READING BUTLER’S EXOGENESIS TRILOGY (4): God is change, writing is becoming

The Oankali are incestuous, male and female mate from the same family. They are so closed off in their families, so incestuous, that they need a third sex, the ooloi, to bring in genetic material from the outside and avoid stagnation or degenerescence. But even this is not enough, and they must roam the galaxy finding new intelligent life to overcome the perils of inbreeding.

Despite their ethic of life and their search of otherness the Oankali represent yet another imprisoning of life in a Form, just as humans do. What they seek from humanity is “cancer”, a biological destructuration that is a disease for us but that can be used by the Oankali for regeneration and metamorphosis. What they get from us is not just this biological destructuration but the bases for at least accepting social destructuration in the form of liberty and independence. Apparently they had never left the option of remaining unchanged to the other species that they met and “traded” with. Everyone had to be assimilated. Thanks to Akin’s atypical development and his espousal of the human need for independence they have authorised a part of humanity to found a free colony on Mars. We can imagine that they will now apply this principle to the species they encounter in the future.

The Oankali bring healing and change, to a humanity that had almost completely destroyed itself and rendered the Earth uninhabitable. The human form is not an eternal essence, and not necessarily a good in itself. Deleuze asks in his book on Foucault:

“What does Foucault mean when he says there is no point in crying over the death of man? In fact, has this form been a good one? Has it helped to enrich or even preserve the forces within man, those of living, speaking, or working? Has it saved living men from a violent death?”

The death of Man need not be the extinction of a species, but can be the consequence of the acceptance of change beyond the given forms. Man is hierarchical, but so are the Oankali (one cannot be taken seriously before one’s metamorphosis into an adult, even if one has insights that the People, as they call themselves, do not. And there is another hierarchy: the Oankali imprison life in their own genetic technology and traditions. Humans help them to free this life with their gifts of cancer and independence, just as they bring healing and change to the life of which humanity is just one custodial form.

The Oankali are enriched by humans in many ways. They gain cancer, and thus the possibility of regeneration and of transformation. But this gift is too destabilising for them, and they need bonding with humans to stabilise this new potential, or else they will become totallt de-differentiated and their cells will disperse. The Oankali are intelligent, but they do not seem to have much emotional intelligence, relying on bonding, chemical and neural interfacing, and rigid traditions to understand and to manipulate the other, whether Oankali or human. Lilith, and later Tate, and then many others, give them a chance to develop emotionally and to accept the others aspirations, and not just their unfamiliar genetic make-up.

“Writing is becoming”, Gilles Deleuze tells us, and the Oankali do have a system of writing, only it is genetic. They are one image of the science-fiction writer, bringing estrangement to the species they encounter. Lilith is another image of the writer, bringing resistance and a commitment to freedom into the cultural understanding of the Oankali. Cognitive estrangement and ethical engagement make for writing that is not just repetition of official stereotypes and conventional tropes:

“In writing one always gives writing to those who do not have it, but the latter give writing a becoming without which it would not exist, without which it would be pure redundancy in the service of the established powers” (DIALOGUES, 44, translation modified by me).

For Deleuze and for Butler all becoming is double-becoming, we change something else as it changes us:

“Our children will be better than either of us,” it continued. “We will moderate your hierarchical problems and you will lessen our physical limitations. Our children won’t destroy themselves in a war, and if they need to regrow a limb or to change themselves in some other way they’ll be able to do it” (LILITH’S BROOD, 247-248, lsecond last page of DAWN).

Butler herself writes to become other, and cognitive estrangement is accompanied by existential estrangement:

“Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow . . . Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself”.



READING BUTLER’S EXOGENESIS TRILOGY (3): Betrayal in the service of Becoming

The ending of each book in the trilogy is particularly charged with meaning.

1) DAWN: “She let Nikanj lead her into the dark forest and to one of the concealed dry exits”. Lilith lost her busband and son in a car accident before the war that destroyed human civilisation. Whatever one may think of the Oankali, they, and her ooloi mate Nikanj in particular, are the way out of the dark forest, the path to change and new life.

2) ADULTHOOD RITES: “He was perhaps the last to see the smoke cloud behind them and Phoenix still burning”. Akin, leading the resisters ready to follow him, looks back at their town, called “Phoenix”, burning. He is proposing the rebirth of the phoenix from its ashes: a human colony on Mars. Once again, he is the agent of change for the humans who had been stuck in a dead-end.

3) IMAGO: Jodahs, the ooloi human-oankali hybrid, plants the seed that will grow into a living town, and eventually mature into a spaceship to leave the Earth: “Seconds after I had expelled it, I felt it begin the tiny positioning movements of independent life”. Jodahs, who is like no other Oankali, plants a future spaceship, and is a major agent of change. Despite all the bonding, bondage, dependence and addiction the last words of the trilogy valorise “independent life”.

One is reminded of the axiom “God is Change” of the religion of Earthseed in Butler’s PARABLE OF THE SOWER: “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change.” Lilith accepts change, and is ultimately in return the source of change for the Oankali, as she is the human mother of Akin and of Jodahs. They seem to have inherited from Lilith, and from humanity, the spirit of resistance.

READING BUTLER’S XENOGENESIS TRILOGY (2): resistance is not futile

The Oankali are much more technologically advanced than us, able to travel round the galaxy, terraform planets, mutate themselves as they wish. Yet all this is rendered possible by manipulation of their own DNA and that of the species they encounter. They have no machines and no science, just the perceptions and the capacities of their bodies, assisted by the bodies of their companion species, such as their ship. They have no writing and no culture. As they perceive at the molecular level (and for the ooloi at the sub-atomic level) they are convinced that they know directly and infallibly, (for example, that humans left t their own devices will inevitably destroy themselves). Yet they are constantly making mistakes, from underestimating Lilith’s resistance to giving birth to an ooloi human-oankali hybrid. Another “mistake” (occuring in the second volume ADULTHOOD RITES) is allowing Akin a male human-oankali hybrid, or “construct, to be held captive by the resisters at a crucial moment in his own development. Instead of bonding with his same-age sibling, as is the rule, he “bonded” in a more abstract way with all of humanity and came to understand and support their desire for freedom and independence. Given this outcome, we may see that what is constantly presented by the Oankali as a biological imperative is often a tradition, that is in fact optional, which is adopted to short-circuit the sublimation of their drives into more impersonal cultural imperatives.

Lilith trains the first group of humans to be sent back to the surface of the Earth. However, she does not teach defeat and resignation, but rather intelligence and resistance: “Learn and run“. This is an interesting variant of what the Oankali call the Human Contradiction, that they formulate as intelligence and hierarchy. As they see no problem in dependence, including chemical dependence, they are not be able to perceive the human drive for independence as at least as basic as the drive to hierarchy. There is not just a contradiction in humans, but a basic ambivalence. The Oankali do not understand such ambivalennce.

LILITH’S BROOD, the new title to the XENOGENESIS TRILOGY, expresses this human acceptance of ambivalence. The first meaning of this title is Lilith’s children both physical (her hybrid “construct” children) and spiritual (the resisters). Yet “brood” is also a noun derived from “to brood”, and designates dark and deep thinking about subjects that provoke ambivalent feelings. Lilith is dependent on Nikanj and loves it and her family, yet she rages against her dependence. Sometimes she just drops everything and goes of into the forest for a few days to brood.


The XENOGENESIS TRILOGY, also called LILITH’S BROOD, tells the story of how after an apocalyptic nuclear war that killed almost all humans and rendered the Earth uninhabitable some humans were saved by an alien race, the Oankali, that travel around the galaxy in search of “trade”. They save whatever humans they can and keep them in suspended animation, while studying them and genetically transforming some of their number to be able to interact with the humans. Humans are woken up on an individual basis and the Oankali try to establish a dialogue. The first obstacle is xenophobia: even in their new form, modified so as to be closer to the human form, the Oankali are so alien that they inspire fear, disgust, hostility, even madness, in the humans that are allowed to see them. Lilith, a black American woman, is one of the first humans to overcome their fear and repugnance, and is chosen to waken little by little the humans that are kept in suspended animation, to explain their situation to them, and to train them for survival on an Earth very different from the one they knew centuries before. The Oankali have made the Earth habitable again, but its flora and fauna are quite different, with new unfamiliar animals and plants, and old familiar species having become altered in ways requiring preparation so as to be able to deal with them without risk.

To accomplish a full “trade” the Oankali have restored the Earth and intend to send the humans back to live on their home planet once again. However, the “trade” they have in mind is the exchange of genetic material and the production of Oankali-human hybrids. The humans sent back to Earth will remain sterile, unless they mate with the Oankali. This mating is a fivesome: a human male and female, an Oankali male and female, and a third Oankali sex , an Ooloi, whose body is capable of genetic engineering, including interspecies miscegenation. For the Oankali are genetically programmed for xenophilia, to actively seek out new intelligent life-forms and to inter-breed with them. The whole technology of the Oankali is based on their ability to manipulate life with their own bodies, common to all members of their species, even if the Ooloi bear this capacity to the highest degree. They have no science, they just perceive and manipulate at the molecular level, and the Ooloi at the sub-atomic level. They have no art, and no literature, and seem to think only literally. So their xenophilia is enacted only at the physical literal level. They do not take on other cultures, only alien genomes. So they are both a good and a bad image of self-creation by means of the encounter with alterity. They do not use writing, as they have more direct means of communication: nervous system to nervous system, chemical and genic interfacing. They are capable of understanding writing and of using it, but they would only be able to write documentary histories, no theory, no science, and no fiction.

They thus both resemble and differ from the science fiction writer. Octavia Butler says of herself:

Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow . . . Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.

The Oankali write their stories at the genetic level, and so do not see them as stories. I think that this is where they themselves exhibit xenphobia. Supposedly, they “perceive” directly in the human genome a fatal flaw, a penchant for self-destruction, born of the combination of intelligence and hierarchy that defines us genetically (called by the Oankali the “human Ccontradiction”). Yet the prime motivation of Lilith, and of most humans, is resistance and the struggle to be free. The Oankali have tremendous difficulty in seeing this resistance as anything more than the expression of the desire for destruction. They seem to have no concept at all of sublimation, thinking that a drive must inevitably express itself in literal terms. They just know that humans left to their own devices will destroy themselves, they cannot imagine any other outcome. This is part of their own “Contradiction”: driven to seek out and to exchange with difference they assimilate it and produce only bondage and dependence. Constantly in search of an encounter with the Other, they reduce this encounter to “trade”, and they manipulate all divergence to obtain Consensus.

GAME OF THRONES: polytheistic perception

I don’t think I would have got round to reading GAME OF THRONES if I hadn’t seen the HBO TV series, but I’m glad I did. The series is excellent and is an attractive way to enter the world that G.R.R. Martin has built. The world-building is wonder-inspiring, and the world built is not just some disguised variant of Tolkien’s world. So I think the biggest effort the reader must make is in the first part of the book, as the world is slowly set up from within. Ted Friedman thinks that there is a significant turn in the collective psyche from science-fiction to fantasy as ways of dealing with the imaginative and affective aspects of our relation to the world (here).

The return to a pre-enlightenment world has something in common with the progress on to a post-enlightenment world (the singularity, or Clarke’s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”). Rationalism is not enough, to speak to our contemporary productive unconscious, more is needed. Christian moralism is not enough either. GoT is not set in a world of Christian values, and the narrative voice and structure are not Christian.

Polytheism of different sorts is the religious context, and is an important part of personalities and outlooks. The characters in GoT are not demarcated out into good and evil, with only a tiny amount of ambiguity. They are combinations of light and shadow, though the proportions do vary. The game of thrones itself is not one of establishing the rightful hereditary and noble king on the throne after vanquishing the Dark Lord, it is a game of power strategies and Realpolitik, with no final legitimacy.

So I would argue that along with the shift in our culture from an SF metaphorics to a fantasy one, GoT illustrates and embodies the shift from a Christian monotheistic perception with its dualistic vision to a polytheistic perception with multiple points of view each having a certain degree of validity, and where dark and light are not separate and opposing instances (there is no axis of Evil in the human realm), but are distributed throughout the opposing sides. (The overwhelmingly evil Others exist, but their background presence does not transform the human realm into the site of cristallisation of good).


I cannot review VALIS objectively, as it is a book that belongs to no pre-existing category, combining elements of autobiography, philosophy, science-fiction, gnostic theology, psychoanalysis,and existential self-construction. Like the newly published EXEGESIS it takes its origin in the need to understand respond to the events of February and March 1974 (which he called 2-3-74). He was irradiated by a brilliant pink light emanating from a Christian fish-symbol (ichthys) necklace worn by a young woman. He had a series of visions over the next two months, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand them.The novel splits Dick into two characters: the narrator, Philip K Dick, a moderately successful science-fiction writer; and Horselover fat his crazy illuminated friend, to whom the visions arrived, and whose life became a quest to resolve their enigma.

The principal framework of explanation is a science-fictional variant of gnostic cosmology in which this universe has been constructed by a false, evil and crazy, god, which explains all the irrationality and the suffering that it contains. The world is the Black Iron Prison, and we are its suffering prisoners. The true God is outside the universe and breaking through to heal it and us in various ways, including the pink light that Dick experienced. After many surreal experiences and visions the book ends with the narrator, Philip K. Dick, sitting before the TV, watching and waiting. He is clear that this is his way of continuing the search and keeping to his mission: keeping awake and open.

I think many of us experience moments of revelatory intensity and also of intense despair at the emprisonment of our daily lives and of our very selves. I first read VALIS in 1981, when it first came out. I was all alone in a student room in a god-forsaken empty outer suburb of Paris, unable to speak French, dreaming repeatedly of being shut up in a prison that was shrinking and squashing me out of existence. I empathised with the Gnostics and their idea of this life as a prison. I read VALIS and it spoke to me instantly and deeply. My “pink light” came at a moment of extreme existential and intellectual isolation in my birthplace, in Sydney: I read Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS, and it changed my life. I left Sydney for Paris, attended Deleuze’s lectures for 6 years, and finally took on French nationality and settled down as an English teacher on the French Riviera. And I’m still trying to understand what happened to me.

Dick’s novel opens with the beginnings of his eventual crack-up and suicide attempt:

Horselover Fat’s nervous breakdown began the day he got the phonecall from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself.

This is no message from a divine light, but the beginning of a soul-destroying relationship with a toxic, thanatotic individual, whose name “Gloria” is an ironic mockery of her real state and aims. However, the novel ends with an optimistic phonecall from Horselover Fat reporting on his quest to find the 5th Messiah:

one day I got a phonecall from Horselover Fat: a phonecall from Tokyo. He sounded healthy and excited and full of energy, and amused at my surprise to be hearing from him.

The split between Dick and Fat continues, but now it enriches his life instead of despairing it. Eros has come to win out over thanatos. After all the speculations and synchronicities, after all the encounters both toxic and salvific, there is no final explanation only a new sense of optimism and openness:

My search kept me at home; I sat before the TV set in my living room. I sat; I waited; I watched; I kept myself awake. As we had been told, originally, long ago, to do; I kept my commission.

The message is a synthesis of Buddhist “awakening” and the Jewish/Christian attention to the world where at any minute the next person you encounter could be the “messiah”. In both cases the idea is of an experience even more powerful than the pink light (whatever your “pink light” has been).

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ: on the misconstrual of the mode of existence of religion

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a classic vision of a post-apocalyptic world in which the lacunary remains of our dead culture’s knowledge have been piously hoarded and conserved by monks who have no idea what it means. Even a shopping list is treated as endowed with mystic meaning. The relations of church,state and science are explored in a way that relativises each of them in turn in a mythic frame of the eternal recurrence of hope and destruction presided over by buzzards and sharks,symbols of predation and violence – the powers of this world. Wisdom and power vie for the proper use of knowledge, but even wisdom seems to be contained in imperfect, naive and credulous institutions. Book 3 seems to come down on the side of the Church and Tradition as superior to humanistic positivist modernism. But this would be to forget that the Church has been shown to be ignorant, superstitious, and rife with its own petty power struggles in Book 1.

I read this book many years ago and was deeply impressed by it, perhaps because of my Catholic upbringing and education. I had forgotten many details, as the style is rich and and ambitious. I found it just as gripping today, although my feelings were ambivalent, as I could not fully “agree” with the direction the plot took in the second half. Andrew Gibson has a very interesting review here, and Luke Burrage has devoted two podcasts to it. Both remark on the mixed feelings that the book provokes. The cynical vision of religion at the beginning gives way to a seeming celebration of the same obscurantist attitude as a mode of resistance to the dangers of secularism conjoined with scientism.

GIFTS AND VOICES by Ursula Le Guin: individuation and polytheism

GIFTS, by Ursula Le Guin, is a novel about learning what your gifts really are and about using them in your own way, and not as society or your significant Other wishes. It’s about growing up as individuation, rather than adaptation to a pre-existing model. You may come to realize that your real apprenticeship to life does not correspond to your official education.

VOICES is about the power of books and of reading ,against the barbarians who think that books are accursed objects. Books are associated with a gentle and open polytheism, whereas the barbarians are intolerant violent despisers of other beliefs and life styles. Writing embodies a power other than that of physical force and its ideological order. Learning to read is not a passive process but involves the active discovery and use of one’s gifts and of the potencies of the world.

PLURALISM AND SCIENCE FICTION: Estrangement, Alterity, and Divergence

If you accept Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement you get a vision that is somewhere in between sf and fantasy. If the “estrangement” involved is not just at the level of specific devices, hypotheses, and inventions but at the more englobing level of world-building, then we can see that there exist bridges between the two genres, and hybrid cases. Further I think this estrangement goes even to the formal level of the “deconstruction” of the hero and of the monomyth, as Bob Bogle shows with Dune and its sequels.

One aspect of consciousness that receives much consideration in Dune is attention, and the management of attention. If we give the Butlerian Jihad a symbolic or an allegorical interpretation, we can see that Herbert is a precursor in the critique of what nowadays is viewed as the destruction of attention that is being effectuated by the misuse of digital technologies. The Bene Gesserit, amongst others, are a school of attention, and schools its members in the practice of deep attention.

This practice of attention provides the Bene Gesserit with a criterion to distinguish between mere men and women, governed by their pulsions, and human beings capable of sublimating these pulsions, binding their energy, and acceding to the life of desire. This is achieved by the discipline of attention, which is not a continuous presence, but rather manifests itself in sparks of awareness and flashes of insight. A good example is the test of Paul with the gom jabbar to see if he is human. If the monomyth defines, as Bogle says what it is like to be an organic human being, the sporadic flash of awareness characterises what it is to be a noetic human being.

As Bernard Stiegler emphasises, only a God is noetically conscious all the time (Stiegler gets that from Aristotle), an ordinary human is noetic only in flashes. These flashes constitute moments of attention and of choice on the path of our individuation. We must distinguish individuation from being an individual different from others, which is a banal “organic” phenomenon. I am thinking of the Jungian idea of individuation as a noetic process of differentiation and complexification, cultivating the sparks of consciousness so as not to be programmed by our surroundings.

The problem is that we are constantly in danger of disindividuation: we sink into habit and let ourselves be guided by clichés and stereotypes, we accept uncritically and repeat other people’s opinions and perceptions, uttering standardised words and phrases and playing pre-defined roles. “Noetic” does not mean just being conscious, but rather becoming conscious of a fork in the path, of alternatives, taking stock of the situation and inventing one’s own solution instead of just going along with the majority flow.

Slavoj Zizek tends to see science fiction films as instances and vectors of the forces of disindividuation. He likes to interpret films by subtracting out any noetic alterity and just seeing the stereotypic oedipal drama. This interpretative procedure is catastrophic in the case of science fiction. For example, he focuses on the heroic wishfulfilment in the case of AVATAR, but also the familial wishfulfilment in the case of WAR OF THE WORLDS:

“One can easily imagine the film without the bloodthirsty aliens so that
what remains is in a way “what it is really about,” the story of a divorced
working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children.
Therein resides the film’s ideology: with regard to the two levels of the
story (the Oedipal level of lost and regained paternal authority; the
spectacular level of the conflict with the invading aliens), there is a clear
dissymmetry, since the Oedipal level is what the story is “really about,”
while the external spectacular is merely its metaphoric extension.” (p57)

His monist reductive approach can be seen in his assertion that the Oedipal level is what the story is really about, condemning any element of alterity to being mere metaphoric gift-wrapping. One sees the absurdity of this approach very clearly in a film like AVATAR where the world-making is the main stuff of the film, especially as Pandora is a planet of noetic abundance. Science fiction is defined as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” precisely because it explicitly constitues itself by means of alterity. Any monomyth, such as the oedipal drama, will be deconstructed by SF’s penchant for alterity.

Imagine what Zizek would have to say about the novel DUNE (or the film). The oedipal drama is deliberately foregrounded as is the heroic wishfulfilment: Paul goes from adolescent aristocrat leading a sheltered life to Messiah on a desert planet. but the aim in fact is to deconstruct the hero and the oedipal monomyth and to open us out onto a pluralist ontology as the later novels make even clearer:

“In his Golden Path, Leto sought a divergence of futures. Divergence is itself the grand theme of God Emperor of Dune. Leto is determined to smash the human psychological need for an illusory universe in which all tales converge on a final Big Message. This theme is the climax of Herbert’s original design from the early 1960s to obliterate the monolithic hero myth” , argues Bob Bogle in FRANK HERBERT: THE WORKS.

Bob Bogle finds that this pluralist principle of divergence rather than a principle of convergence is a constitutive feature of Herbert’s DUNE series. Herbert was very influenced by Jung, who consistently favoured multiplicity and differentiation, and we can see this influence all through the DUNE books. Bogle goes so far as to describe this privileging of divergence and diversity as part of the creation of a “new myth” where pluralism and its abundance are affirmed on every level:  “it is preferable to live in a universe in which mythologies diverge infinitely, like light passing through a biconcave lens. And if that means there are no clear answers — nor even maybe a very clear plot — so be it”.

So I can only conclude on a positive note: Let’s read more SF. Go read DUNE. Go watch Avatar. Embrace alterity and affirm divergence.