The Other and Failing Human Nature
Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn shows the collapse of a definite, individualized “human nature” through the coercive, hegemonic actions of an alien “other” known as the Oankali. Human identity in its present form does not survive the entire book, but instead goes through multiple genetic and behavioral transformations. These changes are the product of Oankali intervention, which involves coercion, manipulation, starvation, observation and the administration of behavior-modifying drugs, all of which hearken back to Michel Foucault’s concept of the “normalizing” carceral society. The constant watch and control of the Oankali causes physical, mental, and emotional changes in their human captives. The Oankali’s actions are covertly oppressive and do not always serve the humans’ best interests, which creates an unreconciled ambiguity regarding their alignment as benefactors. Butler uses the ambiguity to force the reader to question the Oankali’s motives and true nature. Are the Oankali truly symbiotic or are they parasitic? In contrast, the human characters of the novel react xenophobically to the Oankali and their fellow humans who have had contact with them. Curt, Tate, Leah and many others immediately despise and attack the Oankali and Lilith, viewing them as the “others” and as a source of fear. Also, Butler’s use of diction like “them, they, monsters, and aliens” contribute to the ethnic demonization of the Oankali merely for being different, which draws from Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. The humans’ fear of the “other” leads them to irrational behavior: violence and homicide, most notably Joseph’s murder by Curt. “Human nature” is portrayed more and more negatively as each violent, discriminatory scene progresses, giving little credit to humanity as a sustainable species. Butler uses the juxtaposition of the Oankali’s surveillance and normalizing process with the humans’ ethnocentrism to suggest that neither group is preferable to the other. Humans and the Oankali both need to adapt to create a non-hegemonic, non-ethnocentric median species.The Oankali utilize manipulation and coercive tactics to normalize, transform and gain control of the humans in Dawn. Starvation appears early in the novel, as the Oankali withhold food from the captives as a means of opening communication and gaining information. “She outwaited them in stolid silence. Outwaited Oankali! She had starved herself almost to death when they stopped feeding her to coerce her cooperation” (Dawn, 119). This technique portrays the Oankali as domineering and torturous, as opposed to enlightened. Starvation was also used by Petruccio in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew as a method of taming Katherine, yet not for their mutual benefit. The action of starvation is an exertion of Foucault’s Biopower concept because the Oankali subjectify and gain increased control over the humans to a point of behavioral change. For Foucault, bodies are subjected to punitive/corrective actions that lead to normalization, or in the case of Dawn, the cooperation of the humans with the Oankali. Normalization ultimately disposes of human nature and produces “bodies that [are] both docile and capable” (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1637). Creating compliance in their human captives appears to be the Oankali’s concern, resulting in a close parallel to prison guards, as opposed to beings engaged in a symbiotic relationship. The humans are also continually drugged by the Oankali as means of securing information, which creates very apparent docility and removes their regular emotions and reactions. “Finally, they had drugged her, gotten the information they wanted, and, after a period of letting her regain weight and strength, they had put her back to sleep” (Dawn, 119). Again the Oankali are changing the behavior of their captives, removing their basic humanity, and changing them without their consent. These are the actions of a corrective or normalizing system, not a mutually beneficial one. The Oankali also employ panopticism, another Foucaultian concept, as a way of observing and correcting the behavior of the humans. Lilith experiences surveillance early in the novel, as Jdhaya observes her, and it creates the same paranoia in her that Foucault notes in prison inmates. “It would be like going to sleep knowing there was a rattlesnake in her room, knowing she could wake up and find it in her bed” (Dawn, 19). Constant examination by the Oankali changes Lilith’s behavior and causes her unnecessary distress. Their surveillance allows the Oankali insight into the human’s lives and knowledge of their every action. Also, this allows the Oankali to interfere with the humans without being physically present, which affects the humans’ behavior and sustains their fear. “I don’t know that we’re watched every minute, but know, when we’re Awake, yes, I’m sure they’re watching” (Dawn, 134). Again, this appears more like Foucault’s carceral system than a befriending tactic. The Oankali have constant awareness of the humans, which places them in a position of power, an oppressive force, rather than a position of equality. Butler reaffirms the sinister side of the Oankali by making them panoptic in form as well. Their bodies are covered with tentacles that are all sensory organs and permit the Oankali to see, hear, smell, touch and taste everything around them at all times. They are quintessential Foucaultian carceral figures in action and form, and Butler makes their flaws clear to show their imperfections as a species. Butler contrasts the Oankali’s coercive, oppressive behavior with the irrational, ethnocentric behavior of the humans as they confront the Oankali and each other. The humans make reference to the Oankali as “them” and “they” frequently in the novel. They immediately categorize the Oankali as the ethnic “other”, and attribute their own fears and weaknesses to the strangers. “She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alienness, his difference, his literal unearthliness” (Dawn, 11). Lilith’s fear early in the book is entirely based on the Oankali ethnic/species difference. Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism is marked by fear of the ethnic/racial “other” by a group without legitimate reason. This idea of “othering” permeates Dawn especially in the dissident human characters Curt and Leah. After being Awakened, Leah immediately attacks Lilith, which is an attack on an African American by a Caucasian. “[S]he was suddenly staggered by Leah’s weight as the woman leaped onto her back and began strangling her” (Dawn, 137). Butler uses this reaction to highlight the ridiculous human fear of ethnic others even within the same species. Leah attacks Lilith because she is racially “other”, which demonstrates a prime flaw in human nature that should not be promoted. This fault in humanity occurs most violently in the murder of Joseph by Curt. In this case, the East specifically, as in Said’s theory, is attacked, as Curt murders Joseph, who is of Asian descent. The murder occurs because of Curt’s fear of the Oankali’s differences and his perception of them within Joseph. “He had fought for you. But his injuries healed. Curt saw the flesh healing. He believed Joe wasn’t human” (Dawn, 223). Despite the adaptation the Oankali made to Joseph, Curt murders him because of his difference, because he resembles the “other” and has Oankali characteristics. Violence against the Oankali exemplifies human against “other”, but all the human against human attacks also victimize “others.” Joseph and Lilith are both racial minorities that are violently attacked by Caucasian characters, which asserts the irrational human fear of Said’s “other.” Butler displays ethnocentrism as the defining negative attribute in human nature that requires change, and disallows the continuation of “human nature.”Ultimately, Octavia Butler presents in Dawn two contrasting groups of characters with two very negative faults. The Oankali, though scientific, appear coercive, oppressive and panoptic. Their actions carry connotations of Foucault’s nightmare carceral society, in which human nature collapses under a system of ordered, “normalized” behaviors and disciplines. They use starvation and constant surveillance to control the fears and conducts of the human captives. Butler shows this as their defining flaw, and hints that they are not the perfect race they claim to be. Also, by highlighting their genetic manipulation and impregnation of Lilith at the end of the novel, Butler develops the covert changes the Oankali make to the humans without concern for her consent. The evils of the Oankali are juxtaposed with the ethnocentrism of the humans, who kill, maim, and fear all instances of difference in the novel. The fear extends from anxiety about the Oankali to hate of minority characters such as Lilith and Joseph. Humanity in Dawn has a propensity for “othering” and fearing the other immediately, a concept from Said’s Orientalism. For Butler, ethnocentrism is the defect in humanity that keeps it from reaching perfection. Due to these two extreme faults, Dawn shows that neither human nor Oankali is a preferable species. Butler leaves hope in Lilith’s offspring, which will be a combination of both groups, as a solution and possible beginning to a perfect species. The human race is not worth preserving in its present state, but neither are the Oankali. Dawn ends with desire for a median species that will not coerce, control, hate or Orientalize.
Audience Relationships in the Slave and Neo-Slave Narrative: Comparing Texts by Jacobs and Butler
One difference between the slave and neo-slave narrative is the relationship of the audience to the text’s protagonist. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs cannot address her audience from equal grounds; because of her political motive, she speaks as a kind of solicitor who must reach across a barrier to convince the reader of her position. In contrast, Butler’s text assumes the equality of the narrator and the audience; since Butler’s world is fictional, the reader has no grounds to argue against the experiences that Lilith describes. In both cases, the narrator’s purpose determines their relationship to the reader. Under the premise of the reader’s trust, Butler draws her reader into fictional experiences where they can experience the protagonist’s dilemmas first hand. Butler’s method ultimately results in the expansion of the reader’s view of the issues she describes. Jacobs, on the other hand, uses her separate position as a slave to convince the reader of her political stance.
Jacobs addresses a white, female audience with the intention of inspiring political action in favor of abolition. Butler, in contrast, does not claim to address a specific reader. The general demographic seems to be the progressive audience of her time period. Because of the progressive nature of Butler’s audience, her considerations of morality actually attempt to reverse the conservative culture of her time. In contrast, Jacobs follows moral standards as defined by her readers and attempt to argue for the immorality of slavery over the course of her text.
The author’s relationship to her audiences defines, to a large extent, the style of the text. Jacobs functions as a kind of solicitor advertising a political agenda. In the prologue of Incidents, she states: “… I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is.” (2) From this passage, the reader understands that Jacobs aims to communicate a factual depiction of slavery and potentially inspire political action in her readers. On the other hand, Butler’s novel aims to communicate vicarious experiences to its reader. Beyond age and time period considerations, her audience remains undefined. The authors’ contrasting descriptions of birth illustrate their varied modes of communication. While describing her own birth, Jacobs states: “I was born a slave” (1). She then goes on to describe the circumstances of her life. The “I” in this sentence excludes the reader from this statement. In contrast, Butler describes her protagonist’s birth with “Alive!” This phrase does not assign a subject; furthermore, it engages the audience in the immediate moment of an experience. The reader and the protagonist are set on equal ground. Butler then describes Lilith’s thoughts and observations; the reader feels and discovers the Awakening along with Lilith. In short, Jacob’s readers are spoken to as a separate audience, while Butler’s readers are carried through situations and events, allowing them to form their own impressions.
Although Butler and Jacobs address similar issues, their different treatments of their audiences leads them to make distinct stylistic choices. Both novels contain instances of sexual violation, specifically, Nikanj’s interactions with Lilith and Joe and Dr. Flint’s violation of Jacobs. These scenes share similar structures: a slave-holder third party demands sex, eventually leading to the mixed-race pregnancy of the affected slave. Although Jacob’s pregnancy occurs as a result of self-initiated actions, one can argue that her pregnancy is no more consensual than Lilith’s. Both protagonists lack the authority that a free woman might have; Jacobs argues that slavery lead her to make morally corrupt decisions, stating that a slave woman cannot be held to the same moral standards as her white reader.
Through the use of apostrophe, Jacobs protects her readers while also placing them on separate moral ground. Because of her political intention, Jacobs honors her audience’s trust by surrounding expletive portions of her story with apostrophe. Jacobs uses the condition of slavery to her advantage. She states: ”I will not try to screen myself behind the plea of compulsion from a master; for it was not so. Neither can I plead ignorance or thoughtlessness.” Jacobs shows that, while in slavery, her self-aware decisions lead to her moral destruction. This further appeals to her audience, who holds strong Christian standards around the topic of sex. Later in the passage, Jacobs furthers the blame she has placed on slavery alone: “I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man; as if all my efforts must be frustrated; and I became reckless in my despair.”(52) By blaming her moral corruption on slavery itself, Jacobs argues for abolition. Butler, on the other hand, intentionally places her readers in uncomfortable scenes without warning; the reader discovers Nikanj’s intended interaction with Lilith and Joseph as the characters themselves are exposed to the experience. Instead of commenting on the immorality of her character’s actions, Butler uses Lilith and Jacob’s thoughts to inspire empathy for their circumstance. This ultimately assists her in achieving her purpose of expanding the reader’s experience of, and empathy for, the slave condition. Butler argues that Lilith and Jacob’s response is inevitable, since the Oankali hold such sway over the humans that Joe and Lilith cannot be held accountable for their submission. Although Joe takes a stance against his interaction with Nikanj, he finds himself sexually involved with it anyhow. Because of the fluid, present-tense nature of the text, the reader comes to empathize with the characters as they surrender their will to their oppressor. This stands in contrast to Jacob’s text, where the protagonist isolates her story to defend the reader from moral hazard and achieve a political purpose.
While both texts take different stylistic approaches, they address similar themes. Throughout time, humanness has been an inarguably sympathetic trait; its loss or attainment influences readers of any genre or time period. By playing on the reader’s compassion for the human condition, both authors demonstrate the negative effects of slavery. Lilith begins her story in strong defense of her humanity; over the course of the novel, she sacrifices her biological humanness to the extent she believes doing so will help her and other humans attain freedom. The Oankali, as well, acknowledge the beauty of the human race. While describing the human condition, Nikanj states: “A partner must be biologically interesting, attractive to us, and you are fascinating. You are horror and beauty in rare combination.” (109) However, their ironic treatment of humans — “loving” them while also causing their extinction — shows that they do not truly understand or value humanity in its original form. By the end of the novel, Lilith’s greatest loss is the non-humanness of her child. Jacobs, too, uses the concept of inherent humanness as a means to appeal to her readers. Jacobs strongly associates a loss of humanness with the slave condition. However, in her case, humanity is slowly gained over the course of the novel as she attains freedom. While describing a slave’s interactions with the church, Jacobs states: “Moreover, it was the first time they had ever been addressed as human beings.” (50) Throughout the narrative, Jacobs defines slavery as a threat to one’s humanity. By the end of the novel, Jacobs “unveils her face” and becomes human. Both characters make journeys to and from humanness. Through the construction of their texts, each author associates humanness with freedom.
Both authors consider the reader’s relationship to the narrator while making decision throughout their text. Butler, who aims to expand her reader’s viewpoint, uses the scenarios in the text to inspire empathy for those in slavery. Because of the open intention of her narrative, she makes no attempt to defend her character’s actions. Her modern reader benefits more so from the vicarious experiences created by the text. Jacobs, on the other hand, uses her former slavery and the moral preferences of the time to condemn the ownership of a human being. Both authors appeal to their readers humanity, a trait that lies inherent in the argument against slavery and therefore transcends time.
Encountering the Animal-Alien: Interspecies Communication in Octavia Butler’s Dawn and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven
Scholar Carl Malmgren describes the common science fiction trope of alien encounters as “inevitably broach[ing] the question of the Self and the Other…The reader recuperates this type of fiction by comparing human and alien entities, trying to understand what it means to be human” (15). The alien can represent humanity’s fears of scientific and political cruelty (oftentimes entanglements of both), a symbol of various marginalized groups, and/or a metaphor for oppressive power (either as a human victim or a nonhuman agent of violence). As Heather Atwell and Elain O’Quinn write, “aliens have become the scientific and technological avatars of a modern world,” acting as humanoid mirrors through which inter-human relationships are scrutinized (45). In light of irreversible man-made environmental disaster and growing numbers of mass species extinction, perhaps it is necessary to revisit the SF alien not just as a stand-in for humanity, but also as a representative of human-animal relationships. Despite cohabitating Earth and sometimes bearing biological similarities, the human view of animals has always been one of presumed superiority from the natural world. Stacy Alaimo notes that “one English word, one Western concept—’animal’— somehow encompasses a vast array of creatures…but it rarely contains humans” (9). Viewing the SF alien as an animal, a new species integrating itself into Earthen ecologies, opens the possibility of bridging these troubled human/animal distinctions through new relationships where humanity is more conscious of their position within the environment and the impact their actions have on nonhuman others.
Octavia Butler’s 1988 novel, Dawn, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel, The Lathe of Heaven, each present human-alien relationships that disrupt anthropocentric hierarchies by inserting themselves their nonhuman selves into human social spaces (both as agents and byproducts of manmade change). While most discussions of SF aliens focus on physical appearance, the estranging ‘alien-ness’ in both texts come from the aliens’ use of species-specific languages in the form of chemical exchanges and machine-produced translations. Language is one of the key tools humanity uses to differentiate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom, asserting their world-building identities through the categorizing (and subsequent other-ing) of human and nonhuman subjects alike. As Sherryl Vint explains, “language has the power to create the perceptual and experiential world…Structures that are imbued with power relations [emerge] from the difference between those who have the power to name and those who must speak in another’s discourse” (71). But what happens when our anthropocentric, hierarchical perception of language-use is unsettled by the presence of the alien subject and its own arsenal of communication tools? By analyzing the modes of primarily non-verbal communication Butler and Le Guin’s aliens use to interact with human beings, one can re-examine the alien figure as a embodiment of reflections on humanity’s historical treatment of animals, challenging presumptions of anthropocentric exceptionalism through the aliens’ biotechnological linguistic strategies and opening up the possibility of healing human-animal interspecies communication.
When Octavia Butler’s human protagonist, Lilith, sees one of her alien captors for the first time, she can’t help but be horrified at Jdahya’s nearly featureless “flat gray skin” and the “darker gray hair on its head…down around its eyes and ears and at its throat,” later revealed to be rippling sensory organs that “move in response to [Jdahya’s] wishes or emotion or to outside stimuli” (Butler 11-12). As grotesque as these sea creature-like tentacles are to humans, the Oankali need them to “experience all of the world through their bodies,” acting as their primary source of perceiving and communicating with the world around them (Belk 374). The Oankali are driven to Earth not by the impulse to destroy (like Lilith’s generation of nuclear-annihilated humans), but rather the biological imperative to rebuild human life through the reformation of Earth’s ecologies and the genetic ‘correcting’ of the surviving humans in order to reproduce and further the growth of their own kind (Butler 26). While Jdahya speaks to Lilith in English at first, this is an early strategy meant to help ease Lilith into the Oankali world (Butler 156). Ultimately, the Oankali are fluent in biochemistry. “By pushing the right electrochemical buttons,” Lilith tries to explain to her fellow humans, “it’s like a language that they have a special gift for” (Butler 169). Amongst themselves, although they can communicate verbally, the Oankali can send “messages from one to another almost at the speed of thought…controlled multisensory stimulation” (Butler 105). Their symbiotic relationship with their living ship-organism, which “can be chemically induced” to perform functions and produce foods, can be likened to that of a human and a domesticated animal, one species bred and altered to fit the needs of the other (Butler 33). The Oankali experience the world differently than us—as seen in their chemosensory expressions which parallel insect secretions and other therolinguistic forms of “collective kinesthetic semiotics” mostly inaccessible to humans—but that does not mean that the way they move through the world is less ‘intelligent’ than humans, who rely on spoken and written language to articulate their experiences (Haraway 122). Through her depiction of the Oankali’s advanced language system, Butler destabilizes our measurements of nonhuman ‘intelligence’ (oftentimes based on how similar or different animal actions mimic human ones) by presenting the Oankali’s animal-like approach to communication as a different, yet not inherently inferior, approach to humanity’s ways of comprehending the world.
In order to ‘speak’ Oankali, Lilith must submit to biochemical changes. Until Nikanj shares the characteristic of chemical marker communication with her, Lilith is unable to open walls, form rooms, and feed herself since “there were no signs she could read…Each time they opened a wall, they enhanced they enhanced the local scent markers” (Butler 65). She’s aware of her own vulnerability, how she has to rely on the Oankali for physical and emotional sustenance, and even calls herself “Nikanj’s new pet” (Butler 55). This disorientation, this shift in power dynamics as Lilith finds herself among a community she doesn’t fully understand who want to use her genes and repopulate the Earth, bears unfortunate similarities to animals held captive by humans—an analogy which Butler, through Lilith, repeatedly returns to. When fighting off Paul Titus, Lilith says, “Animals get treated like this. Put a stallion and a mare together until they mate, then send them back to their owners” (Butler 93). She questions her own position in relation to the Oankali: “Experimental animal, parent to domestic animals? Or…nearly extinct animal, part of a captive breeding program? Human biologists had done that before the war—used a few captive members of an endangered animal species to breed more for the wild population” (Butler 58). Lilith is no longer able to speak for herself in a traditionally human way. The Oankali-given eidetic memories and chemical secretions eliminate the need for reading or writing. Rather than fully adapt to human structures of communication, they alter the humans’ brain chemistry to fit into their own species-specific subjectivity. As Patricia Melzer explains, “the other becomes the norm, becomes the position from which decisions are made and from which control over others is exerted…placing ‘us’ into the other” (74). No longer the ‘dominant animal,’ Lilith finds herself repeatedly ‘mis-read’ in a language that is not her own. The Oankali, like humans imposing their own behavioral norms onto animals, choose to ‘listen’ to Lilith’s biological changes over what she speaks, leading to a loss in her personal agency at the benefit of the Oankali’s highly controlled genetic breeding practices. One such ‘miscommunication’ occurs when Nikanj impregnates Lilith at the end of the novel with a half-human, half-Oankali child. Despite Lilith’s pleas that “I’m not ready! I’ll never be ready!”, Nikanj appears to ‘know’ that she wanted to be pregnant with some of Joseph’s offspring after his death, telling her that “You’re ready now to have Joseph’s child,” effectively making Lilith’s decision for her (Butler 248). Like humans breeding animals, the Oankali, for the most part, only read the humans’ uncontrollable biological outputs, leading to miscalculations of human behavior and lapses in equal exchange between human and alien. In the Oankali’s embodied consciousness, Lilith’s body, not her voice, now speak for her.
Le Guin’s aliens, known as the Aldebaranians, come to Earth from the far-flung corners of outer space as “natives of a methane-atmosphere planet” (Le Guin 132-133). When they encounter Dr. Haber for the first time, he notices that they are “encased in a [vapor-filled] suit…which gave it a bulky, greenish, armored, inexpressive look like a giant sea turtle” and one of them speaks to him by raising “its left arm, pointing at him with a metallic nozzle instrument” through which English words (translated from the original Aldebaranian language) are emitted (Le Guin 121). While Butler’s humanoid Oankali have been analyzed by scholars in great detail, these sea turtle-like creatures “remain enigmatic black boxes” due to their refusal to be neatly interpreted as “human stand-ins, subsumed into and judged within the human moral framework” (Lichfield 375). Unlike the Oankali’s clearly stated biological imperative, Orr notes that “they had not yet made clear what they hoped for in return, why they had come to Earth. They seemed simply to like it here” (Le Guin 133). This confusion over the Aldebaranians’ reasons for arriving to Earth is not so surprising when we recall that this alien species is the two-fold product of George Orr’s effective dreaming. The aliens first appear on the Moon after Haber tells Orr to dream about world peace and Orr generates this alien threat to “to give us something to fight” (Le Guin 99). Then, in Lelache’s attempt to get rid of them by telling him to “dream that the Aliens are no longer on the Moon,” they peacefully land on Earth (Le Guin 111). Over time, the Aldebaranians take on the roles of shop owners, collecting “floatsam of the affluent years of America,” with no typical desire for world domination or biological human alterations (Butler 153). The Aldebaranians, technologically adapted to integrate into human society, fill the role of the Other previously vacated by Haber’s attempts to ‘fix’ and homogenize markers of human difference (like race) through effective dream manipulation. This allows readers to consider “alternative forms of social organization” where interspecies coexistence can uproot norms of human control over the environment (Malgrem 313).
Since this species originates from a human subconscious, Le Guin’s human-alien relationship is one that is more harmonious than in most other SF works. As Orr notes, “It’s not surprising that the Aliens are on my side. In a sense, I invented them…They definitely weren’t around until I dreamed they were, until I let them be. So that there is—there always was—a connection between us” (Le Guin 155). While one would expect that the aliens would speak English, look and act more human than they do in their bulky encasements, the Aldebaranians rely on technological systems in the form of vocal nozzles in their turtle suits and their redistribution of human tools and technologies to translate their experience of the world into phrases humans can understand. This inevitably results in moments of alien-to-human miscommunication. When the aliens do speak, their messages take the form of ambiguous truisms, as seen in their first encounter with Dr. Haber: “Do not do to others what you wish others not to do with you,” or in their talks with George Orr: “Speech is silver, silence is gold. Self is universe” (Le Guin 121-142). When Tiua’k Ennbe Ennbe tries to tell George how control his ability to iahklu’ (effective dream), it gives him a copy of the Beatles record, “With a Little Help from My Friends” in an attempt to bridge their communication gap through allegory (Butler 154). Since the aliens retain their native tongue, certain words, concepts, and worldviews remain untranslatable. Orr tries to ask Ennbe Ennbe the literal meaning of iahklu’, but it replies, “Incommunicable. Language used for communication with individual-persons will not contain other forms of relationship” (Butler 153). Le Guin likens these differences of perception and expression to those between human and animals: “[Orr] was not even sure that they could see, that they had any sense organ for the visible spectrum. There were vast areas over which no communication was possible: the dolphin problem, only enormously more difficult” (133). Dr. Haber (who embodies an anthropocentric worldview of environmental and social transformation) has doubts about whether the Aldebaranians even have conscious dreaming abilities since human-based forms of measuring such activity prove indeterminate: “We simply haven’t licked the communications problem there. They’re intelligent but Irchevsky, our best xenobiologist, thinks they may not be relational at all, and that what looks like socially integrative behavior among humans is nothing but a kind of instinctual adaptive mimicry’” (Le Guin 166-167). While Haber takes these failed tests as a sign that the aliens are psychologically inferior, Orr embraces their untranslatable qualities, finding a connection within the two species’ different views of the world: “They’re a lot more experienced than we are at all this…They are of dream time. I don’t understand it, I can’t say it in words. Everything dreams” (Le Guin 167). Orr’s new approach to understanding the Aldebaranians marks a shift in how humanity locates itself within the environment: “A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully—as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously” (Le Guin 168). As seen with his retention of the phrase “Er’ perrhnne’” to control his dreams, Orr finds himself in a harmonious relationship where one species does not try to fully translate each other, but rather just listen to and adapt to each other’s unique point of view. While Haber succumbs to his own inability to manipulate George’s dreams and completely ‘repair’ humanity’s problems by forcing his selfish will onto the environment, “Orr stays sane because he respects the existence and integrity of the Other” (Malgrem 316). After Orr mends the unravelling fabric of reality with his enlightened dream-intervention, he exchanges words with one of the aliens, mimicking their curious, technologically-mediated manner: “‘Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,’ it said. ‘To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub,’ Orr replied” (Le Guin 178). By learning to speak the language of the Aldebaranians, Orr positions himself not as above them, as seen in humanity’s traditional interactions with animals, choosing more wholistic multi-species environmental networks instead.
In both stories, set in worlds decimated by man-made environmental destruction, Le Guin and Butler use alien communication and its non-normative modes of consciousness, expression, and subjectivity to challenge humanity’s presumed hierarchical position over other species. As Gordon Litchfield writes of animal-aliens, “these scenarios force us to question whether we could encounter a species with whom communication is in principle impossible. If in more conventional sci-fi the aliens challenge our moral precepts, here they challenge our philosophical ones, asking us whether concepts we consider universal truly are so” (375). Both protagonists are confronted with forms of intelligence and expression that are physically (through the aliens’ uncanny lack of ‘mouths’) and socially (as they have to integrate these strangers into their respective altered worlds) non-normative. By shifting power relations to where mankind now finds itself at the will of the Oankali and their biological literacy, Butler “undermines the privileged position of humans,” causing Lilith to reflect on how animals have been historically treated as tools and test subjects within human society (Melzer 71). While the arrival of Le Guin’s aliens are less violent (and not actually from outer space), they too integrate themselves into human life through unusual means. Speaking through mechanized suits that both sustain their bodies and translate their words, the Aldebaranians offer their services both as new economic contributors to help rebuild Earthen society and as guides to George Orr as he seizes control over his effective dreaming by learning some of their native language. Through his interactions with them, Orr is forced to reexamine ruinous human assertions of dominance over non-human entities which take the shape of Haber’s anthropocentric reality-bending.
Perhaps it is not so surprising that many ‘miscommunications’ occur over course of each novel. Moments where agency is lost (like Lilith’s forced impregnation) and where barriers of difference arise from misunderstandings (like Haber’s disavowal of alien intelligence due to inconclusive testing), come from a refusal to listen and adapt to the animal-alien’s special approach to the world. Animal studies scholar Sherryl Vint scrutinizes this sense of human-animal alienation by pointing out “that it is not that animals cannot or are not speaking, but rather that they do so in a language that is so alien to humans that we cannot understand it. This is because language is integrally tied to a form of life, produced by concrete and embodied experience that varies among species” (68). Technological advancements that try to conform one species’ ‘speech’ into the norms of another—like the fictional Aldebaranian translating suits and the Oankali’s biological manipulations to give Lilith access to their living ship—can only unite humans and nonhumans together so much as any embodied context of the animal-alien’s ‘language’ is lost in this mechanized act of translation. To prevent further lapses in understanding and possible loss of agency, Butler and Le Guin’s alien presences suggest that one must listen to not only what these Others have to say, but how they say it.
All the miscommunications among the humans and aliens within these novels, and these extrapolations onto human-animal relationships, leads to the inevitable question: What might human-animal interconnectedness look like? Is multi-species coexistence even attainable in our anthropocentric society? Through the creation of the Oankali and the Aldebaranians, Le Guin and Butler offer us two varying blueprints for how to proceed with healing the troubled divisions between man and animal. The Oankali demonstrate a form of “storying [which] cannot any longer be put into the box of human exceptionalism” as they articulate new human-alien hybrid worlds through gene manipulation techniques which parallel modern-day scientific practices (Haraway 39). As innovative as their bio-language is, it’s important to remember that Butler’s human-alien relationship is not always an equal, mutually-beneficial. Lilith’s inability to regain control over own body and depravity of familiar forms of verbal communication among the Oankali speaks to the violent loss of animals’ agency when humans impose their will onto the landscape for anthropocentric gain. The Aldebaranians’ behavior is reminiscent of something Vint notes, that “the recognition of communication in others is one of the key ways that we might begin to rethink and change our relationships with other species and thus produce a more ethical world” (71). Humanity relies on animals to grow and sustain local and global, environmental and socioeconomic ecosystems, yet we have difficulty acknowledging these other species as fellow subjects with their own stories to tell through nonhuman languages. George Orr’s interaction with the Aldebaranians prove that technological innovation is not enough to bridge gaps in communication. One must embrace perspectives of the world that cannot be translated by human means to create a sense of unity that is strengthened by interspecies difference. By presenting their alien subjects in their own native languages, where humanity must adapt physically and mentally to meet these new conditions, Le Guin and Butler complicate the persistence of authoritative anthropocentrism. Yes, these moments of interspecies communication and translation are sometimes difficult and oftentimes far from perfect. But in a time when humanity can no longer escape the consequences of its ongoing destructive transformation of the planet’s landscape for selfish gain, these speculative stories of human and alien encounters unsettle historical hierarchies and signal a healing movement forward.
Alaimo, Stacy. “Animal.” Keywords for Environmental Studies, edited by Joni Adamson et al., NYU Press, 2016, pp. 9–13. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15zc5kw.7.
Belk, Nolan. “The Certainty of the Flesh: Octavia Butler’s Use of the Erotic in the Xenogenesis Trilogy.” Utopian Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, 2008, pp. 369–389. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20719917.
Butler, Octavia. Dawn. Warner Books, New York, 1988. Print.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene. Duke University Press, Durham, 2016. Print.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. Scribner, New York, 1971. Print.
Lichfield, Gordon, et al. “The Aliens Are Us: The Limitation That the Nature of Fiction Imposes on Science Fiction about Aliens.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 72, no. 4, Oct. 2015, pp. 372–378. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?qurl=https%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com%2flogin.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26db%3dehh%26AN%3d121025628%26site%3dehost-live%26scope%3dsite.
Malmgren, Carl D. “Orr Else? The Protagonists of LeGuin’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven.’” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 9, no. 4 (36), 1998, pp. 313–323. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43308369.
Malmgren, Carl D. “Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 1993, pp. 15–33. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4240211.
Melzer, Patricia. Alien Constructions : Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, University of Texas Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/columbia/detail.action?docID=3443163.
O’Quinn, Elaine,J., and Heather Atwell. “Familiar Aliens: Science Fiction as Social Commentary.” ALAN Review, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, pp. 45-50. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/749504728?accountid=10226.
Vint, Sherryl. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. : Liverpool University Press, June 20, 2013. Liverpool Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 13 Dec. 2018
Yampell, Cat. “When Science Blurs the Boundaries: The Commodification of the Animal in Young Adult Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2008, pp. 207–222. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475139.
The Foreign in ‘Lilith’s Brood’: When Xenophobia Takes on an Intergalactic Scope
The trope of the grotesque in science fiction can serve various purposes: to repulse or shock the audience, to introduce the intent to frighten the audience, or to defamiliarize or alienate the audience, thus enforcing the element of the unknown. Painting a species or character as “grotesque” – wrapping it in tentacles or fur and sticking a few off-putting protuberances on it – is typically a method of basic characterization or developing the novel’s aesthetics but in Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood it is used to introduce one of the novel’s essential themes. In Butler’s novel the Oankali, the alien race which has saved humanity from itself, is portrayed as “grotesque”, decried as eerie to look upon, its attributes disturbing to any human. When Lilith, the protagonist, first looks upon an Oankali she notes with horror that what she originally mistook for hair “writhes independently, a nest of snakes startled” thus denoting the species’ grotesque mystique to the reader (Butler 13). The purpose of the Oankali’s unmistakeable “otherness”, however, is not to disgust the audience; rather, it is to highlight humanity’s xenophobic tendency as the humans in the novel react with fear and disgust to their benevolent saviours due solely to their alien appearance.
Human xenophobia in the novel is not restricted to interactions with the alien, however; when dealing even with other humans, profound xenophobia leaks through, lacing the narrative with racism and hostility. Xenophobia saturates the novel, seeping through in both human-human and human-Oankali interactions. The Oankali observe and explain humankind’s xenophobic interactions as well as bear the brunt of xenophobia in the novel. Humans show impassioned discrimination against the Oankali through their immediate fear of the alien species, disgust at the idea of ooloi sex, and distrust in Lilith’s and Joseph’s Oankali-tinged genetic modifications. The Oankali thus serve to expose humanity’s latent xenophobia, both through their observations of human tendencies and through their blatant otherness, thereby inviting discriminatory attitudes. The Oankali display none of the humans’ reticence toward interspecies mingling, instead embracing human culture and devoting themselves to the perseveration of Earth, thereby deeming xenophobia a specifically human trait. Nikanj, an Oankali ooloi remarks on the humans’ “natural fear of strangers and of difference” (191), one of many ways the Oankali expound the instinctive xenophobia that taints human behaviour.
The Oankali uncover various human behaviours implicit of xenophobia throughout the novel by observing humans’ interactions with one another. The novel is set against a postbellum backdrop lent by a world in which humans were intent on destroying one another. The two parties, ostensibly the Russians and the Americans as per the Cold War climate of Butler’s time, were motivated by a xenophobic intolerance for one another so potent that “a handful of people had tried to commit humanicide” (8). The Oankali assert that the war was a product of a lethal mixture of intelligence and hierarchical tendencies, the latter of which reflects the human habit of believing one’s ingroup to be superior, thus it “was only a matter of time before [these tendencies] destroyed you” (38). The Oankali’s intervention sheds light on the Awakened humans’ xenophobic mating trends; Lilith’s choice of Joseph as a mate was received with poorly masked racism as Lilith is black and Joseph Asian. The others are contemptuous of this interracial match and the Oankali are mystified at their choice as it does not adhere to typical human mating tendencies. “Haven’t you got any discrimination at all” (147), sneers Tate when encouraging Lilith to set her sights on someone more appropriate while the Oankali “thought [Lilith] would choose one of the big dark ones because they’re like you” (164). Both Tate’s and the aliens’ comments reflect the human propensity to choose a mate with a similar skin colour and size, a manifestation of the species’ latent xenophobia and preference for those similar to themselves. Human xenophobia is further displayed when Oankali try to place multiple humans together in confinement. As a result, “many injured or killed one another”, probably due to discrimination based on nationality or race (18). When Sharad is placed in confinement with Lilith, she notes he is probably East Asian, his skin “paler than her own”, but despite this, treats him as she would her own child (10). Despite her nurturing actions, “he did not speak English and he was terrified of her”, furthering this representation of the primordial xenophobia natural to all humans (10). Lilith is portrayed in the novel as the exception, both in her maternal and romantic instincts, as she does not discriminate based on appearance; however, Butler’s novel reinforces the notion that humans’ prefer the company of those similar to them and are innately distrustful of anything foreign. The Oankali’s actions and comments hereby expose humanity’s xenophobic tendencies through forcing randomly selected humans together and observing the outcomes without bias.
While the Oankali’s intervention in human culture facilitates the observation of humankind’s susceptibility for bigotry, it is the Oankali’s conspicuous otherness that truly reveals humanity’s congenital xenophobia. The most obvious example of this is the humans’ knee-jerk reaction of terror upon encountering the Oankali, a by-product of the species’ reflexive dislike of the unfamiliar. This is emphasized further by juxtaposing the humans’ fear reaction with the Oankali’s calm acceptance of human culture and even eagerness for interaction with the new species. When first confronted with Jhdaya, Lilith feels intense fear and foreboding even when she believes him to be human: “she could not make herself approach him. ‘Something is wrong’” (12). What held her back, made her so physically unwilling to approach was his “alieness, his difference, his literal unearthliness” (13). “I don’t understand why I’m so afraid of you…of the way you look, I mean”, she muses to Jhdaya, explaining “There are – or were – life forms on Earth that looked a little like you”, thus the very fact of his otherness is what keeps her terrified (17). Lilith admits her conscious awareness of Jhdaya’s benevolence, but her fear response is beyond her control: “She could not remember ever having been so continually afraid, so out of control of her emotions. Jhdaya had done nothing, yet she cowered” (21)”. When Lilith’s peers are introduced to the Oankali they are drugged so as to prevent violence and yet they still respond with dulled terror, some screaming and running, others “frozen in place” (184). The humans’ innate fear response to the Oankali, a species that is physically alien to them, is a reflection of the latent xenophobia hardwired in humans. This fear response is coupled with a pervasive distrust and dislike that permeates the novel long after the Oankali regale the humans with tales of their heroic salvation of Earth and assure them of their innocuous intentions. Even after Lilith has been exposed to and protected by Nikanj for some time, when its sensory arms begin to grow, signalled by Nikanj collapsing and trembling, Lilith “neither knew or cared what was wrong with it…she left it where it was” (103). Her natural dislike for this physically foreign creature is so strong she abandons it when it is suffering, even though it just demonstrated its compassion for Lilith, genetically modifying her to grant her more freedom. The other Awakened humans respond to the Oankali with prolonged distrust and apprehension even when doing so is illogical; at one point several humans lash out violently against the Oankali despite the risk of being badly hurt, fuelled by an electric rage stemming from a hatred for the foreign (229). The humans’ continued hostility and distrust toward the Oankali, despite the amicable species’ openly good intentions, highlights their intrinsic xenophobia, as the humans’ hatred derives wholly from the fear of anything foreign.
Furthering this notion of instinctual contempt for the other is the humans’ unwavering disgust with ooloi-facilitated sex despite the intense biological bonds formed between each human and their ooloi. When introduced to ooloi-facilitated sex Joseph, a normally mild character, reacts with anger and fear; despite having clearly enjoyed the experience he claims “that thing will never touch me again if I have anything to say about it”, hatred colouring his tone (169). His disgust for the ooloi, due to their physical otherness, overpowers his bodies’ positive reaction to Nikanj, his and Lilith’s ooloi, leaving him frustrated and repulsed by his own feelings. Even Lilith, who has grown accustomed to sex with Nikanj and is remarkably accepting of Oankali culture, has a gut reaction of fear and discomfort when first engaging in ooloi-facilitated sex with a partner, admitting, “for an instant, this frightened her” (161). Moreover, despite her repeated exposure to Nikanj sexually, Lilith is somewhat disgusted by engaging with it, calling its sensory arm an “ugly, ugly elephant’s trunk of an organ” (161). That even Lilith, who is fairly comfortable with the notion of ooloi-facilitated sex, feels naturally frightened and disgusted when confronted with it suggests an endemic xenophobia that pervades human culture. The other Awakened humans are bitterly reluctant to accept the ooloi as sexual partners; despite their obvious desire, they are so repulsed by the physically alien creatures that they resist the temptation doggedly. Gabriel explains Curt’s bitter contempt for ooloi-facilitated sex, saying “he’s taken like a woman and…he can’t let them get away with that” (203), and later calls Lilith “[the ooloi’s] whore” simply because she doesn’t repress her feelings for Nikanj (241). Despite this outward display of antipathy, the humans’ feelings are torturously conflicting; Tate begs her ooloi, Kahguyaht to “go away…we don’t want you…let us alone!” (228), but her voice is desperate and pleading through her tears, as the bond with the ooloi, though repulsive to her, is too strong to deny. Lilith astutely explains Gabriel’s discordant feelings toward Kahguyaht, saying “he wishes he hated Kahguyaht. He tries to hate it” thus implying his concealed affection for the creature, a sentiment which Gabriel vehemently denies (240). The psychological revulsion at sex with a physical alien creature is so strong it overpowers the intense biological desire to mate with these creatures who have “imprinted” on them, both “chemically and socially” (191). The fact that the humans’ disgust prevails over even biology emphasizes the profundity of the xenophobia that drives humankind, as well as the instinctiveness of their hostility toward the unknown and unfamiliar.
The humans’ malevolence toward the Oankali oozes into their interactions with Lilith and Joseph when it becomes evident that the pair have been infused with Oankali genetic material. By interweaving human and alien DNA, humanity has become defamiliarized and thus Lilith and Joseph become targets on which the humans can release their natural dislike for the other. When Curt witnesses Joseph’s injuries healing inhumanly quickly, a result of Oankali genetic intervention, he “believed Joe wasn’t human”, a belief which justifies thoughtlessly striking Joseph with an axe, killing him (223). Curt’s murderous actions are instinctive and he remorselessly claims, “we didn’t kill a human being…we killed one of your animals” (228), an argument reminiscent of those used by genocidal leaders to manipulate the masses. Simply because some of Joseph’s genetic material is Oankali-derived Curt views him as an “animal” and thus as less than human, a belief which triggers the xenophobic fear latent in humans throughout Lilith’s Broodand encourages a violent and aggressive response. Here, the Oankali’s physical otherness manifests in humans, the extent of the species’ xenophobia revealed as people turn against their own kind. This sort of intolerance is instigated against Lilith too; after the fight against the Oankali, spearheaded by Curt and resulting in Joseph’s death, Wray says “you don’t see any of [the Oankali] around this fire, do you?” to which Gabriel replies, “I’m not sure” (239). He is thus implying that Lilith is no longer human, but something alien, adding, “why did you lie down on the ground with an ooloi in the middle of the fighting”, hinting at Lilith’s allegiance with the Oankali, who he perceives to be the enemy simply because of their otherness (239). Lilith realizes that “the Oankali had given her information, increased physical strength, enhanced memory, and an ability to control the walls and suspended animation plants. These were her tools. And every one of them would make her seem less human” (120). The humans’ xenophobia is therefore not only overwhelming but illogical as Lilith is reviled for her otherness despite the myriad advantages it provides. For this reason, she is mistrusted, abused, “seen as a Judas goat by [her] own people” (241) merely because she shares some traits with the Oankali, whose physical grotesqueness paints them to xenophobic human eyes as the enemy. Once again, the fear of the unknown is instinctive and powerful, as well as wholly irrational: “Some avoided Lilith because they were afraid of her – afraid she was not human, or not human enough” (180). Though neither Lilith’s behavior nor temperament has changed, her peers are suddenly frightened and mistrustful of her, merely because of her physical association with the Oankali. Butler’s novel brings to light humanity’s innate xenophobia by showcasing the Awakened humans’ distrust of Lilith and Joseph, formerly their friends, simply due to their genetic association with the Oankali, whose physical otherness pegs them as dangerously foreign.
In Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, the Oankali serve to expose humankinds’ innate xenophobia, both through observing humans’ xenophobic tendencies and by serving as the “grotesque” in the novel, thus inviting the discrimination that comes so naturally to humans. Through commenting on the humans’ xenophobic war, facilitating and observing their mating choices, and experimenting with human-human interaction while in confinement, the Oankali expose humankind’s natural dislike for the unfamiliar. The Oankali further expose humans’ xenophobic behavior through human reaction to the alien species’ physical otherness. The Awakened humans display fear upon first encountering the Oankali, the terror morphing into apprehension and distrust as the narrative unfolds. Furthermore, the humans show a revolted contempt for ooloi-facilitated sex despite the pleasure they derive from it, and immediately distrust Lilith and Joseph when they exhibit Oankali-esque abilities. The humans’ hostility toward the Oankali, a benevolent species intent on fostering good relations with them, could be a symptom only of raging xenophobia, as humankind instinctively deems anything foreign as the enemy. This has massive implications that extend far beyond the scope of the novel; written against the chilly political climate of the Cold War, Butler could intend Lilith’s Brood, in which humankind is fresh out of a self-destructive war, as a warning. Humanity’s natural tendency to favour the familiar and decry the different should be quelled, Butler argues, lest Earth end up a restoration project for a tentacled alien race.