Mothership Zeta is please to honor Octavia Butler’s birthday with an early posting of this article from our July issue:
We agree with Rachael–where were the valuable lessons we needed to hear from Octavia Butler when we were growing up? If you haven’t read this master of science fiction, check out what ze has to say about Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy.
I Wish I’d Read Xenogenesis Twenty Years Ago
by Rachael Acks
As I write this, I am actually angry that I didn’t read any Octavia Butler in high school. Really, that I didn’t read any of her books until now, at the age of 35. That I hadn’t really even heard of her as a writer of note who should be read until I was a writer myself and witnessing the ongoing conversation about diversity (or lack thereof) in the genre.
We did read a bit of science fiction in high school. I don’t know if this is normal or not. 1984, Ender’s Game, Tunnel in the Sky, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World are the ones I remember off the top of my head. In my own time, I read Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and a lot of the other white dudes of the genre, because that’s what I heard was important and interesting.
None of them have left me as awed as Octavia Butler. And this is the first time as an adult I’ve read a book—several books—that made me think, I wish I’d read this twenty years ago, because maybe it would have helped me think a little differently about myself and the world around me.
The Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago) has left me fascinated and profoundly disturbed in a way no book has in years. Butler created two of the most fascinating species I’ve ever read, the Oankali and their descendent Oankali-Human constructs, and then wrote first person narratives from their perspectives that are simultaneously eminently readable and discomfortingly alien.
The Oankali rescue the last remnants of humanity from an Earth that’s been all but destroyed by nuclear war, and salvage the planet as best they can. They then give the survivors a choice of how they will become extinct as a species: either die off of old age after being sterilized, or mate with the Oankali to produce an entirely new species but no more humans. They say humans are too fundamentally flawed (with the “Human Contradiction” of genetically guaranteed intelligence but also a desire for social hierarchies) to be allowed to continue on their own. Humans take this about as well as you’d expect—why rescue us just to kill us in this different way?—and the resulting mass of conflict, contradiction, inevitability, and unpleasant choices makes for a disturbing and fascinating read.
Octavia Butler doesn’t write unambiguously righteous characters except maybe Akin, the Oankali-Human construct main character of the second book, who makes it his mission to see that humans as a species are able to continue via a colony on Mars. There is no good species and bad species in this to make this easy on us as readers. The humans rape and murder each other at the earliest opportunity and happily rekindle all their old prejudices and hatreds. The Oankali, while supposedly abhorring death, condemn an entire species to die and offer them only fundamentally coercive mating as an alternative.
There’s this sense of struggle and rage against the inevitable that pervades all of the books, though in Dawn most of all, something that caught me emotionally and refused to let go. Lilith Iyapo, the main character of Dawn, is constantly forced by the Oankali to choose between equally untenable options. Eventually she becomes the mother of the first Oankali-Human hybrid children—impregnated against her will, note—because she chooses survival at the cost of what to her feels like a fundamental betrayal of her humanity. Lilith is such a tough, angry hero, I can’t help but love her and feel her helpless frustration and sympathize with her attempts to make the best of a terrible situation and find what happiness she can.
I wish I had known Lilith when I was younger, and angry, and feeling out of place with no good options. I wish I’d known these books, with their incredibly diverse array of humanity (Lilith is African-American, and the majority of the other human characters are non-white) long before I ever started hitting the discussions of the stunning lack of diversity we see in much popular media. Because look, Octavia Butler did it, and wrote fascinating books that were all in print before 1990!
And for all the creepy, coercive nature of their sexuality, I wish I’d known the Oankali. Octavia Butler imagined a species with a third gender, called ooloi, which is the most powerful and important in their society. It would have done me good, to have it sitting in my mind that apparent gender during childhood isn’t a straight line to adult gender—for the Oankali, there’s a certain amount of choice involved, where if a child feels like they would rather be male or female or other, they spend more time with the parent of that gender prior to their metamorphosis. I wish I’d had those notions percolating in my thoughts twenty years ago, rather than reading yet another novel about how horrible humans become when they’re cut off from civilization. Heck, Dawn or Adulthood Rites could have covered that base—though here I feel like Butler’s point was more devolution due to profound lack of hope—while still including a lot of other crunchy goodness.
There’s so much social and scientific complexity in what Octavia Butler wrote in Xenogenesis, and she does it with spare prose and from a perspective so different from mine. There have been excellent pieces written about the racial component in her work; I’m not going to rehash it here when I could only do a poor job. But thirty years later these are still relevant socially, and also on a personal level to me as a queer individual, if a white one. I’ve gotten more out of these books than I ever did from Clarke or Asimov. They’ll stay with me far longer, and I’m better for it.
I’m angry I didn’t know Octavia Butler’s work when I was younger, but I’m glad and honored and humbled to have met her now through her words.
Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. Ze’s written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Rachael lives in Denver with zir two furry little bastards, where ze twirls zir mustache, watches movies, and bikes. For more information, see http://www.rachaelacks.com