Octavia Butler Receives Honorary Degree from Kenyon College, 1997

Octavia Butler 1997

Octavia Butler has written some of our most original and biologically informed works of science fiction. Lilith’s Brood presents an alien life form that engineers itself to perfection, and thereafter must interbreed with unrelated species in order to restore diversity. Butler’s vision was predictive of our modern understanding of how diversity drives genetics. She has received many awards, including the MacArther Foundation “genius award” in 1995. Today her books are turning into major drama series.
In 1997, Butler received an Honorary Degree in Humane Letters at Kenyon College. The candidate was presented by Professor Joan L. Slonczewski, Secretary to the Faculty, and the degree was conferred by President Robert A. Oden.
Perspectives are shared below by Slonczewski and by Jeanne Griggs.

Butler receives Kenyon honorary degree

Octavia Butler and Joan Slonczewsi, 1997

Octavia Butler: A Biologist’s Response
by Joan Slonczewski

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

As the trilogy’s 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. Lilith’s "Awakening" among the Oankali evokes the dehumanization of enslavement--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 Butler’s 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 enslavers. In a remarkable update, today's descendants of enslaver and enslaved 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 enslavers’ 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 enslaved Africans they were fortunate to be rescued from barbarism by their "democratic" enslavers.

Like the enslaved people and their descendants, Lilith and her children feel enormous ambivalence about her choice. In Adulthood Rites, Part 2 of the trilogy, Lilith’s 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. Lilith’s son risks his life to allow humans to choose humanity; yet he himself returns to his own hybrid heritage among the Oankali. Throughout Butler’s work, people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds struggle to make such choices.

Lilith’s ambivalence about the Oankali, and about her own genetic heritage, echoes Butler’s 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. Butler’s 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 Lilith’s 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 have proposed introducing the chimpanzee’s "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 develop the biological basis as effectively 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 resistance to HIV infection. Butler’s 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 Butler’s 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 Butler’s 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 Earth’s 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 humanity’s 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 Oankali—despite Butler’s critical stance toward Christian religions—basically share this view.

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 donors’ 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 consumerized, with recipients shopping for particular traits in pursuit of perfect offspring. The Oankali, with their alien genetic engineering, have become hauntingly familiar.

Adapted from Joan Slonczewski's presentation at the Science Fiction Research Association, Cleveland, June 30, 2000; published as “Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy: A Biologist’s Response,” pp 149-155, in Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, eds. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Yokine, Australia: Twelfth Planet Press, 2017.

Octavia E. Butler’s predictions in Parable of the Sower
and Parable of the Talents

By Jeanne Griggs

Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents, published in 1998 as a sequel to the events in the Parable of the Sower (1993), describes the election of a president who “insists on being a throwback to some earlier, ‘simpler’ time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping on anyone who was different” (18). The president has support for his plan to “make America great again” (18).

Many of Butler’s other predictions from these two novels have come true; we’re already living in her imagined “period of upheaval…from 2015 through 2030” (PT, 8). As California wildfires, freezing in Texas, flooding in Missouri and articles about climate change indicate, we’re already living in a world going through a period of upheaval. Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of Parable of the Sower, says that she has “watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation.” (PS, 8). And who living today has not?

Butler paints a picture of how climate change could affect people in California; people of color, in particular. Her protagonist knows that “people have changed the climate of the world” (PS, 50) and she means to survive instead of “waiting for the old days to come back.” The president in Lauren Olamina’s world has suspended “overly restrictive” (PS, 24) environmental protections, while in the real world our president did the same. In its last update, the New York Times listed more than one hundred environmental rules rolled back under the Trump administration, based on research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and other sources. The compilers of the list prefaced it at one point by saying that “President Trump has made eliminating federal regulations a priority.”

Water is so scarce for the characters in The Parable of the Sower that it “costs several times as much as gasoline.” In their journey north, they have to plan to travel through places where they can buy water. They use “commercial water stations” because “anything you buy from a water peddler on the freeway ought to be boiled, and still might not be safe. Boiling kills disease organisms, but may do nothing to get rid of chemical residue—fuel, pesticide, herbicide, whatever else has been in the bottles that peddlers use. The fact that most peddlers can’t read makes the situation worse. They sometimes poison themselves” (PS, 180). But “commercial stations let you draw whatever you pay for—and not a drop more—right out of one of their taps. You drink whatever the local householders are drinking. It might taste, smell, or look bad, but you can depend on it not to kill you” (PS, 181). At one point, Lauren’s group plans to head for a “big freshwater lake—San Luis Reservoir” pictured on one of Lauren’s old maps, saying “it might be dry now. Over the past few years a lot of things had gone dry. But there will be trees, cool shade, a place to rest and be comfortable. Perhaps there will at least be a water station” (PS, 222).  When they arrive, they find that “there is still a little water in the San Luis Reservoir. It’s more fresh water than I’ve ever seen in one place, but by the vast size of the reservoir, I can see that it’s only a little compared to what should be there—what used to be there” (231). We can say the same about Lake Mead in 2022. Lest we believe that less arid states will fare better, Lauren mentions that “there’s cholera spreading in southern Mississippi and Louisiana….There are too many poor people—illiterate, jobless, homeless, without decent sanitation or clean water. They have plenty of water down there, but a lot of it is polluted.”

Belief in change helps prepare Lauren to survive, as she sees that those who look to the past—to some possibility of living the way we used to, before climate change--perish. If we focus only on trying to repair or delay the damage we’ve already done to our planet, we’re trying to live in the past—an example of this is Lauren’s sustainable farming community, Acorn, which is taken over by “Crusaders” who won’t return their children until they accept the president as “God’s chosen restorer of America’s greatness” (PT, 201).

Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents show the importance of learning to accept change enough to work towards it, to turn our minds towards imagining a future for our planet.

Adapted from Jeanne Griggs' presentation at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, Orlando, March 2021.