Octavia Butlerís Xenogenesis Trilogy: A Biologistís Response

by Joan Slonczewski, presented at SFRA, Cleveland, June 30, 2000

Octavia E. Butlerís novels share with readers her extraordinary vision of what it means to be "other," based on intelligent biological speculation. Her Xenogenesis trilogy, now retitled Lilithís Brood for reissue by Warner, creates a stunningly vision of abduction and seduction by an alien species. This vision is presented in terms remarkably consistent with modern molecular biology, even predicting developments that have occurred since the novels were written.

As the trilogyís first book, Dawn, opens, the human race has nearly destroyed itself by nuclear war--"humanicide," as Butler calls it--a fate that seemed all too plausible in the eighties, when the book was written, and that remains a distinct possibility if the effects of humanity on our environment are not reversed. The few humans who survive the war are rescued and captured by the Oankali, a nomadic alien species that travels through the universe seeking partner species with whom to "trade" their own genes. The story is told from the viewpoint of Lilith Iyapo, a human woman whom the Oankali adopt into their family and try to enlist in recruiting other humans. Lilith is torn between accepting the medical enhancements and the sexual advances of her captors while trying to help other humans escape.

Unlike the vast majority of alien abduction tales, Dawn actually presents a biologically plausible explanation for why the Oankali need to interbreed with humans--despite their own abhorrence for the human race, which to them appears monstrous for its combination of high intelligence and self-destructive violence, the "human contradiction." The Oankali have evolved specialized organs and subcellular structures which manipulate their own genes to maximize fitness in their environment, a self-sustaining starship which is itself a living organism. Paradoxically, because the Oankali are such successful genetic engineers, they tend to engineer themselves into an evolutionary dead end; losing all genetic diversity, they lose the ability to adapt to change. The only way they can recover genetic diversity is to interbreed with an entirely new species, which contributes new genetic strengths--and weaknesses.

Butle's story evokes the experience of an African woman swept into slavery in the eighteenth century. Lilithís "Awakening" among the Oankali evokes the dehumanization of slave conditions--she is naked, has to beg for clothing, and is denied reading materials and other access to her own culture and history. The theme of slavery appears frequently in Butlerís books, most notably Kindred, in which a Black woman travels back through time to rescue a white man who becomes her ancestor. The heroine of Kindred struggles with the fact that she owes her own existence as an individual to the oppressive cultural system in which Black women could bear children only by submitting to the advances of their white masters. In a remarkable update, today's descendents of master and slave can use DNA analysis to go back and confront their Jeffersonian ancestors.

In Dawn, Lilith faces the choice of "trading" with the Oankali to produce half-human children, or having no family at all. Like the slaves who bore their mastersí children, Lilith obtains privileges of enhanced health and security for herself and her future children, who will be genetically half Oankali. The Oankali lecture her about the superiority of their egalitarian, nonviolent lifestyle, as opposed to the hierarchical, violent tendencies of humans--just as Americans told their African slaves they were fortunate to be rescued from barbarism by their "democratic" masters.

Like the slaves and their descendents, Lilith and her children feel enormous ambivalence about her choice. In Adulthood Rites, Part 2 of the trilogy, Lilithís half-Oankali son chooses for a while to live apart with the human "resisters," those who choose sterility rather than join the Oankali. He at last convinces the Oankali to provide a new home for the resisters, where they can breed again and regenerate the human species. The home provided is the planet Mars; reshaped for habitability, to be sure, but all of humanity is outcast from their own homeland, like Native Americans forced onto a reservation. Lilithís son risks his life to allow humans to choose humanity; yet he himself returns to his own hybrid heritage among the Oankali. Throughout Butlerís work, people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds struggle to make such choices.

Lilithís ambivalence about the Oankali, and about her own genetic heritage, echoes Butlerís own experience in the community of writers. For many years, Butler was one of only a few Black female writers of science fiction. Her gifts were embraced and appreciated by many fellow writers, and found success with supportive publishers. Yet for publication, she had to accept cover illustrations depicting her Black characters as Caucasian. Butlerís success required denial of her own racial identity, just as some of the early women writers of science fiction had to deny their gender by writing under male pseudonyms. Thus, she shared Lilithís dilemma by accepting literary success at the cost of part of her own identity.

In the Xenogenesis books, the transformation of humanity is accomplished by alien biotechnology, performed by genetic engineers called ooloi, who participate in the mating of human and Oankali. Until recently, genetic crossing of unrelated animals was considered untenable from the standpoint of biology. Yet in the past decade, biologists have discovered profound sources of genetic commonality between organisms as distant as humans and fruit flies. Reproductive technology has led to chimeric combinations such as sheep and goat; and an early human embryo has been generated from the egg of a cow. Researchers of the Primate Genome Project seriously propose to introduce the chimpanzeeís "superior" disease resistance genes into human chromosomes. Thus, a science fiction writer can now propose alien interbreeding based on reasonable biological speculation; but few writers in fact develop the biological basis as soundly as Butler does.

How could a species naturally evolve a lifestyle requiring the acquisition of genes from unrelated species? In the years since Dawn was published, research has revealed interesting parallels to the Oankali in the population dynamics of living organisms on Earth. Microbes and plants have been shown to possess surprising capacities for "genetic trade" with other species, even taking up naked DNA released by dead organisms and incorporating it into their own chromosomes. Our current view of bacteria is that, like the Oankali, these single-celled organisms evolve so as to keep only the limited set of genes they need for their current environment, but retain nearly endless capacity to acquire new genes, such as genes for antibiotic resistance, from DNA "out there." Similarly, plants in the natural environment have shown an unexpected capacity to acquire herbicide resistance genes from crop plants genetically engineered for resistance, a discouraging sign for the future of weed control.

Butler is one of few science fiction writers to explore the positive potential of "bad" genes. Genetic variants which seem defective under current conditions may confer benefits when conditions change; for example, a rare defect in the structure of white blood cells confers immunity to AIDS. Butlerís Oankali are particularly interested in human mutations that cause cancer. Cancer results from a series of mutational "steps" in a few cells of the body, leading to loss of control of growth. Yet the genes in which these mutations occur are some of the most critical genes of the body, vital for normal processes of growth and development. Furthermore, some of the viruses which cause cancer-inducing mutations have now been developed into "vectors" of gene therapy, used to correct or ameliorate genetic defects in human patients. Thus, in Butlerís story, it makes sense that the Oankali consider cancer genes to be some of the most valuable genes for which they "trade."

From the Oankali embrace of human cancer genes, Butler draws a broader message, that we humans need to embrace "otherness" in ethnicities and cultures foreign to our own, even if at first they seem to violate our own values. But how far can--or should--our embrace reach? Butler does not provide easy answers.

Which leads us to the question: Is there a downside to Butlerís Oankali saviors of humanity? Do the Oankali really represent a positive solution to the problem of human "hierarchal tendencies," as implied by the first book, Dawn? Is the "non-hierarchal" way of the Oankali an absolute improvement; or is it at once salvation and the damnation we self-destructive humans deserve?

The concluding book of the trilogy, Imago, depicts human-Oankali ooloi as the ultimate post-colonialists, consummate genetic engineers who sample the genes of all different organisms for their "interesting taste," rather as Americans choose to dine at ethnic restaurants. The fact that all of Earthís species will ultimately vanish, as the Oankali consume the planet, does not disturb them. A similar genetic consumerism can be seen today as biotech companies search the dwindling rainforests for rare species, storing their genes for useful pharmaceuticals before the organisms vanish. Some research programs even target indigenous human populations--ethnic groups whose rare genes might enhance the health of Americans long after their own races are gone. Such research understandably draws indignant responses from those facing extinction.

In fact, the closer one looks, the Oankali are not our opposites, but rather an extension of some of humanityís most extreme tendencies. Humans disturb and pollute our ecosystem; the Oankali will literally consume every organic molecule of it. Humans in the traditional Western Christian view, consider procreation the sole function of sexuality. The Oankaliódespite Butlerís critical stance toward Christian religionsóbasically share this view.

Oankali sex with humans is depicted as at once super-orgasmic and super-procreative. Oankali-human families are expected to produce children upon children; hence the new title, Lilithís Brood. Nowhere is there a role for non-procreative forms of sexuality, such as gay or lesbian relationships. While Butlerís characters occationally take a critical view of homophobia, it is interesting that the Oankali "third sex," the ooloi, always takes a male form to seduce a female human, but a female form to seduce a male human. To a biologist, ironically, this social dynamic seems overly conservative. Recent research (and older research recently acknowledged!) reveals that a wide array of mammals and birds, including all species of higher apes, engage in many kinds of sexually diverse relations with non-procreative functions (see Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance, St. Martinís Press, 1999.) One might perhaps feel disappointed by the absence of this dimension in Butlerís three books depicting the Oankali.

Meanwhile, the Oankali "gene trade," which seems so fearsome in Dawn, may be less unthinkable than we suppose. Would middle-class Americans today ever actually trade away their own genes, let alone their future children, as Lilith does? One need only look to the notice boards of Ivy League colleges, where students are invited to sell their own eggs to infertile strangers; and many do so, to help pay their tuition. The recipients who buy the eggs inquire into the donorsí genetic and personal backgrounds, as obsessively as the Oankali analyze Lilith. Ironically, the medical process of induced ovulation jeopardizes the future fertility of "egg donors," who may someday require similar services to produce children of their own. The business of egg banks and sperm banks has become totally consumerized, with recipients shopping for particular traits in pursuit of perfect offspring. The Oankali, with their alien genetic engineering, have become hauntingly familiar.

Back to top