READING BUTLER’S XENOGENESIS TRILOGY (1): Xenophobia and Xenophilia

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.

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