The pandemic, the lockdowns, bring new focus, I’ve noticed, to the mythos of the enclave, the citadel, the haven, the safe space inside which lovely things can flourish while the world outside it continues to go to hell. Lauren Oya Olamina, the visionary heroine of Octavia Butler’s Parable books, lived until she was 18 in a gated neighbourhood in Robledo, southern California, with her clever father, a Baptist preacher, and resourceful stepmother, who kept a garden with peppers, tomatoes, squashes, carrots, lettuce and melons, sunflowers, beans, corn. But then, on 30 July 2027, the outside world got in, raping and killing and setting fires: so Lauren dug up what she could of the emergency packs she had hidden across the compound and, not for the first time in the literature of her country, lit out for the road.
‘The Pox’, Butler writes, is what many call ‘the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as “the Apocalypse”’, an ‘instalment-plan World War III’ that starts sometime between 2015 and 2030. There’s no rain, water costs more than petrol, police and fire services charge by the call-out, and even so, don’t come. A state, a government, still exist, but ‘so weakened … that they don’t much matter’. Some think they can escape by buying into a ‘company town’ such as Olivar, a previously rich and white coastal suburb, the beaches now submerged by rising sea levels, the land and infrastructure owned by a single offshore trust. Others stuff their faces with street drugs such as ‘pyro’, which makes fire-starting feel even better than all other drugs put together. On the East Coast, the invention of pyro caused an immediate increase in arson; and then it came to ‘dry-as-straw southern California’. As Butler often writes, in the flat teenage voice she made for Lauren: ‘Yeah.’
By the time catastrophe overcomes Robledo, Lauren has been prepping herself for years. She has been reading, too, about the plague in medieval Europe, and how different life became afterwards for the survivors: ‘Things are always changing. This is just one of the big jumps instead of the little step-by-step changes that are easier to take.’ Lauren’s father, ‘the best man I know’, sees so far but no further, which is the reason we will shortly be considering whether it is his arm, ‘smooth, white bone [sticking] out at the shoulder’, that the children find in the scrub. But Lauren sees farther yet, partly because she suffers from a surfeit of empathy, an unshakeable belief that when she witnesses pain in another human being, she feels that pain herself: this is ‘an organic delusional syndrome’, as Butler calls it, an effect of foetal brain damage caused by her mother’s addiction to smart drugs. The condition makes life complicated, in that Lauren is unable ever to cut herself off from the agonies of others. But it makes other things simple. When under attack and fighting back, she can only save herself from the suffering of her enemies if she kills them quickly.
There’s another thing that makes Lauren different, dangerous, ‘a missile, ready to go off’. She has developed her own religion, Earthseed, the credo of which is that God is not love, not personal, but Change: ‘the one unavoidable, irresistible, ongoing reality of the universe’. ‘We do not worship God … We learn from God.’ ‘We adapt and endure.’ And beyond endurance comes the Destiny: ‘Earthseed will go on. It will grow. It will force us to become the strong, purposeful, adaptable people that we must become … It will force us to become more than we might ever become without it.’ ‘The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.’
Parable of the Sower (1993) tells how Lauren leaves the ruins of the family compound to join the ‘shuffling hordes’ journeying north, gathering disciples as she goes. By the end of the book they have reached their promised land, where they found a farmstead they call Acorn and plant the seeds from Lauren’s pack. At the start of Parable of the Talents (1998) Lauren is ‘Shaper’ of this refugee community, flourishing and well ordered, while outside, a president promises ‘to make America great again’ and the social fabric continues to collapse. Acorn has just celebrated its fifth anniversary – ‘fried rabbit, baked potato … acorn bread and sweet potato pie’ – when it is invaded by militias with big crosses on their tabards and turned over to become a Christian concentration camp. ‘I wanted to … lie down on the floor in a tight knot around my uselessness and my aching breasts and scream.’
It won’t spoil the books too much to know that Lauren – going now by her Yoruba surname, Olamina – recovers, starts anew, builds a worldwide network of Earthseed schools, farms, intentional communities, a bank. Earthseed becomes, in other words, merely an unusually well-run New Age foundation, prosperous and banal. Except that it also lobbies congressmen to get support for shooting its people into space: ‘We need the stars … We need purpose! We need the image the Destiny gives us of ourselves as a growing, purposeful species … If we’re to be anything other than smooth dinosaurs who evolve, specialise and die, we need the stars.’
By the time of Olamina’s death in 2090, space shuttles – ‘fat, squat, ugly, ancient-looking’ – are travelling regularly to the moon, where the first starships are assembled, then loaded with seeds, tools, embryos, adult humans, sunk in suspended animation. But Olamina dies before the starships actually take off. The first is called the Christopher Columbus, in spite of her objections. ‘This ship is not about a shortcut to riches and empire. It’s not about snatching up slaves and gold and presenting them to some European monarch. But one can’t win every battle. One must know which battles to fight.’
The story of what the true believers found, on the fresh green breast of whichever new world they came to, was to have been told in a third book, ‘Parable of the Trickster’, which survives as ‘dozens upon dozens of false starts’ in a pile of archive boxes at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, ‘some petering out after twenty or thirty pages, others after just two or three’, in the words of Gerry Canavan, who in 2013 became the first scholar to open them. Butler had been reading James Lovelock and thinking about what would happen if humans migrated to other worlds while continuing to be ‘part of an earth organism in some literal way’: ‘phantom-limb pain’ was a phrase she used in the notes in the boxes. ‘A somehow neurologically incomplete amputation.’ ‘Graft-versus-host disease – a mutual attempt at rejection.’
After ‘Trickster’, Butler had dreamed of writing at least three further Parables, maybe more, as the Earthseed pilgrims scattered over time and space. Like Lauren, she had been working on Earthseed over many years in her notebooks, and talked in interviews about her hopes for humanity: ‘I was a kid during the space race. I used to get up early in the morning and watch as the preparations were made and the Mercury capsules and then the Gemini and the Apollo went off … Later, I thought this was our way of having a nuclear war with the Russians without having one.’ ‘Religion has kept us focused and helped us to do any number of very difficult things … So why not use it to get us to the stars?’
In her writing, however, Butler was unable to make the Destiny happen. Tiny fragments of possible ‘Trickster’ episodes are lodged in the published Parables: the astronaut whose dying wish is for her body to be left behind on Mars, ‘the one thing she had wanted all her life’; the Martian slime moulds, ‘both a great discovery and a great sadness’, since the minute they come into contact with the human, they die. Butler was ill and often depressed while she worked: tired all the time, frightened that her blood-pressure medications were wrecking her libido, her ability to think. Like Lauren, however, she had been depending on her work ethic since childhood. On and on and on she pushed with the ‘Trickster’, for much of the last decade of her life.
She did take time out to write what she called her ‘fun’ novel, Fledgling (2005), about a melanated young vampire called Shori, whose people – the Ina – secrete a hormone in their saliva that bonds their victims to them, whereupon they move happily into polygamous communes, to live as ‘symbionts’. ‘It isn’t very good,’ Butler fretted, and I think she’s right: for a tale intended to be ‘lightweight’, it’s horribly weighed down with Ina rules, Ina lore, Ina feuds and an exceedingly long and boring Ina court case. And it may be nice, if that’s what you’re into, to read about freely consenting adults enjoying sex with superhumans; it’s less so when participants have, in effect, been drugged. Or when Shori, who’s 53, we’re told, in Ina years, looks like she’s about ten. As Lauren put it. Yeah.
Butler was 58 when Fledgling was published, and barely a year later, she fell and hit her head on an icy pavement and died. Her papers arrived at the Huntington in 2008: two filing cabinets and 35 large cardboard boxes, containing drafts, notes, sums, receipts and bills, an order form for men’s-size Star Trek jerseys; to-do lists and to-get lists – ‘Potatoes … Wiener … Fish Sticks … T Paper’. ‘The archive is vast and frankly, imposing,’ Lynell George reports in the book she made from her exploration of it, a sensitive combination of facsimile scraps, biographical fragments and indirect-discourse speculation. George herself is Black and Los Angelena, and first came to know of Butler as a local author, a public character in the Jane Jacobs sense, signing books at readings, seen around the place in the sidewalk ballet. ‘Don’t you need a car in LA?’ George asks of Butler – a committed pedestrian – in her book. ‘She will smash this canard … [on] each long walk she takes … It slows the city down to moments and voices … The city itself is a story, a seed.’
An authorised biography is in progress, Butler’s estate tells me, but can say no more because of Covid-related delays. Butler has in the meantime been added to the Library of America canon, under the editorship of Nisi Shawl, previously the co-editor, with Rebecca Holden, of Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices and Octavia E. Butler (2013); and Canavan, who is white, male, an academic scholar of science fiction, and previously published a short biographical survey in 2016. ‘With this first volume of Octavia Estelle Butler’s work,’ Shawl writes in their introduction, ‘the Library of America kicks off its canonisation of discomfort,’ not the least of which must be the discomfort of white readers, and male readers, and readers of all sorts accustomed to assuming that they don’t need to be thinking about race and racism, sex and gender, world-historical violence and domination, as they read. There’s also ‘the question of how to properly represent the partial, unfinished and unedited material of a writer who very jealously guarded her public presentation, and who was very concerned about being made to look silly, foolish, uneducated or unsophisticated,’ as Canavan wrote in his study from 2016. ‘I have sought to honour Butler’s choices in such matters … I sincerely hope I have succeeded.’
One good thing about lockdown is the sightings we get, via Zoom and Jitsi, of people’s bookshelves: but I’ve seen none as enticing as Butler’s in a photograph by Patti Perret from 1984. Most of the titles I can’t quite read, but there’s one called Leader, there’s an Atlas of the Bible, there’s Alive, which is that book about the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes in the early 1970s who got so hungry that they ate a fellow passenger’s leg. ‘I generally have four or five books open around the house,’ Butler said in one of the interviews collected by Consuela Francis in Conversations with Octavia Butler (2009). ‘And I’ll go out for my morning walk … and let those ideas bounce off each other, simmer, reproduce.’
The voice of the interviews is pretty much like the voice of Butler’s few but marvellous essays: laidback but crisp and clear, the voice of a self-confessed ‘news junkie’ and far-sighted African American intellectual who grew up through Project Mercury and the March on Washington, the Watts uprising and Vietnam, the moon landing and the assassination of Martin Luther King; whose inspiration for Xenogenesis, her great biopolitical trilogy of the 1980s, was both the then recent revelation that scientists had stolen cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks’s body without her family’s knowledge, and Ronald Reagan’s fantasy of a winnable nuclear war. To read George’s book is to see a little of how hard Butler had to work for her calm and crispness, how much pain she encased in its smooth, thin shell: ‘What good is a writer who doesn’t write,’ George catches her despairing in her diary. ‘We are trash if we don’t write. We’re good for nothing if those words aren’t down.’
The word ‘Afrofuturist’ is often used of Butler’s writing – and unsurprisingly, it being so gorgeous and hauntological. It comes, as far as I can tell, from ‘Black to the Future’, an essay published in 1994 by a white critic, Mark Dery. ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction?’ is the question it asks, though the bulk of the essay consists of interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose. The word is now much used when talking about the interest so many Black artists and musicians show in SF myths and machinery, from W.E.B. DuBois’s fictional writings through Sun Ra, Ishmael Reed, George Clinton, Janelle Monáe; but it doesn’t seem to me precise enough to get at the subtle severality of what Butler – barely mentioned in Dery’s essay – was doing in her work.
She had already come at the matter in her own way, in an essay for Essence in 1989: ‘What good is science fiction to Black people? … What good is SF’s thinking about the present, the future and the past? … Its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organisation and political direction?’ ‘Disciplined extrapolation’, a phrase Mike Davis has used about Butler’s method in the Parables, gets at it much better. She extrapolates from what she sees in the world around her, she extrapolates from her reading, she extrapolates from painful personal experience, and all of it so measuredly, it’s as if she’s working with dividers on a map.
‘Black existence and science fiction are one and the same,’ as Tate explained in the Black Audio Film Collective documentary The Last Angel of History (1996). ‘All the stories about alien abduction, all the stories about alien spaceships,’ Kodwo Eshun went on, ‘taking subjects from one planet to another, genetically transforming them … Well look, all these things, look … they already happened! How much more alien do you think it gets than slavery, entire populations moved and genetically altered, entire states moved and forcibly dematerialised … It doesn’t really get more alien than that!’
‘The existential Black condition in America is … all about deliverance,’ Tate said in an interview in 2012: ships and arks and forced migrations, rivers crossed, peoples freed; tales and images layered from memory and history and the Bible and traditions of popular song. So Lauren took her people north from Robledo; so Olamina built spaceships to take them to the stars. And Butler, meanwhile, was working too, maybe, on the sort of Destiny her grandparents had hoped for when they left Louisiana for the North:
taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil
To see if it could …
Respond to the warmth of other suns
Richard Wright’s lines became the epigraph to Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 study of the Great Migration. Butler didn’t get as far as she had hoped with the Trickster’s journey, but she knew it started in a verse from Earthseed:
There’s nothing new
under the sun
but there are new suns.
‘Iam a 34-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects some day to be a seventy-year-old writer’: according to Canavan, the Butler archive contains this potted autobiography in close on forty different versions. ‘I’m also comfortably asocial – a hermit in the middle of Seattle – a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive.’ Over the years Butler updated her age, her ethnicity – from ‘a black’ to ‘African American’ – and her location: she’d longed for years to move near Mount Rainier, but only managed it in 1999. The question of her sexuality is mysterious. ‘I called the Gay and Lesbian Services Centre,’ she once said. ‘I wound up going down there twice, at which point I realised. Nope … At any rate, I was intrigued by gay sexuality, enough so that I wanted to play around with it in my imagination.’ As well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and solitary humans, Butler’s work also features troilism and polyamory among creatures of several species and genders, sometimes libertine, often bonded for life; rape as an act of war and intimidation; and something else, between humans and aliens usually, that is harder to categorise. Canavan calls it ‘blurred consent’.
Octavia E. Butler was born in Pasadena in 1947, and grew up as an only child: ‘I had four older brothers [but] my mother … lost them all.’ Her father, Laurice, worked as a shoe-shiner, but died when she was a toddler. Her mother, Octavia M., was born in 1914 on a sugar plantation in Louisiana – ‘It wasn’t that far removed from slavery, the only difference was they could leave’ – and worked as a cleaner. The girl grew up in a strict Baptist household, which may be a source of Butler’s interest in charismatic leadership, as well as her scriptural references. At home, she was known as Junie, after the month she was born. Outside, she went by her middle name, Estelle.
‘I was the most socially awkward person you can imagine,’ Butler said. She remembered being called ‘ugly’ for the first time in first grade, ‘and I went on being called ugly all the way through junior high school. If you’re called ugly that often, you start to believe it.’ She was six feet tall by the time she was 14, ‘so that also helped.’ She was accustomed to being misgendered, and chased out of women’s toilets, and called horrible homophobic names. ‘I hid out in a big pink notebook’: there’s a picture of it in George’s book. ‘There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.’
Octavia M.’s ‘big dream’ was for her daughter to become a secretary. Octavia E.’s was ‘never to be a secretary in my life. I mean, it just seemed such an appallingly servile job.’ As a child, she had hated hearing her mother bullied and insulted by her white employers: ‘I did not blame them for their disgusting behaviour, but I blamed my mother for taking it … This is something I carried with me for quite a while.’ But Butler’s mother also brought home all the cast-off books she could get her hands on, and a second-hand typewriter. When in the 1990s Butler won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, she immediately paid off her mother’s mortgage. Octavia M. was by then in her eighties, and died within a year.
As a girl, Butler’s first obsession was with horses. But she quickly moved on to ‘stars and planets, asteroids, moons and comets’, and in particular to Zenna Henderson’s books about the People, aliens who live in secret among us, using ‘Signs and Persuasions’ to talk about us behind our backs. In her childhood diaries, Canavan reports, Butler wrote about herself as though she, too, were in possession of special powers, enhanced, perhaps, by a keen interest in self-hypnosis, affirmations and self-help. ‘Her bedroom, her bathroom, her doors, are decorated with messages,’ George adds, ‘with carefully spaced sentences in felt-tip marker or ballpoint pen. They ring out with boosts or reminders.’
Tell stories Filled with Facts.
Make People Touch and Taste and KNOW.
Make People FEEL! FEEL! FeeL!
Butler began planning her first novel, Patternmaster (1976), when she was 12 and her second, Mind of My Mind (1977), a few years later. There would eventually be five Patternist novels published, about a secret superhuman people who have been evolving for centuries already, and are all telepathically connected in ‘a tidal wave of light’. The saga begins in ancient Nubia, as the evil Doro hatches a plan – another teenage fantasy of Butler’s – ‘to live for ever and breed people’, and extends far into the future, to a utopia in which supremacy is won by those with the greatest psionic powers and all the work is done by the normies, who are known as ‘mutes’. Mind of My Mind, however, is set in Pasadena as Butler knew it, with a distressing memory of overhearing a neighbour’s children being beaten undergoing a characteristic extrapolation. In the midst of their ‘transitions’, ‘latents’ suffer uncontrollable access to the thoughts and feelings of others, which is the reason telepaths make terrible parents. They can’t stand ‘hearing all that undisciplined mental shrieking’.
After high school Butler worked by day – ‘food processing, clerical, warehouse, factory, you name it’ – while studying history at Pasadena City College. In 1970, she attended the annual Clarion College science-fiction workshop in Pennsylvania, at which she met the mighty Delany, and sold two stories. ‘I was overjoyed … No more failure and scut work. In fact, I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me.’ She focused on novels because she decided that was where the money was, but I think it’s the tales that show her at her best: neat, odd little formes frustes that don’t bother much with SF bits and bobs, and so become richer in details drawn from life. The terrible sickness that causes you to feel cursed, tempted, constantly, to destroy yourself (‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’): based on Huntington’s, Butler said, and a couple of other, more obscure diseases. ‘There was trouble aboard the Washington Boulevard bus,’ ‘Speech Sounds’ begins, a story ‘conceived in weariness, depression and sorrow’ as Butler rode on that bus herself, ‘trying to keep people from stepping on my ingrown toenail and … wondering whether the human species would ever grow up.’
It’s the everyday 1970s details that bring much of the power to Kindred (1979), Butler’s most famous novel, which begins with 26-year-old Dana, who’s just moved with her husband, Kevin, into their first house together, sorting their shared books into a bookcase: ‘Fiction only. We had so many books, we had to try and keep them in some kind of order.’ Dana and Kevin met when both were working for a labour agency ‘we regulars called … a slave market’: both are struggling writers of SF. Their relationship is comradely and affectionate, but their families don’t like it because Dana is Black and Kevin white. ‘Home … Dresser, closet, electric light, television, radio, electric clock, books. Home … It was real.’
In form, Kindred looks like a straightforward time-travel caper, in which Dana finds herself flung back to antebellum Maryland, where her mission, she discovers, is to act as guardian angel to her accident-prone great or maybe great-great-grandfather, so he can survive to get together with her great or maybe great-great-grandmother, thus allowing the beginning of the bloodline that will eventually produce her. Except that for Dana, matters of parentage and ancestry are not simple, because Rufus, the impregnator, is white and owns a plantation, and Alice, the impregnated, is Black, which means that the impregnation that needs to happen will be rape. It was all such fun for Marty McFly: no grief or fretting about the politics of amor fati, no need to worry about being whipped and raped and killed. Or to wonder whether actually, if this is what it takes to get yourself born, is it even worth it? And if it is, what will you do to make it up to the people who suffered so you could live?
‘When I got into college,’ Butler explained,
the Black Power movement was really underway … and I heard some remarks from a young man who was the same age as I was but who had apparently never made the connection … He said, ‘I’d like to kill all those old people who have been holding us back for so long. But I can’t, because I’d have to start with my own parents.’
To begin with, Butler thought it would be this young man she’d send back in time in her novel, but she quickly realised it would be impossible. ‘Everything about him was wrong: his body language, the way he looked at white people, even the fact he looked at white people at all.’ She also realised her novel would have to be ‘a clean version of slavery’, because ‘the intimate details of what people had to go through’ were too ‘ugly and awful’, as well as potentially exploitative. Such details ‘inure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity’, as Saidiya Hartman explained, ‘and especially because they reproduce the spectacular character of black suffering’. Butler put her plantation in Maryland for its proximity to the Mason-Dixon line, allowing at least a hope of escape, as it had for Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. She did her research at George Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon in Virginia, where the founding father of democracy held more than three hundred enslaved people – ‘servants’, as tour guides were still putting it in the 1970s – by the time of his death in 1799.
To read Kindred now is to undergo a little of the experience that college boy had with his relatives, that Butler herself had with her mother as a child: the story is so neat and cunningly crafted, Dana is so sensible, that it’s easy to skip over the horror and the peril, the pain of Dana’s whip-scarred back and missing arm. Butler, as the cliché goes, has read all the source material so you don’t have to, and you could criticise what she’s done with it as a bit too cleaned up, a little bit YA. In doing so, however, you’d only show that you’re not as grown-up as you think you are. Written in this way, Kindred is an act of generosity, an embodiment of the hope that one day, it will be nothing to write home about when a Black woman sits in her new house with her white husband, happily surrounded by piles and piles of books. History, Butler often said, is also ‘another planet – the only one we know to bear any life’.
‘It startled me,’ Butler said once, ‘when I began going to science fiction conventions, that a lot of people … really did tend to think of going to other worlds or meeting aliens as though they were meeting other humans … We don’t have a clue.’ Her own more realistic assessment of likely scenarios resulted first in the magnificent story ‘Bloodchild’ (1984), in which a human boy explains how he has come to accept his impregnation by the gigantic insect who is also his beloved godmother, not to mention his owner: ‘I tried to write a story about paying the rent – a story about an isolated colony of human beings on an inhabited, extrasolar world … It wouldn’t be the British Empire in space. It wouldn’t be Star Trek. Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um … their hosts.’
The idea had come, she went on, from a trip to the Peruvian rainforest, during which she had been told about the botfly, which lays its eggs under the skin of a living host: ‘I found the idea … so intolerable, so terrifying, I didn’t know how I could stand it.’ She was in the rainforest to research tropical plants for her Xenogenesis project, in which the paying-guest analogy would be extended to a near future Earth almost completely destroyed by nuclear war. In the Xenogenesis books – since reprinted under the title Lilith’s Brood – the few human survivors of the cataclysm are picked up by the Oankali, a highly advanced alien race that swaps genes and adapts itself according to whomever, whatever, it finds near: Oankali who work on spaceships look like giant caterpillars and communicate non-verbally, ‘in images [and] … pheromones’; a depressed Oankali hides away and de-evolves into ‘a kind of … mollusc’. And the Oankali who come out to meet the humans are primatoid and bipedal, except with tentacles like ‘writhing, dying nightcrawlers’ instead of eyes and nose and mouth.
The Oankali are interstellar gene-traders, driven from deep in their evolutionary history to meet and mingle with what they find: ‘We acquire new life – seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a minuscule cell within a cell – a tiny organelle.’ They live in symbiosis with their spaceships, which grow – in a process a bit like 3D printing – whatever food or habitat their symbionts might need. They repair the ruined Earth by planting larval ‘entities’ with the look and feel and functions of grass and trees and so forth, but which have an ‘inclination’ eventually to turn themselves into spaceships and fly away. When that happens, millions of years later, ‘less than the corpse of a world’ is left behind, ‘small, cold, and as lifeless as the Moon’.
The Oankali pick out Lilith as their pilot project because of what they call her ‘talent for cancer’ – her familial genetic predisposition – which they find ‘beautiful’ and can use in all sorts of projects. Humans in general they find irresistible but exasperating (‘Your people contain incredible potential, but they die without using much of it’), a plight they understand with reference to what they call ‘the Contradiction’: the coexistence in humans of great intelligence with an evolutionarily prior attachment to hierarchy and competition. ‘It was fascinating, seductive and lethal.’ In interviews Butler sometimes glossed the Contradiction as ‘men’.
We meet Lilith in Dawn (1987) as she meets and learns about her rescuers and what they want her to do. The Oankali, we discover, have three genders, male, female and ooloi, the last one bigger and more powerful than the others, and equipped with two extra tentacles which Butler often calls ‘sensory arms’. Oankali mate in threes, Butler tells us, male and female with their ooloi in the middle; but this is where Lilith comes in. The Oankali want to mingle genetically with humans, with Lilith going first – like ‘a Judas goat’, as she puts it – to encourage the others to follow. She and her human partner become unable to have sex unless an ooloi slips between them, ‘parasitising’ their feelings even as it amplifies them to ‘an impossible intensity … ablaze in sensation’. Humans who refuse to have sex with oolois are not forced, but sterilised; which is not to say that humans who do not refuse exactly consent. ‘Your body said one thing. Your words said another,’ as an ooloi says to one of its humans, moving ‘a sensory arm to the back of his neck’.
In Adulthood Rites (1988), one of Lilith’s part-human, part-Oankali children is kidnapped by a runaway tribe of sterile humans, desperate for children to raise as their own. The human in him, maybe, helps him understand what humans find horrible about the Oankali utopia, so he campaigns for his people to get a choice: to stay on Earth, but sterile, or to go to Mars, where they can start again and breed. In Imago (1989) another of Lilith’s part-human children spontaneously develops as neither male nor female but ooloi, which Butler stresses is not any sort of male-female ambiguity or mixture, but a completely different third term: ‘The connection to grammar is both explicit and full of unexamined possibilities,’ as Joan Scott wrote in her essay ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’ in 1986. Lilith’s children find a group of mysteriously fertile humans on Earth and want to stay with them and breed: the Oankali aren’t happy about it, but there’s not a lot they can do. ‘Human purpose isn’t what you say it is or what I say it is. It’s what your biology says it is.’ So there we are.
Arguments rage among Butler scholars as to whether the Oankali are better or worse than human beings. Better because they make decisions by consensus, worse because they don’t listen when humans tell them No. Better because they don’t blow each other up, worse because they devour whole planets. Better because their three genders excitingly explode the conventional sex-based binary; worse because the pairings in which the ooloi insert themselves are exclusively heterosexual and aimed at procreation. ‘The connection to grammar is both explicit and full of unexamined possibilities.’ Canavan goes so far as to quote the 1948 United Nations Convention to show that the Oankali, in his view, are genocidal, the entire Xenogenesis sequence ‘a plain retelling of the brutal history of imperialism’. I don’t see how it could have been expected to be anything else.
We can call Butler’s method ‘disciplined extrapolation’; we can also call it ‘tak[ing] existing helter-skelter and turn[ing] up the volume’ – Mike Davis again. The young Lauren, on a not-as-bad-as-the-other-one presidential candidate: ‘A kind of human bannister … a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future.’ And on outer space: ‘Well … We have to be going someplace other than down the toilet.’ And on politics in general: ‘Politicians have been promising to return us to the glory, wealth and order of the 20th century ever since I can remember … We’re still a great, forward-looking, powerful nation, right?’ To which she gives the only answer possible: ‘Yeah.’
‘Now use your imagination. Is there anything on your family bookshelves that might help you if you were stuck outside? … Any kind of survival information from encyclopedias, biographies … Even some fiction might be useful,’ Lauren, back in Robledo, told a friend. We’re going to have to leave, sooner or later, because we’re dying here, and the Earth is dying with us. We’re going to need those new suns that might be out there. But how will we know it’s time to go?
Butler’s considerations on the botfly may help. ‘All that I heard and read advised botfly victims not to try to get rid of their maggot passengers until … the fly finished the larval part of its growth cycle.’ Try digging it out any sooner, and you’ll just break off bits that will sit rotting inside you, making you weak and ill. Let the parasites develop at their own pace, munching away on you as they do. They’ll crawl out of their host at maturity, and fly away.