slave; like her, we respond with a kind of gratitude to the worst excesses of Rufus's behavior because they remind us of the need for action and challenge, no matter how painful. Kindred offers a challenge to utopian fictions that value ideals over survival—like Women on the Edge of Time, in which the protagonist sacrifices herself (and kills several other people) in order to defend her values, or like the cultures described in Dawn, which decide en masse to commit suicide once it becomes clear they will never achieve perfect stasis. Butler instead acknowledges all that has been and remains unbearable in human society, but insists that human agency can change even the most dystopian world over time. It demands patience; Dana must be willing to work, but she must also be willing to wait for substantial change, not to force it in the past at the expense of the future. The work and the waiting pays off. Although Dana is dispossessed of her era, her nation, her family, her belongings, her values, and her beliefs, she gains the understanding that she can make a difference in history. The novel is unfailingly optimistic in this regard. At the conclusion, Dana and her husband return to Maryland in 1976, to mourn those who suffered and to reassure themselves that they have escaped. Utopia in Kindred is thus in Dana's own era, when diversity is celebrated in marriage rather than conquered through rape and domination. Not that the scars go away: Dana loses an arm to Rufus's grip, and her knees and skin are marked by the tortures of slavery—just as all descendants of slaves are scarred from America's racist past. But she is still alive and capable of further change. Butler literally engraves the past onto the present by engraving Dana's body as a readable text. As Deborah McDowell predicts, she also engraves the past onto the memory of the future through the act of writing. The text warns people like Dana and like us of the dangers of complacency; it demands utopian thinking.

Contradiction: Xenogenesis

Donna Haraway tells us: "Conventions within the narrative field of S[cience] F[iction] seem to require readers radically to rewrite stories in the act of reading them…. I want the readers to find an 'elsewhere' from which to envision a different and less hostile order or relationships among people, animals, technologies, and land." This statement could easily describe the project of Xenogenesis. Xenogenesis mobilizes human adaptability to reform a species that arrives on earth to reform humanity. The Oankali, whose name means "gene traders," arrive in the Terran system at the end of a nuclear holocaust that has decimated the planet. They bring the remaining humans onto their world-ship with a plan to return them to earth equipped to survive there; the "equipment" will consist of Oankali genes, provided by forcing humans to mate with Oankali partners and evolve into a new species. This crossbreeding is necessary for two reasons. The main one, according to the Oankali, stems from a flaw in human biology: ancient hierarchical tendencies drive humans to violence and self-destruction, and human intelligence only exacerbates the dangers.

But the Oankali have another purpose. They desperately desire to mate with the humans not only to trade genes, but because they find humans extremely attractive. Like the humans with the disease of Clay's Ark, the Oankali are driven to spread their organelles or become extinct. Humans particularly attract them because they are susceptible to cancers. If they can understand the cancers and adapt the renegade cells to their purposes, the Oankali feel certain they can make themselves attractive as mates to many new species.

Genetic exchanges occur with the help of ooloi, an Oankali third sex who "mix" the DNA of parents to form genetically desirable children. The ooloi also give enormous sexual pleasure to human and Oankali partners—so much pleasure, in fact, that humans shun all physical contact with humans of the opposite sex without ooloi intervention once they have participated in mating with an ooloi. The ooloi discover what they label the "Human Contradiction":

You are hierarchical. That's the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It's a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all … that was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing…. Your denial doesn't matter. A cancer growing in someone's body will go on growing despite denial. And a complex combination of genes that work together to make you intelligent as well as hierarchical will still handicap you whether you acknowledge it or not.

This incompatible "conflict in their genes—the new intelligence put at the service of ancient hierarchical tendencies," according to many of the Oankali, doom the human race to eventual destruction. Because of the Contradiction, the Oankali never feel remorse about their complete colonization of an independent species; it is for the salvation of the human race as well as for their own purposes that they interfere. The Oankali, who can communicate empathically and work communally, are certain of their superiority. It is never clear that they want anything from the humans other than their cancers and their cooperation, for there is little the Oankali seem to value in human beings except the potential for making them adaptable.

But even the Oankali cannot predict everything. Their "test" group of humans, experimented on while the majority of survivors remain in suspended animation, reveal several surprises: for example, that humans can perform a variety of different identities, that they become uncooperative when information is withheld, that making one human more powerful than others may lead to that person's persecution rather than domination. They also discover that the Contradiction is not equally strong in all people; women, for example, seem to display less of it than men, a fact that the Oankali attribute to male biology, but that the women attribute to conditioning that trains women to demonstrate their skills through nurture rather than force. Most of the Oankali expect Lilith, the strong black heroine of Dawn, to choose for a human mate "one of the big dark ones because they're like you"; only her best Oankali friend, Nikanj, is not surprised when she chooses instead a short, soft-spoken Chinese-Canadian man. But the humans shock the Oankali most with the force of their drive to survive. When the humans learn of the plan to breed them, they kill the ooloi who have become their mentors and sexual partners to escape.

For relatively few humans, anti-Oankali feelings arise from racial or sexual prejudices—the Oankali have "ugly" tentacles, and "take men as though they were women"—but for the majority, the desire to survive as a species is the tantamount issue in the conflict with the Oankali takeover of earth. After bonding chemically with humans—only to have the humans flee—several ooloi are forced to admit that their understanding of genetics cannot prevent them from making errors. Many Oankali agree that intelligence might eventually allow humans to conquer their hierarchical tendencies, particularly if they have a new world to conquer, a distraction that would require co-operation and ingenuity. Eventually, after "resister" humans attempt to kidnap and alter "construct" children (half-human, half-ooloi) in order to maintain their species identity, the Oankali are convinced by a construct child that not all humans should be forced to mate with the Oankali. Those who choose not to can be sent to Mars, made habitable by Oankali technology, to continue as an independent race. Of course the Oankali—and some humans—hope that most of the humans stay. But the Oankali, who have always planned to retain a group of "pure" Oankali in case the Human Contradiction destroys them as well, finally recognize the need for "Humans who don't change or die—Humans to go on if the … unions fail."

It is a mistake to interpret Xenogenesis as a serious discussion of essential flaws in human genetics. The novels scarcely seem interested in proving whether or not humans actually suffer from the Contradiction; rather, they illustrate how human agency can triumph over prejudice, violence, and essentialism. The humans in Xenogenesis express absolutely no racial prejudice; the only subset of individuals other than the Oankali who receive any real group hostility are "faggots," for in the postwar world compulsory heterosexuality becomes an important component of the dream of reproducing the species. In Dawn, the group of humans who have been dominant—white Christian men—act exactly as the Oankali expect all humans to behave; having lost the most power and prestige, they fight the most strongly against the dominant alien presence. There is also a large, highly xenophobic German resister village. Among the "non-Aryan" groups of humans, there is less violence; Hispanic and Chinese people may choose to go to Mars, but rarely become gun-toting resisters. It is not surprising that a black woman first joins an Oankali family; after years of oppression by other humans, Lilith has less prejudice toward the aliens and a stronger appreciation of the need for change. While she resents the unequal power relationships between Oankali and humans, she resents as well the unequal relationships among the humans she supervises.

Lilith is willing to work with the Oankali to create change. Her son Akin, the hero of Adulthood Rites and the first male human-Oankali construct child, is expected by his elders to be nomadic and prone to violence; instead, he bonds strongly with two separate communities and devotes his life to finding a workable solution to the increasing human-Oankali conflict. Jodahs, the human-Oankali construct ooloi protagonist of Imago, proves to the Oankali that the aspects of humanity they most fear can be used fruitfully for the benefit of both humans and Oankali. There may be a biological flaw—or there may not—but Butler implies time and again that culture has the power either to reassert the old hierarchies or to triumph over them.

Hoda Zaki has argued that in the Xenogenesis books Butler demonstrates "a pervasive human need to alienate from oneself those who appear to be different—i.e., to create Others." Zaki cites the way humans of different races band together only to oppress the Oankali in the series as proof of this assertion. In fact, I would like to argue that Butler indicates exactly the opposite. The humans have been constituted as the colonized Other by the Oankali; as Donna Haraway points out, their reeducation on the Oankali ship resembles the Middle Passage of slaves on their way to America. At this point, the humans are like animals to the Oankali, more interesting for their cancers than their thoughts; their identities have been stripped away, and they are "reduced to flesh"—texts to be inscribed by their oppressors, who identify them as nothing but a package of genes. The human resistance to the Oankali parallels the resistance of a slave to rape by a master who will later claim her child as his property. The agency required to transform this situation into a relationship of equality and trust is staggering, but the transformation occurs. By the end of Imago, a group of fertile humans enter an Oankali community of their own free will, after a consensus formed through argument and communication. They can do so because, for the first time, they are not an oppressed minority victimized by the Oankali.

It is interesting that Butler's sympathy for the oppressor leads so many readers to interpret Xenogenesis as a condemnation of humanity. Although she points out that in many ways the Oankali are superior to human beings. Butler insists—through the mouths of many different characters, human and Oankali—that the enforced crossbreeding of an unwilling species is a terrible crime. The Oankali (like the Tlic) commit miscegenation not in their attempt to create a new species, but in an attempt to dominate the old—the humans, who have value in and of themselves. Xenogenesis represents a breakthrough in Butler's fiction in that, for the first time, the protagonists do not have to work alone to achieve their ends. Although Lilith initially resembles Dana, Mary, and other Butler female heroes who take on entire worlds isolated from community support or input, she becomes a member of a large "family" that includes not only humans and Oankali, but animals, plants, and sentient spaceships as well. The world at the end of Imago is truly utopian, a society in which all have an equal chance to work together on the construction of a new world. It fulfills Donna Haraway's dream of "an 'elsewhere' from which to envision a different and less hostile order of relationships among people, animals, technologies, and land," and Butler's dream of a world in which differences can be recognized without prejudice and celebrated. "'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…. When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.'"

(read more)

This section contains 9,300 words
(approx. 31 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Michelle Erica Green
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Essay by Michelle Erica Green from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
Follow Us on Facebook