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.
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