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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cultural Encounters and Miscegenation in the Imagination of Octavia Butler

A few years ago, my son David talked to me about science fiction writers.  David is a voracious reader, one of the side effects of growing up in the home of two teachers.  One of the marvels of this young man is the way he used to read large collections of a genre and compare and critique.  When we talked, he was explaining to me the ideological patterns he saw in science fiction as different authors constructed utopian and dystopian visions of worlds to come.  I had not given it much thought, but there is neocon science fiction and liberal science fiction.  I also had not thought about the fact that most of these science fiction writers envision a world much like the dominant narratives of most fiction--populated by white males as the agents of history.  So he told me about female writers and one particularly interesting black female, Octavia Butler.

Butler has won awards from the science fiction world for her writings.  So science fiction writers in general have appreciated her work.  Aspects of her work resonate with many science fiction novels and stories:  there are alien beings, interplanetary travel, advanced technologies, apocalyptic wars, biological variations that blend what we think of as animals and plants, and social structures that differ from conventional families and political structures.  So for science fiction readers, you get what you expect from Butler.

What you may not expect is a sophisticated account of race and gender.  I read a trilogy that is variously called the Xenogenesis trilogy and Lillith's Brood when republished as a set in one volume.  As the trilogy name indicates, the issue of foreignness and difference is at the heart of this multigenerational narrative.  Moreover, at the core of it is the fear of what "miscegenation" means for the existence of a race, or even for the human race.  I will do my best to avoid any spoilers about critical eventualities in these stories.

The human character whose presence continues through each novel is Lillith, a survivor of a devastating apocalyptic nuclear war on earth which destroyed human society and made the planet uninhabitable.  The reader meets Lillith on an alien spaceship that is a dwelling, more than a ship, in orbit near Earth.  She is slowly learning where she is, who she is with, and what will be next in her life.  What becomes clear quickly is that some small portion of humanity was saved from certain death by an alien race of people, the Oankali, whose existence involves exploring the solar system searching for habitable planets and compatible races of beings with whom to join their lives.

Lillith becomes quickly concerned about her future among the Oankali.  They describe their family structure to her, and it becomes apparent that they hope, or plan, for her to become a human mate within a complex family of humans and Oankali.  They have the ability to manipulate genes and cell structures.  They learn from each species they meet and evolve into better forms of their species.  They call this process "trading."  From their point of view, each species benefits.  From Lillith's point of view, she and her descendents will lose their identity as humans and be absorbed into the Oankali.  This theme never goes far below the surface throughout the whole trilogy.  Lillith never arrives at a comfortable resolution.  That's not telling too much.  It is part of the dramatic driving force of the stories.

As fiction is able to do, these stories ask again and again about what might constitute miscegenation.  Part of the question being asked is whether there is such a thing as continuity of identity that passes through multiple generations.  Are humans always changing, and what changes disrupt their humanity?  In contrast to the fear of blending Oankali DNA with human DNA, Butler describes the surviving humans who begin to repopulate the Earth as the remnants of many ethnic and cultural groups.  More of the population of the Southern Hemisphere survived, and some communities are made up of a variety of "races" living together.  Their greatest hope is to repopulate the Earth, but they express little concern about separating the races.  The narrative occasionally makes passing remarks about various communities with greater and less diversity, and with some residual attitudes toward difference based on skin color.  So it is not a naive depiction of post-apocalyptic race relations, but a politically credible view of how human difference might diminish in human social relations when a more overwhelming difference becomes a challenge.  Butler's explorations here are tentative rather than dogmatic.

The exploration of difference between the Oankali and humans has depth of insight.  The Oankali seem sure that their approach to interspecies relations is consensual, although their technological advantages belie some aspects of the consent.  The social power of the Oankali sets a tight range of options for humans.  They are not willing for certain outcomes to occur.  They believe there is an inherent flaw in humanity, and they want to eradicate it.  Here Butler is delving deep into the forgetfulness of contemporary racism.  The Oankali are not inclined to be violent toward humans, and they understand their relationship to humanity as benevolent.  They are seeking to elevate humanity to live longer, be healthier, achieve greater things, and survive as a species.  In return, they are strengthened by elements of humanity they have discovered and absorbed into themselves.  But if their plan is carried forward, will the semi-consensual assimilation of the residents of Earth leave anything recognizably human?  Butler pushes deep into this question through the entire series.

Turning another direction, Butler is also challenging gender politics.  The somewhat dystopian world that results from non-cooperation with the Oankali shows humanity in a harsh perspective as women become commodities for trade and suffer rape and violence at the hands of raiding parties.  In contrast, the Oankali exist as a three-gendered community.  Male and female in Oankali existence do not fit into conventional human stereotypes.  A third neither male nor female gender, the ooloi gender, plays perhaps the most powerful role in the society and family.  Females are largest and strongest.  Males are gatherers and more conversational.  Ooloi are most scientific and political, and they are the key marriage partner in reproduction.  I am not sure I have meditated long enough on the implied gender politics, but it does seem obvious that describing a three-gendered species is a device for Butler to examine the ways that domination and equality function.  The ooloi are benevolent dominant partners, but from the perspective of their human interrogators, their ability to dominate by using biologically sophisticated means, no matter how benevolent, remains a problematic part of their relationships.

I'll not try to pretend to be an expert on Butler's work today.  I'm not going to do any theological speculations at this point beyond the implications of race and gender politics that I have already mentioned.  I do look forward to reading more of her books, as friends have talked with me about some of their favorites already.  Thanks to David for pointing me in this direction.  As is almost always true, an intense foray into narrative fiction was a great mind refresher for me.

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