Late Sci-Fi Writer, Octavia Butler, Confronts Humanity In Xenogenesis Series
“I am attracted to science fiction because it’s so wide open. I am able to do anything and there are no walls to hem me in. There is no human condition that I am stopped from examining.” - Octavia Butler
Not many are exempt from feeling the current political climate of our country. Regardless of which side you are on, there is reason to feel in more ways than one. Right-winged folks are anxious to discover whether their pick will be everything they hope for while left-winged people are biting their nails, wondering if all will go up into flames. Independents are sitting back with a box of popcorn. During a time like this, evaluating humanity through a transparent lens is crucial and has led many people wondering, how did we get here? and what do we do now? Octavia Butler, who passed in 2006, was a science fiction writer who had the talent to confront those questions and more, forging a way for her reader to view the world differently. She maintained the talent to challenge our perceptions of reality, making a better world appear tangible despite our political and cultural divides. In her work, she takes us beyond what we know here on earth by stretching the possibilities into the vastness of space. And without direct intentions, she forces her reader to reflect on the time we are currently wasting on all this bickering instead of reaching for the stars. Her Xenogenesis series, published between 1987 and 1989, does exactly that.
My interest in the universe is only about five years old. Before then, I was deeply instilled with the fear and guilt of organized religion, believing that any questions I had would reserve me a VIP seat into a burning pit of hell. I recently revisited the journals of my youth to discover I was like a depressed girl, always thinking God was angry with me because of something I said or did. After reading the thoughts of my younger self, I remember thinking, “This is abuse.” In my rebellion against an invisible force that only made me feel bad about life, I started aggressively asking questions without the burden of retracting, which eventually led me to some answers. I found myself fearless of the unknown, seeking it with an urgency and wanting to immerse myself in writing that challenged all perceptions of reality. To me, nothing is impossible and stories that reflect such goodness are gold. As I grew to love the stories I discovered, I was confronted with a problem I felt needed some fixing. The majority -- if not, all -- of the characters in these stories did not look like me. With conviction, I looked for black science fiction writers and stumbled upon Octavia Butler.
The first Butler book I picked up was Part One of the Xenogenesis series, Dawn. It’s a novel about a woman named Lilith who wakes up in a room with no doors or windows. The room appears to have no way in or out, its surface smooth and impenetrable. We are eventually introduced to an advanced being called the Oankali whose purpose in the universe is to acquire and trade on the molecular level. They obtain an understanding of cells in a very intimate space, their unisex person with the ability to manipulate. After the Oankali rescue humans from an earth dying of radiation because of a world war, they expect to now acquire human cells while providing us with some of theirs. But, of course, not every human is going to accept this and that makes for much drama. Lilith is the human they chose to help them build a more human relationship with earthlings.
We learn what is happening at the same pace as Lilith, asking questions and feeling frustrated by the lack of answers. I recognized quickly that upon meeting Lilith, I did not know what she looked like. The cover of the edition I purchased has a black woman on it, but covers can be tricky (check out this alarming edition). Was this featured person the main character? Unconsciously, I utilized the cover to envision Lilith, convincing myself that Octavia Butler was black, so will her lead. As I continued to read, I abandoned the idea of the cover image representing Lilith and I created her with my own features. Maybe that was the point?
Lilith, literally, could have been anyone. Her dialect and narration wasn’t different from the collective writing and flowed fluidly. She didn’t act a certain way or do certain things to categorize herself into a box. In Octavia Butler’s own self assurance, she gave me the freedom to choose, at first, who Lilith would be. It isn’t until much later in the story that the color of Lilith’s skin is revealed as brown. In that moment, it was like filling in a blank coloring book, her shade dominating the page.
Butler utilizes the extraterrestrial to prove that, with the acceptance of change, anything is possible. She sheds light on the division we have on our planet, attempting to prove that the need for a hierarchy is a deficiency in our genetic code. She provides perspective on what it means to be a creature, bringing the human race down several notches. Her work demands an evaluation of the self, forcing you to question whether you truly know who and what you are. She implemented vivid scenes of sexual intimacy between human and the Oankali, declaring the irrelevance of our current concerns with gender. Her work is filled with political statements that are relevant for the times, serving as several smacks in the face towards our leaders.
Most importantly, though, I was able to relate with the personal convictions that pulled Butler to write in the first place. For instance, with every story I write, the lead is a black, multicultural woman with an emphasis on Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage. She is petite, strong and intelligent. I wanted to look up one day to watch a film and see myself. I refused to believe I was the only consumer in the world who wanted to see myself as a superhero or scientist -- a lead that remained in every scene until the ending credits. I have grown exhausted with narratives that depict black and brown people as the enemy, the ones who don’t discover anything new or venture out to other worlds. Afterall, to see myself on the big screen is part of self care. So I write about these women and the people they love, pouring positive energy onto it. During a 2000 interview with Charlie Rose, Butler said she writes because “you’ve got to make your own worlds. You’ve got to write yourself in.” She had my attention.
In Adulthood Rites, we are able to view the world from the point of view of Lilith’s son, Akin, who is mixed with human and Oankali. He is not her first child nor her last, but he is the first male created with the species mixture. Considering the human male ego, its hunger for power and its enslavement to war, the Oankali feared making a boy that would also obtain the knowledge of life on an intimate cellular level. However, because of Akin’s humanness, he was able to develop sympathy towards the earthling experience while also assisting his Oankali relatives, serving as the voice of reason between the two species. Akin eventually convinces the Oankali to allow him to build a colony on Mars for humans to live separate of them if they choose.
Through the Xenogenesis series, Butler is delicate in her teaching that a family should be allowed versatility to shape itself in ways that deem necessary for all persons, eliminating the template of a two parent household. The dynamic between families stretch far into the third installment, Imago, in which we learn what it’s like to have five biological parents. Yes, it takes five people to make one being. Each member of the family has a specific role that fulfills the collective purpose and each member is aware that their individual job is heavy. By the time we reach Imago, though, much time has passed. Akin has been on Mars for 50 years, and Lilith is still on a healing earth giving birth to mixed babies. The drama arrives when one of her children, Jodahs, accidently evolves with the ability to shapeshift, manipulate matter and cure or create disease. Would the human side overshadow the Oankali side, inching Jodahs closer to a hierarchical universe domination? That is certainly everyone’s question and the collection ends without ever answering it.
Although Butler says she does not enter her work with the intentions to release a cultural message, the themes sneak through effortlessly. “You are hierarchical,” she writes. “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 is like ignoring cancer.” Her intelligence seeps its way through the voice of the Oankali, serving as proof that she was ahead of her times, able to conceive concepts and ideas deemed almost useless.
Octavia Butler was a genius. Her talent for imagination allowed her to observe our past and present in order to foresee a collective future. She provides her reader with the flexibility to generate their own ideas by leaving so much room for possibility. The characters she chooses to develop are majority black and brown, from parts of the world in which languages like Portuguese and Spanish are most dominant, her lead often reserved for the black woman. Butler created stories that are considered science fiction because they are so out of this singular world, filled with such unlimited creative power that it is easier to digest if believed to be fake. But who are we, truly, to dictate who and what the universe is able to create? We have yet to arrive at a point in which we understand our consciousness, our brains still foreign to us in its complete usage. Butler’s breakdown and understanding of such complex issues is absolutely magical. ♦