De Witt Douglas Kilgore and Ranu Samantrai
A Memorial to Octavia E. Butler
Since Octavia E. Butler’s untimely death at the too-young age of 59, friends, colleagues, and readers have honored her life and work. The Carl Brandon Society established a scholarship fund in her name. The national media informed the general public that an important science fiction writer and past winner of the MacArthur “genius award” had died. Notable contributions to Butler scholarship since 2006 have ranged from Ritch Calvin’s invaluable research in “An Octavia E. Butler Bibliography (1976-2008)” to Ingrid Thaler’s recently published Black Atlantic Speculative Fictions: Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Nalo Hopkinson (2010). Recent conference programs for the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA), the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), and the Modern Language Association (MLA) show continued interest in evaluating the content and influence of her work. This activity indicates that she has become an essential part of what we mean when we speak of science fiction. That is a measure of immortality. The present commemoration is a part, then, of a larger attempt by writers and scholars to honor Butler in print. It is our hope that this tribute in SFS will call attention to that ongoing scholarly activity, and will invite further critical engagement with her work.
Much has been said about Butler’s contributions to cultural/literary debates regarding the neo-slave narrative, utopianism, and cyborg feminism.1 The common thread in all her work is her persistent demonstration that the genre’s fantastic investment in science enables critiques of the meaning of biological difference in the organization of human life and destiny. Within the science fiction community, we tend to congratulate ourselves about the genre’s relative openness in matters of race and sex. But we also know that, while for some authors the genre’s conventions prompt the imagination of alternatives to our social arrangements, for others they provide justification for extending into imaginative perpetuity the segregations and discriminations that have naturalized phenotypic hierarchies.2 Perhaps Butler’s interest in the genre was sparked by this contradiction. Certainly its stark juxtaposition of these conflicting tendencies made science fiction the proper vehicle for her literary engagements with our raced and gendered world.
Butler approached sf askance, choosing to write self-consciously as an African American woman marked by a particular history. Her example clarifies the stakes for any particular minority breaking into forms seen as ethnically exclusive: the necessity or simply the desire to see oneself complexly represented in one’s culture. Butler entered the field at a time when science fiction did not serve that function for white women or for people of color. In 1983 Thulani Davis criticized a genre that lacked the richness and possibilities she sought in her own life: futures in which living black cultural communities survive, grow, and influence the world around them, and in which black women are recognized as actors to be reckoned with. In her pithily titled essay, “The Future May be Bleak, But It’s not Black” (1983), Davis argued that sf commonly creates futures in which white men thrive and dominate (17). Such is the strength of the genre’s conventions that even black authors such as Samuel R. Delany and Ishmael Reed defer non-ironic representation of black futures (19). Writing around the same time, Ursula K. Le Guin also criticized the genre’s habit of casting the future as the 1880s British Empire: “All those planets … conceived of … as colonies to be exploited … the White Man’s Burden all over again” (88).3 And Butler, an ardent champion of the genre, nonetheless recognized its limitations when she noted that “In earlier science fiction there tended to be a lot of conquest: you land on another planet and you set up a colony and the natives have their quarters some place and they come in and work for you” (Kenan 31). Butler’s career is a partial answer to such concerns.4
Butler is one of the few writers who reached a significant non-genre audience during her lifetime. As Robertson notes in this issue, she is placed as readily in the category of American literature as in science fiction. Butler herself said that she was responsible to three audiences: “the science-fiction audience, the black audience and the feminist audience” (Potts 72). To each group, she offers a mirror, but the reflection therein can be strange and unsettling. For instance, she holds the distinction of being the first prominent exponent of sf to have published a story in Essence, the lifestyle magazine for African American women.5 It is safe to say that most Essence subscribers would have been more familiar with the realist canon of American literature than with sf. The Black and Afro-American Studies programs that flowered in the 1970s would have influenced how the young college-educated women targeted by the magazine read the story. How might they have responded to Butler’s vision of a future in which they certainly matter, but not because the promise of equality pursued by Black Studies has been accomplished?
As the essays in this issue make clear, the tales Butler tells are not simple future-history scenarios extrapolating utopian solutions to contemporary troubles. Her narratives can be grim and are often tragic. Her characters are never uncomplicated paragons of good, messiahs determined to lead their people from fear and oppression into the light. Dominance and submission, masters and slaves characterize the future as well as the past; rape is a constant danger in even sympathetic social relations. Her view of the human prospect may ultimately be hopeful but it is never sentimental. Resolution, if and when it comes, is hard. If it is fair to say, as some scholars have, that science fiction tends to create technical fixes for racism and racial politics (erasing race as a part of the future), that charge cannot be leveled at Butler.6 Her futures are populated with recognizably raced subjects and textured by histories that cannot be left behind.
Readers of Kindred (1979) will recognize that Butler looks to history and culture to explain the significance of race. Indeed, her treatment of race as a social phenomenon is the most widely discussed aspect of her work. But her most trenchant investigations result from the inclusion of science in the mélange of cultural material that she brings into focus. Informed by evolutionary biology and the potential of genetic engineering, Butler developed a fantastic sociobiology grounded in the materiality of bodies. In her work, race is not only a function of human variety but also a species marker that informs behavior and potential. Crucially, because she does not assume that biology determines destiny (McCaffery and McMenamin 62; Potts 67), she finds hope in recasting humanity as a species. The trope of a radically, sometimes violently, remade homo sapiens, altered either due to its own mutations or as a consequence of its encounters with other kinds of beings, runs from her Patternist books (1976-84) through Lilith’s Brood (1987-89) to her Earthseed novels (1993-98) and to the naturalized vampires of Fledgling (2004).
The result is never the scenario made familiar by Star Trek and its variations, in which sentient species/races remain distinct. Butler’s theme is contact— appropriately figured as miscegenation and contamination—that shatters any illusion of the inviolable individual or species. She does not envision a liberal- pluralist federation in which heterogeneity of the whole shields homogeneity of the parts. Nor is the result the mixed-race blessed community, as in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). Instead, in Butler’s oeuvre political hope is presaged by the catastrophe of sex, often non-consensual, between races—encounters that decimate unmodified humanity before any new condition can be established. Her point-of-view characters—the human beings who invite readerly identification— are stalked, emasculated, disenfranchised, and enslaved before they are altered from the inside out.
Readers for whom science fiction is an adventure in which the white, male hero saves humanity (most often in the form of a scantily clad woman) will find in Butler a challenge to generic conventions. But her work pushes the genre to speak to our deepest, culturally burdened horrors as well as to our transcendent hopes. For Butler, the most intimate fear is located at the meeting point of race and sex, the former the license for and the latter the tool by which a historically enfranchised class has controlled the bodies and destinies of peoples considered inferior. If humanity as a whole is subject to the fear of bodily violation and exploitation, in Butler’s futures it is black women who have the longest familiarity with it. Such unfortunate experts know the best strategies for survival. Lilith of Dawn (1987) and Alanna of Survivor (1978), for example, are intensely xenophobic before their forced mating with their respective extra-species mates. In contrast with the more familiar narrative of imperiled white masculinity, their encounters lead not to war—the scenario in which a heroic resistance can be mounted, exclusions can be made and enforced—but resignation, accommo-dation, and assimilation. Butler’s investments highlight the difference that a writer’s unique social and historic embodiment can make in her work.
But if the reader of conservative sf might be disappointed, so might those who share the expectations articulated by Thulani Davis. For Butler does not write fiction that faithfully and joyfully represents familiar black communities as a condition of the future. With the single exception of Kindred, she did not write condition-of-the-people stories in the manner of a Toni Morrison or an August Wilson. Even when they do not include extraterrestrials, the communities she creates are always hybrid, composed of individuals and families who share oddities across the range of more conventional phenotypic differences: African, European, Asian. Butler’s fantasies posit racial hybridity as the potential root of good family and blessed community life, a preference she attributed to her experience growing up in places not strictly segregated by race:
When I put together my characters, it doesn’t occur to me to make them all black or all white or whatever. I never went to a segregated school or lived in a segregated neighborhood, so I never had the notion that black people, or any other ethnic or cultural type, made up the world. (McCaffery and McMenamin, 13)
Butlerian hybridity differs from the futurist pluralism popularly projected by the Star Trek franchise or James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) in that her alternative communities are directed by the historical experiences and desires of Africans and African Americans. The new peoples that develop from inter-species miscegenation are not postracial (as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End ), even though they confound familiar racial arrangements. The result is not the revelation of some anodyne golden age, either in the distant past or the far future. Doro, for example, one of the most powerful directors of her fictive universe, is also one of its great monsters (Wild Seed ). His tragedy lies in his failure to achieve his own dream of racial perfection despite a multiple-millennia effort. Nevertheless, Butler’s hybrid communities, created as they are by African protagonists, do provide glimpses of a social order that resolves some of the terror of our own. In Wild Seed the motherly shapeshifter Anyanwu serves as counterweight to the demonic Doro, offering a utopian alternative that tames his patriarchal tyranny. The families they create challenge the ubiquitous real-world assumption that communities are an expression of homogeneity. Butler uses the trope of racial hybridity to propose affiliations that proceed, however bumpily, from the fact of difference. And repeatedly in her novels, from the relatively mainstream Kindred to the vampire/courtroom procedural Fledgling, she questions the convention that enfranchised leaders and majorities always shape the nature and fate of communities. Instead, her focus is on “minority” characters whose distance from centers of power increases their potential for reconfiguring their social and political worlds.
For some scholars the concept of afrofuturism has become a useful way to situate imagined futures in which active black communities are central to human destiny (Lavender 189-92, Bould 180). Mark Dery initially proposed this term for black popular writing that is influenced by but tangential to science fiction. Dery argued that such writing indicates the existence of a realm of black expressive activity relatively free from white intervention (182-87). That he did not see afrofuturism as completely removed from science fiction is indicated by his inclusion of Samuel R. Delany as a respondent to his first article about the concept. Examples of strong subsequent afrofuturist texts include Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000) and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s The Shadow Speaker (2007), extrapolating as they do futures directed by distinct Africanist epistemes. In contrast, Butler’s tendency to separate her black protagonists from their birth families, forcing them to make new homes among strangers, strains the communalist intent of afrofuturism. Although she comes closest to depicting working African and/or African American communities in Kindred and in parts of Wild Seed, the black families in those narratives are fractured or in the past, and always superseded by a more racially heterogeneous present and future.
Perhaps Butler can be read as offering a weak version of afrofuturism: she places an afro-centric sensibility at the core of her narratives but does not project the social or political survival of traditionally racialized communities. Rather, the segregations she imagines most powerfully are the fantastic substitutes of Patternists and mutes, Oankali and humans, Ina (vampires) and humans, insect-like aliens and humans. And even in these cases her project is to find porosity in apparently commonsensical and unbridgeable biological barriers. This insistence on hybridity beyond the point of discomfort makes Butler’s work neither an outrider of black cultural nationalism nor an accommodation to a white-dominated liberal pluralism. She exceeds our common ways of defining and resolving racial politics.
Octavia E. Butler entered science fiction at a time of profound change in the United States. She found in the genre the tools for imagining a radically different world, and dramatically changed the field. The sf community recognized the impact of her voice with both of its most prestigious prizes, the Nebula and Hugo awards. Without writers such as Butler, it is possible that sf would have ossified and remained too closely wedded to an invalidated hegemony. In her life, as in her work, Butler showed us that change comes from unexpected places: from the minority actors who challenge the certainties of the majority and from the violation of the settled boundaries that organize our understanding of the world.
The essays that follow attend to the most readily distinguishable and most disturbing feature of Butler’s fiction: the human body exposed as shockingly vulnerable, undone by its availability for violation and control. Each author grapples with the implications of Butler’s exploration of our embodied humanity: Why must the body be the index of change? If the body is beyond the governing reach of human consciousness, either because it is acted upon by another consciousness or, more likely, because its own desires collude in its violation, what consequences does that have for agency? And if human agency cannot be located in an autonomous will, then how should we conceive of ethics? To this prospect of a posthuman future, each author adds the centrality of the hitherto marginalized or disenfranchised human being, the queerly raced or sexed or desiring body that now takes center stage as the proper representative of humanity. The paradoxical centrality of the marginal is Butler’s version of sf’s double-edged sword: her highly speculative alternative worlds are in many ways not recognizable from where we stand, but their very difference makes them a critical mirror held up to the choices and investments that have made our world.
Benjamin J. Robertson takes on the charge that Butler’s biological essentialism undermines her political intentions. Because the body in its materiality is ahistorical, her critics argue, it cannot be a vehicle for thinking about historical and political change. Robertson counters that in Butler’s fiction the “historical” and the “material” should not be seen as contraries. Butler treats the material as itself the product of historical evolution, as are the relationships that develop from the material. The flesh, as he puts it, is itself a story; both it and the social order predicated upon it are in process—that is to say, they exist in history. Kindred, he notes, highlights the body as an index of personal and national history. We cannot avert our eyes from the history inscribed upon the body, for that is the mechanism through which bodies become meaningful. We cannot slough off the past or leave it behind in our quest for the future, because we carry it in our bodies. But the inscription of history in the flesh also makes the body the site of our agency and the truth upon which moral action can be grounded. To grapple with the body as the vehicle for the constitution of subjects, Butler must engage biopower on its own level. Robertson asserts that by locating truth in the materiality of the historical body, Butler is able to transcend the binary of situated knowledge versus universal truth, and thereby to offer the material as the basis for large-scale political change.
Adam J. Johns pursues the question of essentialism in sociobiology, the discipline that looks to our biology and to evolutionary history to explain human behavior and institutions. He argues that sociobiology seeks to mitigate the inevitable social consequences of biological determinism with the claim that our institutions (e.g., mechanisms of governance) are adequate to check our behavior (e.g., hierarchical violence). This faith in the power of human institutions weds sociobiology to the Enlightenment, liberalism, and capitalism. Butler accepts the determining role of biology, but does not share sociobiology’s faith in the ability of our institutions to hold in check our powerful death drive. Instead she asserts the contrarian position that our death drive, manifest in our endless violence, orients us as a species. Thus meaningful change in human behavior and institutions requires a prior change in our biology. Johns reads the Xenogenesis trilogy as looking to a violent interruption at the level of our biology to open a new path for humanity. To take that path, however, we will have to leave behind, or will be forced to leave behind, our recognizable humanity. With our evolution into the posthuman, we would survive our death drive, but ridding ourselves of that powerful impulse requires outgrowing Enlightenment man altogether. Our sense of autonomy and sovereignty over the kingdom of our own being, our faith in our own reason, our confidence in mastery over our destiny—none of these could survive the forced undoing and remaking of the human at the level of the body.
Attention to Butler’s orientation to science continues in Maria Aline Ferreira’s rather more optimistic essay on the early novels, Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Wild Seed. Ferreira notes that these novels are permeated with evolutionary tropes and driven by questions of change, adaptation, and survival. Compelling models for change include the oft-repeated trope of host and parasite, on the one hand, and symbiosis, on the other. The latter is significant as an explanatory device in the evolutionary and biological sciences, where it serves as a figure of how change happens. In Butler’s hands symbiosis is the resolution to the host-parasite binary, recasting the struggle of host invaded by parasite as a mutually beneficial contact that prompts adaptation and thus secures survival. Although in her narratives symbiosis is literal, it also functions metaphorically as the device that allows Butler to undermine any number of stable binaries that organize our world: colonizer-colonized, oppressor-oppressed, life-death, male-female, and so on. To be sure, there is much to be mourned in the intimate violations and loss of selfhood that result from the collapse of stable, because binary, identities. But Ferreira argues that because it leads to the possibility of a posthumanist bioethics that features cooperation rather than hierarchy, Butler regards symbiosis and the change it might foster with ambivalence rather than terror.
Marty M. Fink hones in on the implications of the intimate violations imagined by Butler by tracing another version of the ubiquitous parasite and symbiote metaphors: vampires and illness. Reading Clay’s Ark, Dawn (1988), and Fledgling against the backdrop of the panic over a potential HIV/AIDS pandemic, she reminds us that we live our humanity as embodied beings, in the modalities of race, gender, and sexuality. The vampire is associated with excessive appetite, illicit sexuality, blackness, disease, and contagion. A monstrous being that defies the normative constraints of culture, the vampire encapsulates our reactionary response to difference. But by casting the vampire as a source of healing and community, Butler asks if we can change our reception of difference, especially that difference posed by the outcast or the disenfranchised. With the metaphor of illness, the contagion that results from contact with the vampire, she confronts us with difference at the level of the microbe. Illness also affords the opportunity to look to others for healing, and to build solidarity with those similarly outcast. But the resulting community is not idealized, for in Butler’s fiction it is likely to be a community of the enslaved. Conflict is not banished from her futures and we are never introduced to a static, because perfect, state. To live is to be forced to adapt to changing and often hostile environments. Hence Butler’s emphasis on the currently marginalized and disenfranchised; they have a wealth of knowledge about how to survive under hostile conditions.
The Reflections that follow these scholarly essays are penned by a few of Butler’s many friends, colleagues, and readers. All express a sense of the abruptness of her passing, of a life’s work cut unexpectedly short. Each contributor acknowledges the loss to the sf and human communities of her startlingly, provocatively, and at times, infuriatingly original voice. Together these essays and personal reflections provide a glimpse into the range of response to Butler’s work. Any definitive evaluation of her influence will emerge only with time and distance. Butler herself once expressed her own hopes about her legacy:
When I write a book, if I influence one person who goes on to influence others, then probably I’ve done something worthwhile if the influence is good. Nobody can see how long their books will last or how much influence they’ll have, so I just assume that at least I can make a few people think. I don’t know what will come of that, possibly nothing, but you never know what that one kid, for instance, sitting in the back of the room is going to wind up doing. (Mehaffy and Keating 117)
We wish to thank the many scholars, writers, and artists who have contributed to this commemoration over the past several years. Your efforts remain a part of this project. We dedicate it to your diligence, patience, and passion for Octavia Butler’s work. Special thanks are also due to Carl Phillips for encouraging us to undertake this project and to the editors of SFS for nurturing it to completion.
1. See, for example, Stewart-Shaheed, Warfield, and Yu.
2. For the former seeKilgore, and for the latter see Rieder.
3. Davis cites Le Guin as an innovator in science fiction’s handling of race (Davis 19).
4. Davis devotes a single line to Butler’s position as a “black sci-fi writer” but does not explain why Butler does not satisfy her call for a black future (Davis 19).
5. It is a version of the first chapter of Wild Seed. Calvin shows that the magazine reviewed her work several times in the decades following the 1981 publication of the Wild Seed excerpt (Calvin 486).
6. Elisabeth Anne Leonard and Isiah Lavender III have highlighted the generic tendency to create “color-blind” futures that “avoid wrestling with the difficult questions of how a non-racist society comes into being and how members of minority cultures or ethnic groups preserve their culture” (Leonard 254) or project “racial anxieties onto the body of the alien without seeming to notice that the humanity united against this external threat is suspiciously monochrome” (Lavender 185). See also Bould (177-78).
Bould, Mark. “The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF.” SFS 34.3 (July 2007): 177-86.
Butler, Octavia E. Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Four Walls, 1995.
─────. Dawn. 1987. New York: Popular, 1988.
─────. Fledgling. New York: Seven Stories, 2005.
─────. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon, 1988.
─────. Parable of the Sower. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.
─────. Survivor. 1978. New York: Signet, 1979.
─────. Wild Seed. 1980. New York: Popular Library, 1988.
Calvin, Ritch. “An Octavia E. Butler Bibliography, 1976-2008.” Utopian Studies 19.3 (2008): 485-516.
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. 1953. New York: Del Rey, 2001.
Davis, Thulani. "The Future May Be Bleak, But It's not Black." The Village Voice (1 Feb. 1983): 17-19.
Dery, Mark, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 179-222.
Hopkinson, Nalo. Midnight Robber. New York: Warner, 2000.
Kenan, Randall. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” 1991. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Ed. Conseula Francis. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010. 27-37.
Kilgore, De Witt Douglas. Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
Lavender, Isaiah, III. “Critical Race Theory.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould et al. London: Routledge, 2009. 185-93.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “American SF and the Other.” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. 1979. New York: Berkley, 1982. 87-90.
Leonard, Elisabeth Anne. “Race and Ethnicity in Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003. 253-63.
McCaffery, Larry and Jim McMenamin. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers.Ed. Larry McCaffery. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990. 54-70.
Mehaffy, Marilyn and AnaLouise Keating, “‘Radio Imagination.’ Octavia Butler on the Poetics of Narrative Embodiment.” 2001. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Ed. Conseula Francis. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010. 98-122.
Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi. The Shadow Speaker. New York: Jump at the Sun, 2007.
Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. 1976. New York: Fawcett, 1991.
Potts, Stephen W. “‘We Keep Playing the Same Record’: A Conversation with Octavia Butler.” 1996. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Ed. Conseula Francis. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010. 65-73.
Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008.
Stewart-Shaheed, K. Denea. “Re-Membering Blackness in the Neo-Slave Writings of Octavia Butler and Zora Neale Hurston.” Reclaiming Home, Remembering Motherhood, Rewriting History: African American and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Literature in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Verena Theile and Marie Drews. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009. 233-51.
Thaler, Ingrid. Black Atlantic Speculative Fictions: Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Nalo Hopkinson. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Warfield, Angela. “Reassessing the Utopian Novel: Octavia Butler, Jacques Derrida, and the Impossible Future of Utopia.” Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora 6.2-7.1 (Fall 2005-Summer 2006): 61-71.
Yu, Jeboon. “The Representation of Inappropriate/d Others: The Epistemology of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Feminism and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Series.” Journal of English Language and Literature 50.3 (2004): 759–77.
“Some Matching Strangeness”: Biology, Politics, and the Embrace of History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred
Abstract. -- This essay argues for situating Octavia Butler’s writing, particularly her 1979 novel Kindred, within the discourses of both science fiction and American literature. Scholarship that relies on either an ahistorical reading of Donna Haraway’s cyborg (and avoids questions of Americanness) or places Butler within the tradition of the neo-slave narrative (and thereby eschews reference to sf) cannot account for the embodied notion of history her work depicts. This history, which dovetails with current theories of biopolitics, overcomes the power of representational politics through recourse to a powerful but problematic materialism, one that requires every individual to take responsibility for the entirety of national history.
Adam J. Johns
Becoming Medusa: Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood
Abstract. -- It is a commonplace that Octavia Butler shows interest in evolution and sociobiology in her work. However, the details of her use of biology have often been neglected. I argue that Butler’s Lilith’s Brood is more deeply rooted in the particulars of sociobiology than has been previously understood. Rather than a reaction to sociobiology in the abstract, Lilith’s Brood engages in a detailed dialogue with E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and Biophilia, among other texts. A number of Wilson’s arguments and concepts from these two texts are used and transformed in Lilith’s Brood, with the result that the tragic character both of human resistance to the alien Oankali, and of the Oankali absorption of the human, is emphasized. I argue that Lilith’s Brood should be understood as a tragic revision of the sociobiological project, which replaces liberal optimism with tragic posthumanism.
Maria Aline Ferreira
Symbiotic Bodies and Evolutionary Tropes in the Work of Octavia Butler
Abstract. -- This essay examines the tropes of the parasite, the host, and the symbiont in Octavia Butler’s early novels Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Wild Seed (1978). These figures can be seen as directly implicated in and representative of the evolutionary and adaptive strategies operating in Butler’s fiction. The essay engages predominantly with Michel Serres’s analysis of parasitism in its multiple facets as well as Donna Haraway’s investigation of symbiotic relatedness, two thematic areas that receive detailed attention in Butler’s work. Butler’s fictional elaboration of altenative future paradigms of connectedness negotiates the potentially positive aspects of genetic fusions and symbiotic alliances, achieved with recourse to versions of genetic engineering techniques and novel bioscientific developments that Butler has anticipated in many crucial ways. While expanding on some putatively beneficial scenarios arising as a result of these new biotechnologies, her fiction also sounds a cautionary note about the dangers inherent in the dilution of human embodiment and subjectivity that might occur as the outcome of as yet unforeseen inter- and intra-species mergings.
AIDS Vampires: Reimagining Illness in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling
Abstract. -- This article reads Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005) as an opportunity to reconsider the literary function of the vampire as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS. Drawing on a framework of queer theory and on a consideration of Butler’s larger body of work, this analysis uses science fiction to locate the pandemic as a contemporary moment within a long history of narrating disease. Connecting the vampire figure to the processes of racialization and homophobia that overdetermine narratives of illness, we can consider Butler’s text as a challenge to preformed constructions of gender, sexuality, and disease. By reclaiming the mythologies attached to the vampire figure, Butler’s work points to the complexities of community, identity, and sexual desire, illuminating nuanced approaches to the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
The 2010 Science Fiction Studies Symposium: Animal Studies and Science Fiction
The 2010 SFS Symposium, held on May 27 in the reading room of the Special Collections and Archives Department of Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside, addressed the topic “Animal Studies and Science Fiction.” Animal Studies is a rapidly growing interdisciplinary field that focuses on theories of animal subjectivity, human-animal relations, bioethical considerations in animal research, and more. Major international conferences have recently been held on the theme, including the 2007 conference on Gender and Animal Studies in Uppsala, Sweden, and specialist journals have sprung up, such as the Journal of Critical Animal Studies (founded 2003) and the online journal Humanimalia: A Journal of Human/Animal Interface Studies (first issue, September 2009).
The three speakers at the event were Sherryl Vint, coeditor of Humanimalia, and SFS editors Joan Gordon and Carol McGuirk. (Sherryl also edited the special issue of SFS on Animal Studies in July 2008, which featured essays by Carol and Joan, and her new book, Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal [Liverpool, 2010], debuted at the symposium.) I asked the speakers to reflect on the theoretical and practical issues involved in applying the insights of Animal Studies to sf, including such questions as: how do concerns regarding interspecies communication and empathy inform first-contact narratives? how does the human/animal boundary affect the representation of alien beings? how are ethical and political categories emanating from this boundary transformed in futuristic or extraterrestrial contexts? We are pleased to be able to bring you the three talks, which (quoting from my introduction to the proceedings from the first symposium, published in the March 2010 issue) “are not formal scholarly articles but rather critical meditations, invocations, and exhortations whose aim is to inspire further colloquy, as I hope they will.”
Once again, I want to thank not only the three speakers, but also Art Evans, Managing Editor of SFS, for his support, and the Special Collections and Archives Department of UCR’s Rivera library for permitting us to use their reading room, arranging promotion for the event, and hosting the reception that followed. In particular, I am deeply grateful to Melissa Conway, Gwido Zlatkes, Sarah Allison, Sara Stilley, and Julie Rees.
The 2011 SFS Symposium will be held on Thursday, February 10, at the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa in downtown Riverside, California. The topic will be “The Singularity in SF Literature and Theory,” and the speakers will be Neil Easterbrook, Brooks Landon, and myself. The symposium will precede the Eaton SF Conference, whose theme is “Global Science Fiction”; for more information, consult the conference website at <http://eatonconference.ucr.edu/index.php>.
Animal Studies in the Era of Biopower
Abstract. -- This paper considers Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean (1986) in the light of biopolitical theory, which identifies the site of governance as the operation of power on bodies. Using Foucault’s reformulation of sovereignty as shifting from the power to “let live” or “put to death” to the power to “make live” and “let die,” as well as Derrida’s interrogation of the common place of the animal and the sovereign outside the social contract, I argue that biopolitical theory enables us to read the ecofeminist ethics in the novel as a new kind of politics that might be called a political biology. In this way, the novel provides a model for the new configurations of subjectivity and ethics that Derrida calls for in his late work. Further, the inclusion of non-human subjects within the community imagined by the novel offers us a way to think about regimes of biopolitical governance in which we do not have to choose between animal and human welfare, but instead can conceptualize strategies of resistance that recognize their common situation as bodies subject to sovereign power.
Talking (for, with) Dogs: Science Fiction Breaks a Species Barrier
Abstract. -- This article is part of my ongoing study of a figure I call the amborg, which represents the interface between species in a variety of ways. One way in which humans and other animals interact is through the attempt to communicate, and we try most sincerely, perhaps, in the human/dog relationship. This attempt is explored in a number of science fiction stories, where scientific extrapolation and subjunctive “what if” speculation allow us to overhear how that communication might occur. The result sometimes reflects genuine grappling with questions of authority, otherness, consciousness, and embodiment. Working with Gayatri Spivak’s concept of the subaltern and Donna Haraway’s companion species, but also the observations and conclusions of animal ethologists, I look at three sf works: Clifford Simak’s City (1952), Sheri S. Tepper’s The Companions (2003), and Kij Johnson’s “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” (2007). I explore ways in which sf allows writers to speculate on how species communicate, resulting in what Haraway might see as figurative interspecies epigenesis: not the speech of the subaltern, but speaking between “alterns.” To imagine this possibility is to break down one of the most common differentiations between the human (as unique possessor of language) and the separate, inferior category of animal, instead offering a more generous definition of language itself and a more observant description of the ways in which humans and other animal beings communicate with one another.
The Animal Downdeep: Cordwainer Smith’s Late Tales of the Underpeople
Abstract. -- Cordwainer Smith’s dual focus on animal welfare and human cruelty speaks to many concerns of animal studies today. He portrays, some 15,000 years after his own mid-twentieth century, the final collapse of the animal/human dyad. The “underpeople,” workers derived from Earth animals, conspire to become recognized as part of the body politic, a concept connected in Smith with the idea of residence in a polis or city. “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964) depicts condemned and freakish animal beings who openly show themselves in the human city; they are at once slaughtered and their leader, D’joan, is burned alive, but a dawning recognition of their own brutality begins to change Smith’s “true men.” Over the next 500 years, homo sapiens learns a better way. Animals come into political agency in these stories. They also serve as therapists for the troubled true men, helping them to recognize that it is not all about one species: “the other life” is “there too.” Drawing on ideas from Aristotle, Rousseau, Freud, and Derrida, I suggest that Smith’s stories reflect not only his academic specialty, political science, but also his years of Freudian therapy. Clearly he shares Freud’s sense of “the ineradicable animal nature” of human beings. The chief texts discussed are Norstrilia (1975), the Quest of the Three Worldstrilogy (1963-65), and “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964).