Strange Bedfellows: Eugenics, Attraction, and Aversion in the Works of Octavia E. Butler
By Heather Shaw
18 December 2000
Octavia E. Butler is the author of 11 published novels and has won many of science fiction's most prestigious awards, including the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, as well as the much-touted MacArthur "genius" Award. Too often seen simply as a "black female science fiction writer," Butler's popularity comes from her strength as a storyteller, not from the color of her skin. Her stories explore topics ranging from race to feminism to conservation, but it is the interactions between her characters that makes her books so absorbing. Butler does not shy away from difficult situations for her characters, and it is this willingness to defy convention that results in the vividly unique worlds of her stories.
One of the elements of Butler's works is her ability to combine diverse types of people in believable ways. She convinces us of attractions between old people and young people, good and evil people, alien and human, and even between brother and sister, parent and child. Her willingness to explore the range of arousal, intimacy, and attraction between unlikely bedfellows may make us uneasy, but it is always believable. Butler never fails to provide us with the personal history behind the relationships, which gives an underlying layer of authentic humanity to her stories.
The ways in which Butler achieves this authentic relationship history may make us squirm as much as the relationships themselves, but this is not surprising given the task at hand. The unusual attractions in her stories are often the result of compulsion by an external force employing eugenics to further its own goals. This kind of selective breeding has two outcomes: first, a new society is formed, one with its own rules and morality about what kinds of attraction are considered "normal"; although the first generation is forced to participate, the second generation accepts without question. Second, there is usually an unexpected repulsion as a result of this breeding; parents are unable to stand their own children or humans are no longer able to touch one another. This pattern is evident in almost all of Butler's works, with fascinating and surprisingly novel results every time.
The most prominent example of unusual matings compelled by an outside force occurs in The Xenogenesis Trilogy. In this series, an alien race saves humanity from the brink of complete self-destruction, although the price is high. The Oankali survive by co-opting and cross-breeding with other species from myriad different planets across the galaxy. They themselves are changed in the process as a consequence of their reproductive system. Their mating units have three genders: male, ooloi, and female. The ooloi are the keystone, the ones who combine the genes and create the possibility of new life in the offspring of their more conventionally gendered mates. The catch is that this genetic manipulation leaves males and females of the original species repulsed by one another; when a human is mated to an ooloi, they are forever changed, and can no longer stand the touch of another human without an ooloi in between them to mediate the gap.
The Xenogenesis books evoke an emotional response because of this -- human beings are a social species, and we like to be able to touch one another. Naturally, the first humans who are mated with ooloi are not keen on the idea, and the first book of the trilogy, Dawn, is the story of how humans are slowly persuaded to comply, as likely leaders from their own race are chosen to be the first to mate. At first, the Oankali keep these first humans carefully separated from other humans and human artifacts, housing them with their own Oankali "family," forcing acceptance on them. Once Lilith, the protagonist, has given in to the Oankali plan, she is used as a group leader. It is through her that the aliens try to persuade the more recalcitrant humans to accept their new situation. This is an ingenious move on the part of the Oankali; it acknowledges the strength of the human mind to hold strong to its previous values and beliefs, relying on the familiarity of human interaction to help break these habits. By using Lilith, who is herself a strong personality, the Oankali hope to convince many more humans to give in and accept their distasteful situation.
Clay's Ark (from the Patternist series) also examines human will versus alien intention. Clay's Ark is the name of the first manned spaceship to reach another planet. Upon its return to Earth, the ship crashes into the American Southwest, killing all but one of those aboard. We later discover that the crew deliberately crashed in an attempt to avoid spreading an alien disease that not only drastically alters the human genetic makeup, but also instills its surviving victims with the irresistible desire to spread the disease through biological contact. Any physical contact at all is incredibly sexually satisfying for victims of the disease. The crash survivor tries to avoid human contact for as long as he can, but eventually he is drawn to an isolated ranch in the mountains, where he settles and spreads the disease to the handful of humans living there. Only a few survive the disease, but they soon have children -- children who are more animal than human. By Patternmaster the "clayarks" have bred all humanity out of themselves, and feel no remorse at their need to infect the remaining human societies with their disease. They no longer fight the attraction.
It is through genetic manipulation that human will is broken down, but this by itself is not always enough. In the Xenogenesis series, human pheromones are so altered by the ooloi that humans find one another physically repugnant. Despite this, many of the first generation continue to resist, although some do finally make the choice of family with the aliens rather than a childless, lonely life among other genetically altered humans. Attraction and repulsion are literally programmed into their bodies, but in the end quite a few humans never accept that their offspring will only be two-thirds human, and they ignore any sexual draw to the aliens they may feel to live out their lives in the old ways.
Since the results of genetic manipulation do not take effect until the second generation, other means of compulsion must be used at first. Force is far more effective, as seen most clearly in the Patternist series. In this series, Doro, an ancient African mutant, attains near-immortality by moving from body to body, killing the original personality in the process. Over the centuries, he notices that certain souls "taste" better when he kills them, and he begins to gather together in isolated communities those that share this "taste" (which is a characteristic of telepathic ability).
At first he forces his people to inbreed -- brother-to-sister, mother-to-son -- in order to produce a ready supply of ever tastier "food," but his loneliness soon leads him to build what he hopes will be his own race, a race that shares some of his supernatural abilities. He continues to use threats and force to achieve his goals -- his tracking sense allows him to hunt down those who try to escape him, either killing them and returning wearing their body as a lesson to the others, or literally beating them into submission. Each body he takes only lasts a short time, but he fathers (or, sometimes, mothers) as many children as he can before abandoning it for a new body. After a generation of living under Doro's influence, his children are amazingly docile and eager to please him, even to the point of feeling honored when he comes to take them (after they have produced enough offspring and expended their usefulness to him). It is only those settlements he neglects for too long, or the occasional "wild seed" genetic line, that require the use of force to maintain obedience; the children he sees on a regular basis adore him without question.
The psionic abilities of Doro's communities makes them prone to despising one another -- usually due to "mind noise" that the fledgling telepaths pick up on -- while at the same time having a need to be with others of their kind. Thus many of Doro's settlements become more and more volatile as he breeds people who "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em"; in fact, some of his more daring breeding experiments result in bloodshed and suicide; acts of violent fury and desperation are both common in his communities.
By Mind of My Mind, Doro has finally achieved what he hopes is the pinnacle of his breeding -- a telepath named Mary who not only has the ability to pull together Doro's active telepaths, but can activate and join with his latent ones as well. She creates a "Pattern" that connects and soothes their minds, allows them to work with one another without the unfiltered mental noise and confusion of their pre-Pattern existence.
Again, Mary's Pattern is not voluntary -- once called, the telepaths and latents have no choice but to answer and join -- and she is met with resentment and anger. She must show her power to obtain compliance, although she has as little choice about maintaining the Pattern as they do in joining it. It is only after their resistance to drastic change has ebbed that they learn to enjoy the new power that the Pattern gives them. By drawing on their special individual skills, they learn to use their minds for everything from healing, to art, to fighting.
A new society forms. The old pattern of nuclear families changes, and it is more comfortable for families to be made up of many adults. This unusual attraction is paired with a new repulsion: when Mary has a child she soon learns that children -- who are pre-Pattern until their transition in their early teens -- have too much mental noise and are able to disrupt the serenity of the Pattern. The Patternists become "allergic" to children of their own kind. In order to serve as substitute parents and teachers, "mutes" (those without mental abilities) are first worked into the Patternist community. They are given mental conditioning and orders, convinced that their choices are made of their own free will, and are set about their tasks. A new example of unnatural attraction -- that of a slave to master -- is created.
The novella Bloodchild also explores the relationship of captive to captor. In this story, a failed human colony is held captive by native aliens on a preserve, where they are allowed to breed among themselves -- but with the knowledge that some of their sons will be taken to be used as human incubators for alien young. The aliens are gruesomely cut out of the human host and placed in an animal carcass to feast, hopefully before the parasitic youths mature enough to begin eating their host. This repulsive state of affairs is sullenly accepted by the first captive human generation, but their children do not feel quite the same way. "Bloodchild" follows a young boy who has grown up with the knowledge that he has been chosen as a host. He has a close relationship with his alien "mate," and is easily comforted and undisturbed by its presence. As in both the Xenogenesis and Patternist series, compulsion, attraction and repulsion are intricately intertwined, although in "Bloodchild" the second generation responds favorably because of nurture instead of genetic manipulation or "nature." Perhaps it is this lack of biological fine-tuning that causes the boy to question when his time comes to fulfill his duty; his human upbringing still causes him to vacillate, but in the end, he is willing to submit to his fate, and is even somewhat proud of his role.
Butler explores the attraction of a master/slave relationship explicitly in her novel Kindred. Dana, a contemporary black woman, is drawn back through time to the early 1800s by her white, slave-owning ancestor, Rufus. She travels back through time every time his life is in mortal danger, but she can only return when her own life is threatened in his time. This attraction is not sexual and never becomes so for her, although her black ancestors owned by Rufus are not so lucky. He forces himself on her ancestor Alice, and Alice, while she doesn't like it, accepts that she is a slave and has no choice in the matter. Dana, who detests much of what Rufus does, is forced to continue to save his life, in hopes that he will someday soon beget the correct ancestor with Alice, thus ensuring her own birth in the next century. She can not escape her desire to save her own life. In this way, both attraction and repulsion are wrapped up in the same relationship. The element of compulsion is once again present in the form of self-benefiting eugenics: the right breeding means that she lives, and Dana must come to terms with that fact.
The promise of life is a great motivator, and Butler explores this in a gentler way in her latest series, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. The world of these books is frighteningly close to our own, and Butler depicts our social structure slowly crumbling, with increasing crime and corruption, while the environment becomes hotter and more arid. In Parable of the Sower, the protagonist, Lauren, is forced to head north when her walled community is destroyed around her, and along her journey she collects a new community of people around her. What Lauren offers is not compulsion or force, but hope: she has been working for years on developing her own philosophy, her own religion, Earthseed. Earthseed attempts to make sense of the world and gives hope by looking at the possibility of colonizing other worlds as a way to save the human race. In contrast to Butler's earlier works, what is unusual about the use of attraction in this series -- apart from some age and race differences among couples -- is that there is no compulsion behind it. Butler explores the possibility of love and hope as a catalyst to creating a new society -- one that is not looked favorably upon by the remaining structure of the Christian world around them.
Parable of the Talents alternates between Lauren's journals and her daughter Larkin's interpretation of them. Larkin -- along with all the other young children of Earthseed -- was stolen away by Christian fundamentalists as an infant, and her interpretation of her mother's religion is full of misunderstanding and resentment. The loss of the chance to raise their own young is a huge setback to the Earthseed community, and as a result much of their second generation is less, and not more, accepting than the first. Although other children are born and still more are adopted from the streets, Lauren does not give birth again. The legacy Lauren hopes to leave must be through her followers, not through her own flesh and blood.
Although not every unusual attraction in Butler's works leads to the creation of a new society, the unconventional relationships she portrays do, at the very least, challenge the standards of their society. Butler touches on bisexuality, incest, and even bestiality in a sympathetic way. Her short story "Near of Kin," is a quick look at a woman dealing with her estranged mother's death. As she sorts through her mother's things, she finally confronts her uncle, whom she also suspects is her father. Instead of revulsion at this revelation, the protagonist is reassured -- she has always felt closer to her uncle than her mother, and she is relieved to finally have the truth confirmed. Her uncle admits that he would have married his sister if he could have, and he says this without shame or regret. Neither character feels the need to make this truth universally known or to act on it in any way; it is their own acceptance of the truth that is important. In contrast, the incest in Clay's Ark is sympathetic because the participants are at the mercy of the disease which compels them to touch, to mate, without regard for social mores. There is no conscious choice as there is in "Near of Kin," and this makes this depiction of incest far more disturbing. It speaks highly of Butler's writing that she can make both situations -- incest because of conscious choice and incest because of compulsion -- completely understandable.
In Wild Seed Butler allows her shape-shifting protagonist, Anyanwu, to explore the possibilities of life, love, and relationships with other dolphins while she herself is in dolphin form; in fact, Anyanwu mates and bears dolphin young. Even though Butler stops short at describing actual intercourse, she successfully builds romantic suspense:
Her male dolphin came to touch her again and drove all thoughts of Doro from her mind. She understood that the dolphin's interest had become more than casual. He stayed close to her now, touching her, matching her movements with his own. She realized she did not mind his attention. She had avoided animal mating in the past. She was a woman. Intercourse with an animal was an abomination. She would feel unclean reverting to her human form with the seed of a male animal inside of her.
But now . . . it was as though the dolphins were not animals.
Anyanwu can accept this mating only by her own realization that the dolphins are not as different from people as they may appear at first. Butler is always careful to smooth the way for us, to allow us to understand and accept the strange attractions she creates in her stories. The stranger the pairing, the gentler she is with her readers, taking the time to give the necessary background and reasoning behind the attraction. In fact, one could judge the strangeness of a mating by the amount of space given over to justifying it. In Patternmaster, when the protagonist, Teray, asks his companion, Amber, which she prefers more, men or women, she answers quite simply:
"When I meet a woman who attracts me, I prefer women," she said. "And when I meet a man who attracts me, I prefer men."
"You mean you haven't made up your mind yet."
"I mean exactly what I said. I told you you wouldn't like it. Most people who ask want me definitely on one side or another."
He thought about that. "No, if that's the way you are, I don't mind."
"Thanks a lot."
Most of Butler's other creations do not find such easy acceptance, but when she's done with her explanation, our reaction is usually the same as Teray's. We may squirm at the thought of incest, and shudder at the use of force, but we are always, always riveted by her words. In fact, the results of her unusual pairings -- the societies they create and the new rules and social mores that go with them -- often call into question our own squeamishness. Where do our social taboos come from? What kind of force is keeping us from exploring our own genetic possibilities?
Butler reaches out to us on a purely human level, questioning our assumptions about ourselves and our society's morals. We may not come away from her stories advocating incest, bestiality, or eugenics, but we might be a little less judgmental about experiences outside the social norm. And when we look at bisexuality, interracial marriage, and May-December relationships in light of other, more unusual attractions, we get a perspective on just how small these differences truly are. We are, every one of us, only human.
The Unofficial Octavia Butler Page -- some biography, lists of her works and literary criticism, interviews, and more links.
A Bibliography Summary -- lists each work with the year it was published, as well as specific awards won.
A general overview of Butler -- a bibliography with a brief discussion of stories and themes.
A Few Rules About Predicting the Future -- an article by Octavia E. Butler.