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Xenogenesis notes - comments requested!

-->Spoilers for books that came out in the 1990s.

One of the panels I'll on for WisCon is a discussion of Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy. I made quite a few notes of potential discussion topics. In the hope of getting some feedback before the convention, I am posting them here, so please feel free to comment/critique/remind me of things I am totally missing/tell me about awesome essays I should read.

First, a quick summary: the trilogy opens after humanity has destroyed itself in a war. The first point of view character, Lilith, survived the destruction and is now held captive on a spaceship full of aliens, the Oankali, who want to save humanity, but on their terms. The terms are not revealed immediately, but eventually we learn the aliens wish to trade genetic material with the humans, to create a new, hybrid species that will someday venture back into space and find their own new "trade" partners. The humans will not be allowed to breed on their own; there will be no more pure humans born, because pure humans, by combining intelligence with hierarchical social structures, are doomed. A few unchanged Oankali will go back into space; however, the ones who stay on Earth will only survive through the genetic Constructs who result from tailored mating with humans. The blending of species is made possible by a third oankali sex, the ooloi.

There are a lot of intersections in these books. Humans/aliens are the major one, but human gender is explored as well as alien gender, with a lot of male/female human conflict and some exploration of race, mostly through the lens of Difference between humans, aliens, and human/alien constructs. It’s reiterated a number of times that the alien beings called ooloi are neither male, female, or both male and female; they are a third sex. There’s exploration of complex power relationships between the humans and the aliens. Slavery/freedom is addressed from a number of angles, both in the relations between the humans and the aliens and among the humans alone.

However, there’s a lot of gender essentialism – where are the gay humans? If they’re there, they’re not shown; thinking along that path, there’s the possibility that the Oankali chose not to revive any because gay people might not go along with the mating plan, though they were probably harvested for genetic material, since there are so few surviving humans. I can believe the Oankali might have set gender after adulthood because they likely chose that system, being focused on reproduction; they have the ooloi to back it up in the womb and even afterwards since they can control your hormones, your sexual pleasure, etc.. Gay people are a glaring absence in the whole trilogy. I would have expected at least a mention of the topic, unless Butler deliberately avoided it. In Imago there’s a single hint of non-heterosexuality: one of the Oankali adults asks if the human Francisco has a “female mate,” which suggests that the possibility of a “male mate” is on the table, with humans.

The five-person mating groups that make human/alien genetic blending possible are a way of exploring alternate sexualities, but the focus does not seem to be on polyamory as a choice. Reproductive needs make these groups more of a mandate. The human pair who have sex through an ooloi feel repelled when they physically touch each other, so despite the great pleasure they receive through the ooloi, they have lost something they previously had. The oankali partners have sex through the ooloi as well, but one human and one oankali do not ever seem to have sex with an ooloi, and the human and oankali partners do not seem to practice sexual touching without an ooloi partner. The humans in a mating group do not seem to go outside of it for sex at any time, nor do the Oankali; biological markers seem to make this repellant to all concerned.

To the oankali, parenting a same-sex child seems to be a special and necessary bond.

“You want to be what you are. That’s healthy and right for you.” (Nikanj to Jodahs, Imago) – that quote covers a lot of ground. The constructs in future generations, as more physical changes happen, might have more variation. The goal is more variation, using the abilities the oankali gained from examining and understanding human cancers. My theory is that even the oankali take time to adapt to change, even change which they have initiated.

The gender essentialism exception in the first two books is always the pre-metamorphosis children – it’s reiterated that they are truly neutral, but the human-born constructs at least seem to be referred to as “daughters” and “sons” before metamorphosis – in fact Nikanj tells Lilith in Dawn that she is pregant with a daughter, and later on Jodahs says that the human-born rarely change from such a designation (Jodahs, however, becomes ooloi). However, Akin’s “sister” becomes male after their early separation. So there’s some complexity going on there. Biological influences are shown to be stronger than anything else, presumably because the Oankali in particular exist to reproduce and change and spread. Their whole society’s purpose is negated if they don’t reproduce. There are hints that Oankali without mates are very sad and desperate beings who might even die from sexual hunger (in Imago), but there are no hints that alternative methods of mating are possible, though it ought to be; why can’t the ooloi make reproduction work differently, at need?

Everything gets more complicated in Imago. Jodahs is called “male” as a child, but becomes ooloi. Butler made a wise choice in having the ooloi narrator be first person; it’s thus much easier for the reader to immerse in the character and its differences from baseline humans. The oankali are also shown to have difficulties with Jodahs’ differences from oankali ooloi.

Manipulation is also a large issue in the books. The ooloi have a whole range of ways to manipulate through chemicals and physical changes in others, but they also are shown to have a strict moral code achieved in large part by consensus with all oankali. However, the ooloi seem to have more societal power than males and females, so their opinions/decisions seem to have/would likely have more weight...I'm not sure if this is borne out by the text, or if my human hierarchical tendencies are influencing my opinion!

It’s unclear if the ooloi in Adulthood Rites wanted Akin to remain with the resistors, for example, though the consensus among all oankali was otherwise; it seems unlikely, given how worried the ooloi were about creating a human-born male construct in the first place, that they would want to risk him.

The Oankali always believe their decisions are best because the humans are flawed (intelligence plus hierarchical behavior) and doomed because of it. It’s not until Akin brings his point of view that humans are allowed fertility and autonomy on Mars, but despite the oankali consensus to allow this, they still believe that humanity is ultimately doomed. While believing in the doom, they nevertheless improve the health of the Mars humans as far as possible to aid in their survival. The continuation of life is the oankali’s ultimate moral as well as physical drive. The oankali feel this gives them the right to sometimes, as Lilith puts in, treat the humans like animals by improving their health without prior consent. Lilith and the resisters are the voice against that. Lilith remains torn between the desire to survive and the desire for autonomy through the entire trilogy.

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
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oracne
May. 13th, 2013 06:39 pm (UTC)
They are definitely worth a re-read!
tcastleb
May. 14th, 2013 06:45 am (UTC)
I actually wrote a paper I presented at ICFA involving these books that was published by Hartwell at NYRSF. So, if inclined, you can use it as an actual source. I think it came out in January '09 but I don't remember for sure.

This is the relevant excerpt. If you'd like the whole paper I can send it to you, but I don't believe I have your e-mail.

"Twisting the Other: Using a "Third" Sex to Represent Homosexuality in Science Fiction."

[I]Ethnographic studies[/I]
Several gay authors

have sought to legitimize otherness by finding other cultures that have accepted intramale sex. Indeed, no literary form was more congenial to gay writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than the ethnographic study, and it was in ethnographic discourse that homosexual writers often found the terms for their own attacks on heterosexuality. . . . But the most important effect of gay ethnography is its assertion of the naturalness of homosexuality. Gay writers are at pains to show that exclusive heterosexuality is an artificial barrier erected against the polymorphous perversity of nature. (Bergman, 35)

This is why science fiction creates the perfect outlet for exploring the Other. Alien cultures become ethnographic studies and can come to represent various aspects of our own culture.

Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy is one such ethnographic study. Set partially on an alien ship and partially on a post-apocalyptic earth, it’s the story of what happens when an alien race, the Oankali, rescue the last few surviving humans.

Everything in the first book, Dawn, is shown through Lilith, a human woman’s point of view. We learn as she does about the Oankali, who aim to trade genetic material with the humans to ensure their viability before they go extinct. The humans are kept isolated, healed, and then Awakened from stasis when it is determined that they might be able to emotionally tolerate the Oankali presence.
Amongst the Oankali, there are males and females who can perceive life and gene structure, and the genderless ooloi who have the greater talent of perceiving and manipulation. There is no outright homosexuality among either aliens or humans; in fact, male and female pairings are stressed and there is no mention of any other possible love matches because the priority of both aliens and humans is gene trading via reproduction. That aside, the ooloi, the Other in this case, can be seen as a sort of guide for exploring the unconscious or suppressed desires of human nature and sexuality.

The Oankali themselves can be seen as an avatar for gayness, or at the very least a means to embrace one’s breadth of sexuality. In their world, sex is done in a threesome, either a human male and female along with an ooloi, or an Oankali male and female along with an ooloi, and on top of that all five form a family unit. Homosexuality is implied, since each marital group has a male and female of each species, and some of the characters have a more difficult time accepting a type of sexuality they weren’t raised to embrace.

For both races, the opposite species is the Other, though both react quite differently. As Nikanj, an ooloi, states,

A partner must be biologically interesting, attractive to us, and you are fascinating. You are horror and beauty in rare combination. In a very real way, you’ve captured us, and we can’t escape. But you’re more than only the composition and the workings of your bodies. You are your personalities, your cultures. (161)

tcastleb
May. 14th, 2013 06:47 am (UTC)
(Part 2, as LJ told me I had too many characters)

For both species, the initial reaction is shock and disgust, but eventually the differences are overcome and both humans and Oankali are able to exist peacefully. The differences are embraced; the Oankali in particular are fascinated with what they call the human conundrum, an intelligent but hierarchical society full of both life and death.

There is a scene towards the end of Dawn that portrays the frequent struggle of a man dealing with a sexuality outside the bounds of tradition. Joseph, a man Awakened by Lilith and the one she prefers as a human mate, vocally resists Nikanj’s sexual overtures. Nikanj, again, is the means to bridging Joseph’s split mind, saying, “I offer a oneness that your people strive for, dream of, but can’t truly attain,” and, when Joseph protests that he doesn’t want what the ooloi offers, “You see. Your body has made a different choice” (199).

After the union, Lilith and Joseph find that they cannot touch each other without feeling revulsion. The only way for them to enjoy sexual intimacy now is with Nikanj as intermediary, which can be taken metaphorically as a sign that they have come to a realization and awareness about their own sexuality that, now that they know, will not allow them to return to the innocence they had before.
A contrast to Joseph comes in the form of Peter, who, like other humans, is drugged at his first contact with the ooloi. “The drug seemed to him to be not a less painful way of getting used to frightening nonhumans, but a way of turning him against himself, causing him to demean himself in alien perversions. His humanity was profaned. His manhood was taken away.” (203) Peter can’t cope with the assault on his sexuality. He fights, and is accidentally killed by, the ooloi trying to help him.

At the end, Lilith faces a similar conflict when Nikanj informs her it’s made her pregnant. “You are ready to be her mother. You could never have said so. Just as Joseph could never have invited me into his bed—no matter how much he wanted me there” (262). In Adulthood Rites, the same suggestion of the body knowing what it wants before the mind does returns, this time with Tino, a man rescued as a boy by the Oankali but sent to live with his parents since the Oankali admit they have no talent in raising human children. Nikanj tells Tino, “You’ve known since I sent you back to your parents years ago that you could choose to come with us.” Tino replies, “I didn’t want to go back to my parents. I asked to stay with you. To this day, I don’t know why.” (43). Deep inside, Tino knows that he wants this kind of alternative lifestyle, but he questions it because the people he was raised among deny the possibility of happiness or a positive life in such surroundings. Indeed, those who deny the Oankali have more “modern” conveniences of mills, textiles and sturdy housing than those who embrace the Oankali lifestyle. The Oankali have small gardens and fewer conveniences, but—and this is the major source of conflict between the two groups—they have children. The children are half Oankali, but still they are more than the resisters have. The message in this is clear: embrace the Other and your own bodily wants and instinctual needs to survive, or, like the unfortunate Peter, resist them and die.

The third book in the series, Imago, told from the point of view of Jodahs, a construct (part human, part Oankali) ooloi, is both a coming-of-age story of Jodahs and the evolving human race as a whole. The novel’s title is a biological term for the adult, fertile, stage of an insect. One of the human men Jodahs expresses the root of their fear of the Oankali, saying, “Your kind and your Human whores are the cause of all our trouble! You treat all mankind as your woman!” He, like the unfortunate Peter, fears losing his masculinity above all else. Human society is hierarchical with men at the top of that hierarchy, and they believe that giving in to the Oankali, no matter how much their bodies want it, means submission and therefore losing their masculinity. That very idea is at the root of homophobia in today’s society; to give in to another man is the fear of losing one’s own manhood.
tcastleb
May. 14th, 2013 06:48 am (UTC)
And the last paragraph.

Throughout the books, there are no overt homosexual relationships, but they’re hinted at. With the ooloi as mediator, all five adults in the family unit experience pleasure with each other, as well as the exchange of genetic materials that result in an offspring. The final idea from the books is that to exist, the world needs balance between human and Oankali, between male and female. For the Oankali, reproduction and evolution is foremost in their minds, but that evolution includes accepting an alternative form of sexuality.
oracne
May. 14th, 2013 12:37 pm (UTC)
YOU ROCK. BTW, I use oracne [at] gmail.
nifwitch
May. 15th, 2013 12:48 am (UTC)
I always remembered those books as mentioning homosexuality briefly and dismissively. It has been a long time since I've done a reread, but I might be able to find the bit I'm remembering.
oracne
May. 15th, 2013 02:42 pm (UTC)
Let me know!
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