Science Fiction Studies

#61 = Volume 20, Part 3 = November 1993

Eric White

The Erotics of Becoming: XENOGENESIS and The Thing

Evolutionary theory has often figured in science fiction as a powerfully resonant topic, a privileged point of departure for the staging of a variety of highly charged concerns and conflicts. In some narratives, the positing of a shared kinship between humans and other animals provokes revulsion at the implied refusal of any claim to human preeminence in the greater scheme of things. But the erosion of "Man" as a putatively ontological category and the prospect, moreover, of reality as a Joycean "chaosmos" of perpetual change or metamorphosis can also be depicted affirmatively. The theoretical elaboration of an evolutionary universe need not exclusively elicit horror and anguish. It may also prompt the speculative imagination to extrapolate a future for what might be dubbed "the post-human body becoming." In this essay I’m going to examine a number of exemplary responses in science fiction to the advent of modern evolutionary thought. Discussion will focus in particular on John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing and Octavia Butler’s more recent XENOGENESIS trilogy as evolutionist narratives offering respectively traumatized and affirmative perspectives on a world in which, as Heraclitus long ago put it, "everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed."


"You made us in the House of Pain. You made us—things! Not man, not beast, part man, part beast—things!" (The Sayer of the Law to Dr Moreau, in The Island of Lost Souls)

I’ll begin with a brief look at H.G. Wells’ 1896 Island of Dr. Moreau, a tale in which the blurring of the boundary between Culture and Nature occasions anxiety about the validity of other hierarchically paired terms including the "mind"/"body" and "male"/"female" binarisms. In the chapter entitled "The Thing in the Forest," Wells’ narrator Prendick turns to Nature for consolation when he can no longer bear listening to the cries that emanate from the House of Pain where the mad scientist Dr. Moreau engages in vivisectionist experiments to find out "the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape" (§14:75). As he wanders through the jungle surrounding Moreau’s laboratory, Prendick comes upon a streamlet running through a narrow valley surrounded by luxuriant vegetation and tropical flowers, an Edenic setting that signals its friendly welcome by means of the frolicsome presence of a playful rabbit scampering through the underbrush. Predictably, given the pastoral topos Wells is amplifying in this passage, Prendick finds it "too hot to think elaborately" and falls "into a tranquil state midway between dozing and waking" (§9:37). In the bower of a beneficent, nurturing Nature, the stage is set for a restorative encounter between human Mind and the natural world’s correspondent breeze.

But Prendick’s happy musings are abruptly terminated when a "rustling amidst the greenery on the other side of the stream" presages the shocking apparition of a man "going on all-fours like a beast!" (§9:38). Instead of the reassuring revelation of a higher destiny for humanity, Prendick confronts a "half-bestial creature" disturbingly bereft of innate human dignity. His drowsy tranquillity now wholly dispelled, he pushes on through the jungle only to be made anxious yet again when, in what at first seems a totally gratuitous narrative detail, he observes "a great patch of vivid scarlet on the ground" that turns out "to be a peculiar fungus branched and corrugated like a foliaceous lichen, but deliquescing into slime at the touch" (§9:39). On the one hand, this sudden transformation of highly articulated structure into undifferentiated formlessness suggests an evolutionary universe in which entropy ultimately rules. But the assimilation here of "order" to "chaos" can also be read as ambiguating the distinction between "male" and "female." Such an interpretation depends on seeing in the image of scarlet fungus deliquescing into slime an allusion to menstrual blood, a claim that is not really exorbitant given the traditional association of the "female" with the "natural" explicitly invoked elsewhere in the story. For instance, when Moreau’s creations begin to revert to their former bestial ways (and thence devolve into a "generalised animalism" in which heterogeneous species traits commingle in disgustingly hybrid confusion), the first ones among them to "disregard the injunction of decency—deliberately for the most part" are precisely the females (§21:128). 1

Prendick’s subsequent discovery of the dead body of the rabbit with its head torn off—an unwelcome reminder of the ubiquity of predation in Nature throws him into an explicitly paranoiac state: "The thicket about me became altered to my imagination. Every shadow became something more than a shadow, became an ambush, every rustle a threat. Invisible things seemed watching me." Overcome by panic, Prendick thrusts himself "violently—possibly even frantically—through the bushes, anxious [to find] some clear space" and so free himself from the embrace of a natural setting that had proven inhospitable not merely as a physical threat but as a challenge to his very self-definition and essence (§9:39). When he arrives at what seems a clear space, however, Prendick is confronted by yet another ambiguation of the boundary separating Culture from Nature. As he watches in horrified fascination, three "grotesque human figures" sitting in the middle of the clearing begin first to "gibber in unison," and then, "rising to their feet [and] spreading their hands," sway "their bodies in rhythm with their chant." Soon, their "ugly faces...brighten with an expression of strange pleasure" and they drool "from their lipless mouths." Struck with the realization that each of these creatures "had woven into it, into its movements, into the expression of its countenance, into its whole presence, some now irresistable suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint, the unmistakable mark of the beast," Prendick is forced to recognize the origin of Culture (and specifically religious ritual) in the repulsively ludicrous spectacle of dancing pigs chanting what sounds like "‘Aloola or ‘Baloola"’ (§9:40).

Not surprisingly, upon his return to London at the end of the story, Prendick can no longer affirm his former belief that his fellow citizens are "perfectly reasonable creatures...emancipated from instinct." As he gazes upon his fellows, he feels "as though the animal was surging up through them" (§20:136). He therefore withdraws from society and seeks consolation in astronomical research, discovering "a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven." The immutable coherence and order of strictly physical reality (understood according to a Newtonian model that was already anachronistic by the end of the 19th century) will henceforth provide "solace" for "whatever is more than animal within us." Placing his trust in the "vast and eternal laws" of inorganic, non-living matter as the last best hope for a realm of pure spirit invulnerable to evolutionary process, Prendick in effect embraces death (§20:138).

Moreau is no less traumatized by the biological chaos of evolution as aimless transformation—"a blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism" (§16:98)— and the psychic chaos of a voraciously appetitive desiring body for which the rational self is a mere appendage or instrument. Notwithstanding his pretensions to scientific detachment and disinterested curiosity, Moreau’s dream of becoming an evolutionary agent as "remorseless as Nature" issues from a stereotypical sadistic fantasy of affectless mastery and transcendence. The "strange colorless delight" of what he claims are purely "intellectual desires" is merely a disguise for unacknowledged fear and rage. In his attempts to extinguish pain and pleasure in his experimental subjects, Moreau seeks desperately to eradicate every reminder of the fact of his own animal embodiment. Pain and pleasure, he says, "are for us, only so long as we wriggle in the dust" (§14:75). 2


[Moreau:] "After I had made a number of human creatures I made a thing—— ... It wasn’t finished. It was purely an experiment. It was a limbless thing with a horrible face that writhed along the ground in a serpentine fashion." (§14:77-78)

[Prendick:] "The thing is an abomination." (§14:75)

In order to enlarge this account of the fear of becoming so extravagantly enacted in The Island of Dr. Moreau I want to turn now to the characterization of "abjection" developed by Julia Kristeva in her Powers of Horror. Kristeva employs this term as a name for certain intense feelings of revulsion, disgust, fear, and contempt provoked in the subject when it encounters phenomena that disturb "identity, system, order.... [that do] not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite" (Kristeva 4). "Abjection" designates an unnameable "other" that abolishes clarity and distinction, order and degree, an unnameable nemesis, in fact, that threatens the subject with a return to primordial chaos. In Kristeva’s psychoanalytic rendition of the genesis of the self, the subject who confronts the abject experiences a recurrence of the moment of crisis when the infant first separates itself from its original environment in order to begin the difficult task of constructing its own distinct identity. "Abjection" thus pertains to the inaugural act of what will eventually become an "I," the first fragile and precarious emergence of order out of chaos, structure out of indifferentiation, permanence out of turbulent fluidity.

On the one hand, what is "abjected" by the infant as a horror too terrifying to face is the hitherto blissful union with the maternal body that the infant now perceives as equally a condition of dependency and helplessness. On the other, this "violent, clumsy breaking away" from the potentially "stifling" embrace of the mother entails as well an alienation from the infant’s own body, to the extent it experiences its body as a disruptive tumult of unruly instinctual energy (13). In the beginning, as it were, there is only the endlessly metamorphic flux of the drives, a condition of pure becoming inimical to settled identity, to self-possession and reality-mastery. At the moment of crisis, the turbulent forces of the id provoke, in horrified response, an attempt to expel these energies in order to achieve a condition of imperturbability no longer vulnerable to disruptive intrusions from without. The abjecting of both the mother’s and its own body clears a space within which the infant begins to elaborate a narcissistic fantasy of totality that will form the basis for a rigidly fixed adult ego that finds its characteristic social corollary in pyramidal structures of hierarchical subordination. Such a dogmatically inflexible form of selfhood, which seeks to check the disquieting spontaneity of the body by channeling its desires along reassuringly routine itineraries, can only consent to its animal embodiment on the certain promise that it must, one day, ascend to a spiritual plane of everlasting perfection.

Beyond its specifically psychoanalytic provenance, Kristeva’s discussion of abjection is indebted to Mary Douglas’s anthropological speculations in Purity and Danger concerning the Biblical notion of "abomination." The term refers to phenomena regarded as unholy or "polluted" for either of two reasons. "Abominations," first of all, constitute a disquieting reminder that humanity is mired in a material world from which death can never be banished. Under the rubric of the abominable, "Man" repudiates what the fact of his animal embodiment inescapably entails. Bodily wastes and secretions (such as menstrual blood) are defiling, that is, precisely because they reveal the body to be an organic process like any other and hence fated to pass away. In addition to thus underscoring the body’s mortal destiny, abominations also trouble the desire for a knowable and by implication masterable universe by serving notice that reality is incomprehensibly "chaotic" to the extent that anomalies and paradoxes thwart every attempt to subdue phenomena to a logical scheme. "Holiness," which depends upon "correct definition, discrimination and order," requires both "that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong....[and] that different classes of things shall not be confused" (Douglas 53). At issue here is the dream of residing within the precincts of the sacred, secure in the knowledge that a place has providentially been provided for everything and everything is eternally in its proper place. But such an "inside" is inevitably constituted in relation to a hostile "outside" that comprises a permanent threat. The center finds itself persecuted by "hybrids" and "confusions," by "monsters" that "confound the general scheme of the world" (55) or reveal every representation of reality to be a historically contingent interpretation rather than an immutable truth.

As an example of such a confusion or transgression of customary categories, consider Moreau’s "limbless thing with a horrible face that writhed along the ground in a serpentine fashion" (§14:78). According to Douglas, animals that creep, crawl or swarm are regarded in the Book of Leviticus as especially abominable. "Swarming," it turns out, is "explicitly contrary to holiness" because it is an "indeterminate form of movement" proper neither to "fish, flesh nor fowl." Worms—which are associated with "death and chaos" not only because of the way they move but because, all the more repulsively, they feast upon the bodies of the dead (Douglas 56)— and wormlike creatures in general thus participate in unholiness. Moreau’s monstrous serpent is loathsome in just this sense. Its abominably fluid writhing might even be said to provide an apt emblem for the incessant flux of an evolutionary universe in which nothing is sacred. In this connection, the pertinence of the related topics of "abjection" and "abomination" in assessing the cultural reception of evolutionary theory can be said to reside in the fact that the eternally shapeshifting natural world is precisely abject and abominable in its unpredictable, uncontrollable, and ultimately fatal spontaneity. Prendick and Moreau experience a crisis of abjection when they discover that evolutionary theory threatens their personal investments in autonomy and self-possession. In positing the relatedness of all living creatures and the impermanence of every natural kind, the theory of evolution profanes the sacred by rendering contingent or culturally constructed the putatively ontological distinctions between "Man" and "animal," "Culture" and "Nature," "mind" and "body," "male" and "female." The prospect of evolution as limitless becoming revives archaic fears that Western civilization since its inception has sought to banish through the elaboration of symbolic codes meant to assure the self that invulnerability to change is an achievable goal if not yet an accomplished fact.

This age-old dream of abolishing mutability and mortality ensues, of course, merely in a constriction of the possibilities of everyday life. If the abject represents chaos, the dissolution of structure and form, it stands as well for the the vitality and libidinal intensity of unrestrained drive energy understood according to the Blakean formula that "Energy is the only life, and is from the body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight" (Blake 182). The chaotic fecundity that Kristeva calls the "semiotic chora," which might be thought of as the "good" abjection, propels every genuinely inventive cultural practice. All artistic activity, she says, transpires "on the fragile border...where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so" (Kristeva 207). She thus looks forward to a reconciliation with the abject reminiscent of what Gertrude Stein had in mind when she announced her desire to "act so that there is no use in a center" (Stein 498). Contemporary literature—by which Kristeva means a tradition including such writers as Dostoyevsky, Lautréamont, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Artaud, and Borges—"propounds...a sublimation of abjection" (Kristeva 26). In a Nietzschean inflection of the Aristotelian principle of catharsis, she describes this sublimation of abjection as one in which "rhythm and song...arouse the impure, the other of mind, the passionate-corporeal-sexual-virile, but they harmonize it.... They thus soothe frenzied contributing an external rule, a poetic one, which fills the gap, inherited from Plato between body and soul" (28). In other words, the literature that says yes to abjection—recapitulating Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy as a dynamic of the Apollonian with the Dionysian would alleviate the alienation of "spirit" from "matter" by founding aesthetic invention precisely on the flux of becoming.


"The abject confronts us...with those fragile states where man strays on the territories of the animal." (Kristeva 12)

Like Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau, John Carpenter’s 1982 film version of The Thing and Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS novels (1987-89) seek to dramatize the import of evolutionary theory. Both of these narratives interpret biological evolution as a process of limitless becoming or metamorphosis that deprives every putative finality of ontological warrant. "Humanity" is a historically contingent, transitional phenomenon rather than the apex of biological possibility. But the responses to this scenario in X ENOGENESIS and The Thing are antithetical. Where The Thing powerfully registers the anguish and horror occasioned by the recognition of human subjection to evolutionary process, in X ENOGENESIS Butler attempts to work through this trauma in order to affirm becoming.

Carpenter’s The Thing shares The Island of Dr Moreau’s dread at the prospect of losing definition and essence. In this film, "humanity" is represented by a community of male researchers at a facility in the Antarctic (allegorically, civilization in the context of a literally cold, indifferent universe) in whom autotelic affective or passional experience is subordinated to the instrumental technoscientific mastery of nature. Thus committed to maintaining mind in a relationship of preeminence with respect to the body, and "Man" in a relationship of preeminence with respect to the natural world, the inhabitants of the research station are confronted by what they perceive to be a plague or contagion—the life force itself—that infects them with the potential of becoming other.

The polymorphic Thing, capable of absorbing the human as but one among other morphological possibilities in its seemingly infinite repertoire, can be understood, that is, as the embodiment of evolution. Hideously metamorphic, compounded of tentacles, insect and crustacean-like appendages, dismembered mammalian and especially human bodies, and covered in slime, this unclassifiable presence transgresses every attempt to impose a rational structure upon experience.3 The diverse organisms engulfed by its jellylike protoplasm are disassembled and recycled as so much raw material for a swirling chaos of partial forms and heterogeneous anatomical parts that challenges the very notion of bodily integrity and coherence. A visually disgusting pastiche of biological possibilities, the Thing in fact amounts to a rendering simultaneous of the entire history of evolutionary process, a spectacle of ceaseless change so horrifying, finally, that by the end of the film the inhabitants of the research station are prepared to destroy their station and themselves—in other words, destroy civilization—rather than consent to a universe in flux.

As the story unfolds, an increasingly paranoiac atmosphere pervades the research station. Once they realize that their nemesis is a shapeshifter capable, when it chooses, of dissembling itself as any of the life-forms it has assimilated, the men at the station become suspicious of one another. In what quickly becomes a refrain running through the film, one character confesses, "I don’t know who to trust anymore." No one can be certain of the "humanity" of his companions. Nor can anyone remain confident of his own "human nature." The Thing renders ambiguous, that is, the distinction between mind and body. The fear now is that the rational self-possessed ego cannot legitimately claim to be, in Freud’s phrase, the master in its own house because it moves at the promptings of unaccountable urges and impulses.

The social intelligibility and male privilege secured by the hierarchical subordination of female to male is no less imperiled by the Thing’s metamorphic energy. The Thing is already understood as a threat to a specifically male subject-position in "Who Goes There?," the 1938 short story by John W. Campbell upon which Carpenter’s film is based. Campbell introduces his hero McReady as a "man of bronze" from "some forgotten myth, a looming bronze statue that held life, and walked.... Age-resisting endurance of the metal spoke in the cragged heavy outlines of his face" (247). The apparent imperviousness to time of cold hard metal is thus fetishized as Campbell endows McReady with an aura of phallic omnipotence the better to dispel concern about the precariousness of "Man’s" dominion over Nature. In the Carpenter film, an explicitly female antagonist confronts McReady at the very beginning of the story in a scene in which Carpenter subtly critiques the phallicized hero’s inability to tolerate the slightest challenge to his self-image as master of every situation. McReady here petulantly disables a computer that speaks with a female voice by pouring his drink into its circuitry after it outwits him in a chess match.4 The Thing is similarly coded as female later in the film when it bites off the arms of one man, phantasmatically castrating him with what looks like the proverbial vagina dentata. The Thing is not simply, however, the projection of male paranoia regarding a potential female reversal of male dominance. In its culminating manifestation, McReady witnesses a grotesque profusion of vaginal and phallic forms that renders the Thing indeterminately male and female. The monstrous shapeshifter thus undoes the intelligibility of gender itself by literally embodying the male and female anatomical parts upon which the cultural construction of gender is founded.

Carpenter’s The Thing is remarkable for its powerfully intense evocation (thanks to the astonishing special effects) of the multifarious horrors attending an evolutionary worldview. Neither the Howard Hawks’ 1951 Thing from Another World nor the John Campbell short story that inspired both films are so candid. While the Carpenter film presents a horrified engagement with the realization that no species can exempt itself from the reality of ceaseless flux, the two other narratives in effect avert their gaze from this unwelcome scenario. In Hawks’ version of The Thing, for instance, the extraterrestrial threat to human specificity is a humanoid vegetable—"An intellectual carrot, the mind boggles!"—that reverses the customary predatory relationship between plants and animals by vampirically drinking the blood of the dogs and humans it preys upon at the research station. Evolution is understood here according to such catchphrases as "survival of the fittest" and "nature red in tooth and claw," a view whose threatening implications can be neutralized relatively easily by positing a qualitative distinction between culture, where distinctly human values prevail, and nature, realm of brute instinct. The Hawks film thus screens or displaces attention from the more frightening prospect of limitless becoming and directionless change. By demonizing an ultimately masterable nature—and the "insanely ...chuckling" shapeshifter of Campbell’s tale is certainly demonic (Campbell 263)—The Thing from Another World forestalls the emergence of other threats. Despite the presence of a stereotypical mad scientist who naively assumes that any technologically "advanced" life form must somehow have transcended its instinctual nature, confidence in the ontological primacy of the rational self remains firm. Moreover, the film does not betray any anxiety about the implications of evolutionary theory for traditional conceptions of gender. Notwithstanding the characteristic Hawksian repartée between the male and female leads, the film complacently presupposes that if women are to be admitted to the public sphere of scientific research they will there occupy only subordinate positions.

In "Who Goes There?," and in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Carpenter’s film, the Thing is assumed to return, in moments of crisis, to an authentic, original form. Far from just any and every thing, it has a specific nature and might therefore be defined scientifically or assigned a niche in a comprehensive taxonomy of life-forms that would facilitate its ultimate subjugation. The Carpenter film, on the other hand, is closer to a more intriguing possibility left largely implicit in Campbell’s story, namely, that the Thing is a figure for pure becoming, without an essence that would in any way define its "unkillable vitality" or provide a telos orienting its mutations toward some predetermined end. A veritable Deleuzo-guattarian schizo-nomad that "can imitate anything—that is, become anything," the Thing is so decentered it is not even a unified entity: "every part is a whole. Every piece is self-sufficient, an animal in itself" (Campbell 266, 290). Carpenter’s film plays as well with the further possibility that the spreading contagion of "thingness" is not merely terrifying and repulsive. Along with all the dread and horror, the Thing undeniably evokes fascination, the fascination of a forbidden object of desire. Kristeva remarks at one point that "the abject is edged with the sublime" (11). I want to suggest that the very intensity of the pleasure-pain of horror and fright may propel the viewers of this film beyond themselves, enabling them to experience, if only for a moment, the genuinely sublime prospect of no longer residing securely in their customary identities. To the extent they identify with the Thing, they would thus themselves become unclassifiable and unnameable shapeshifters. Such is the possibility that Octavia Butler entertains in X ENOGENESIS , a term that might be rendered, precisely, as "becoming other."


[Blair, the biologist:] "[the Thing] is just as much a legitimate child of Nature as you are. You are displaying that childish human weakness of hating the different.... Just because its nature is different, you haven’t any right to say it’s necessarily evil." (259)

[Norris, the physicist:] "Child of Nature, eh? Well, it was a hell of an evil Nature." (259)

[McReady, addressing the Thing:] "We have what you, your otherworld race, evidently doesn’t. Not an imitated, but a bred-in-the-bone instinct, a driving, unquenchable fire that’s genuine. We’ll fight, fight with a ferocity you may attempt to imitate, but you’ll never equal. We’re human." (91) —"Who Goes There?"

Octavia Butler’s X ENOGENESIS novels offer an alternative response to the prospect of the human body as a contingent possibility within the metamorphic body of evolutionary Nature. The trilogy can in fact be said to intervene in and reverse a tradition of paranoiac responses to evolution in which Nature in effect persecutes Culture. Although the extraterrestrials who plan to mate or "trade genes" with humanity are initially regarded as frighteningly repulsive, inducing "panic" and "xenophobia" among the few human survivors of nuclear apocalypse (Dawn §1.3:22), the loss of human specificity entailed in hybridization with the irreducibly other is, in the last analysis, depicted affirmatively. And this is so much so that, in X ENOGENESIS , the Thing has become the hero of the tale.

Correspondences between Butler’s narrative and the various retellings of The Thing are striking. In Campell’s "Who Goes There?" the face of the alien shapeshifter is described as "ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow" (255-56). Similarly, on first encountering the alien Oankali, Butler’s protagonist Lilith is reminded of snakes, worms and sea slugs grown large and humanoid in appearance: "Some of the ‘hair’ writhed independently, a nest of snakes.... The tentacles were elastic.... She imagined big, slowly writhing, dying night crawlers stretched along the sidewalk after a rain. She imagined small, tentacled sea slugs—nudibranchs—grown impossibly to human size and shape, and, obscenely, sounding more like a human being than some humans" (Dawn §1.2:11-12). And she pronounces the name "Medusa," a mythological monster that can be interpreted in the present context as a figure for everything abject and abominable. Again, in the Campbell story the alien "is a member of a supremely intelligent race, a race that has learned the deepest secrets of biology and turned them to its use" (Campbell 266).

Butler’s aliens too are masters of genetic engineering, so masterful they require no technology but are able to manipulate DNA within their own bodies. Moreover, as the Thing is nearly infinitely divisible, every part of it another Thing unto itself, so the bodies of the Oankali are not organic unities but colonies of symbiotically co-habiting cells. Finally, in Carpenter’s The Thing, the introduction of a single alien cell into an organism will cause that organism to become itself a shapeshifter. In XENOGENESIS , the aliens trace their lineage back to a tiny virus-like "organelle." They evolved "through the organelle’s invasion, acquisition, duplication, and symbiosis" with other life forms (Imago §1.4:23). The aliens are driven by the organelle to evolve, to hybridize with other species and thus continually to transform themselves and the species with which they interbreed.

The problem for Butler is not the Thing but a flaw in the human species that is especially marked in human males. As Lilith says: "Humans fear difference.... [They] persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status" (Adulthood Rites §2.4:80). Human nature entails a dangerous "contradiction" between two traits: high intelligence and a predisposition to "hierarchy" that manifests itself in psychological and social structures of domination and control. In the course of the trilogy, the survivors of nuclear apocalypse amply manifest a lengthy and all too familiar catalog of human vices—egotism, leader worship, ideological and religious dogmatism, sexual assault, multifarious forms of scapegoating (including sexism, racism, and homophobia)—all of which involve the exclusion and subordination of an "outside" in relation to a privileged "inside."

When the Oankali propose to mate with them, Lilith—named after Adam’s legendary first wife who gave birth to monsters after she was banished from Paradise for refusing to accept Adam’s primacy—and her fellow survivors must come to terms with the prospect of becoming radically other from what humanity has always been. The Oankali would decenter human experience, transforming hierarchical power structures and binary oppositions into a play of differences along a number of axes. First of all, Oankali evolutionary history proceeds without any premeditated goal or recoverable origin serving as a point of orientation. As these nomads wander the galaxy, "the one direction that’s closed" to them is the one that would lead them back to their "homeworld" (Dawn §1.5:34). One might say the reason why they can’t return to the place of their origin is because they have none. Gene trading for the Oankali is a biologically rooted compulsion that traces to the organelle they carry in every cell of their bodies. To the extent the Oankali have a specific nature distinguishing them from other life-forms, this "origin" founding their identity as a distinct group would reside in that "miniscule cell within a cell," a life-form so rudimentary it amounts to little more than a genetically-encoded instruction to become other. Further, although the Oankali do undoubtedly acquire adaptive advantages when they augment their repertoire of biological forms (they frequently express their desire to avoid "overspecialization"), gene trading does not primarily serve an adaptive function. These apostles of becoming are not guided in their matings by a criterion of adaptive optimization.5 When Lilith asks them if they intend to improve the human species, the Oankali answer that becoming other will not make humanity better, "only different" (Dawn §1.5:32). The Oankali thus become other in order to...become other. They are in fact averse to any teleological organization of experience. Oankali genetic engineering is consequently accomplished biologically rather than technologically because the aliens believe that reliance upon technology (even their spaceships are organisms) tends to instrumentalize the immanent experience of embodiment, subordinating the body’s self-delight to an end beyond itself.

Perhaps most unsettling about the Oankali is the fact that they come in three distinct sexes: male, female, and a third sex neither male nor female nor the bisexual synthesis of masculine and feminine in a single being. They thus trouble what is arguably the source of all dualistic thought: the (apparent) sexual dimorphism that serves as the basis for every hierarchized binarism. Their third sex—known as the "ooloi"—comes equipped with two elephant trunk-like "sensory arms" with which it manipulates DNA and thereby guides the course of Oankali evolution. It also employs these sensory arms to gratify its sexual partners by tapping directly into the pleasure centers of the brain. Such pleasure is not localized in a particular bodily region. Undoing the privileging of genital over other erogenous zones, alien sex is polymorphously perverse. Erotic intensity is evenly dispersed across the surface of the body. Oankali sensory experience in general is acentric in just this way. The aliens neither privilege the faculty of sight over the other senses nor concentrate perception and sensation in discrete sensory organs, relying instead on the multifarious tentacles that cover them everywhere. Finally, in alien sex, the nervous systems of all the partners are connected, so that each experiences not only its own but the other’s pleasure as well. In this manner, the aliens can abolish the dualism of self and other. The species as a whole, in fact, periodically links up to form a single nervous system in order to deliberate on matters of general concern.

The arrival of these nomadic, shapeshifting, triply-sexed, polymorphously perverse, pleasure-seeking, medusoid, extraterrestrial genetic engineers would thus seem to herald for humanity an ideally "post-human" future of unlimited possibility. But XENOGENESIS does not, finally, elaborate so utopian a vision, choosing instead to remain speculative and critical about the prospects for an affirmative orientation toward evolutionary process. Attention is frequently drawn, first of all, to the fact that the humans have little say in the matter of the "gene trade." Lilith, for instance, who was doubly marginalized as an African American in US society by race and by gender, is acutely discerning not merely of hierarchy more or less openly avowed but of the ruses by means of which power can dissemble itself as benevolence. Even as she advises her hybrid son when he feels a conflict between his Oankali and human sides to "try to go the Oankali way" and "embrace difference" (Adulthood Rites §2.4:80), she reminds the Oankali throughout the trilogy of the coercive, in fact, compulsory character of their "invitation" to acculturate to the Oankali way of life. In other words, the survivors of nuclear apocalypse, regardless of their own wishes, will be assimilated by the Oankali with the consequence that humanity as a distinct species will come to an end. If the behavior depicted here is typical of Oankali trade practices, then the aliens are merely imperialistic or piratical adventurers who roam the galaxy preying upon and ultimately abolishing the difference they crave in its specificity. The protagonist of the second volume, a hybrid who speaks for the humans even as he identifies with the Oankali, makes this point: the humans "will only be something we consumed" as the Oankali pursue a death-driven desire to totalize within themselves the sum biotic potential of the universe (Adulthood Rites §3.4:199).

When the Oankali are made to realize that they have indeed been treating the humans who oppose the gene trade "with cruelty and condescension," they do allow a group of dissident humans to found a colony on Mars (Adulthood Rites §2.19:159). Such a new beginning for humanity does not appear particularly hopeful, however, in the light of Butler’s fairly unrelenting portrayal of human depravity. Lilith’s son rather unpersuasively proposes that chance or random mutation may ensue in an evolutionary leap beyond humanity’s present capacity for self-destruction. In the interim, aggressive energies will be directed against the harsh Martian environment in what amounts to a war against Nature (§4.5:261). But it is worth noting, given Butler’s critique of the Oankali as predatory upon biological and cultural difference, that one of the second volume’s principal characters is a former stage actor, or someone accustomed in his daily activity to becoming at least temporarily someone else. The popular success of such figures in the arts and in diverse cultural realms, to the extent it’s more than a matter of personal charisma, can be said to depend precisely on their ability to other themselves. Human agonism in its ludic forms might thus be interpreted to provide a powerful mechanism for producing rather than simply consuming difference. Indeed, the Oankali, whose propensity for consensus has resulted in a rather claustrophobic social uniformity, are attracted to the humans precisely by what they term "human diversity," or the "fascinating and seductive" capacity for inventing a seemingly limitless array of cultural structures and practices (§1.5:30).

Butler introduces a further qualification in the last volume of XENOGENESIS , this time involving her earlier apparent valorization of limitless becoming. Until they encounter the human species, the aliens’ largely decentered and multiplicitous existence has been constrained in but one respect. Although they are driven to become other, they can only do so from one generation to the next. None of them, prior to their contact with the humans, are literally protean. But from human cancer cells they acquire the ability to reprogram their DNA at will and thus reinvent themselves as true shapeshifters. Such creatures appear in the concluding volume where they enter the story in the form of that third sex charged with driving alien evolution. It turns out, however, that pure potentiality, the ability to become anything at all, amounts to an impasse. When one of the first generation of shapeshifters wanders off and loses contact with its fellows, it begins to devolve. Drifting toward ever more simple forms, by the time it is rescued it has become "a kind of near mollusc, something that had no bones left. Its sensory tentacles were intact, but it no longer had eyes or other Human sensory organs. Its skin, very smooth, was protected by a coating of slime.... It was a . . . a great slug" (Imago §3.2:150-51). As the giant slug’s still anatomically complex sibling puts it, these protean organisms find it easier "to do as water does: allow [themselves] to be contained, and take on the shape of [their] containers," than preserve a shape of their own (§1.4:89). Structural complexity, and the consequent possibility of further differentiation and metamorphosis, depends on their being situated in a social matrix less chaotically mutable than themselves.

Butler thus imagines a revised economy of repetition and difference in which difference is neither persecuted as a threat to identity nor interpreted as subordinate in an attempt to justify a desire for primacy but in which repetition also finds a new legitimation. The advent of shapeshifters able to transform themselves at will enables maximally flexible and innovative responsiveness to heterogeneous situations. In order to avoid dissolution, however, these shapeshifters, principal agents in the process of "xenogenesis" or becoming other, require a community—the embodied memory of past biological and cultural becomings—to serve as a point of orientation or recurrence in the midst of limitless variability. The community’s self-similarity rescues the shapeshifter from randomized becomings and devolution into chaos. Meanwhile, the shapeshifter’s providentially destabilizing improvisationality in turn saves its community from investing in some putatively essential identity or definition of itself. In other words, the community can never claim to be present to itself as the resolved unity of its previous interactions with otherness. At any given moment, its identity has been contrived as a historically situated response to a particular set of circumstances. From out of a vast archive of possibilities accumulated during eons of wanderings, a specific solution has been fashioned to the problem at hand. Identity is forged in an encounter between the present opportunity and some likely portion of the already existing biological and cultural repertoire.

I’m going to close now by observing that the revised economy of repetition and difference figured in the last volume of XENOGENESIS as a specifically social dynamic has a psychological corollary. Consider once more the fundamental opposition between the respective standpoints of "Humanity" and the "Oankali" established at the beginning of the trilogy that Butler resolves, initially at least, in favor of the extraterrestrials’ dream of shapeshifting. Interpreted as an allegory about the vicissitudes of desire, Butler can here be said to reverse the customary subordination of body to mind by envisioning an ideal condition in which the flux of the material world provokes a limitless series of heterogeneous states of desiring intensity. This paradisal prospect depends upon exorcising the spectre of "human nature" understood as a restrictive economy that confines libidinal energy within a narrow range of arbitrarily privileged satisfactions. Her subsequent reiteration of the structural opposition between "Oankali" and "human" in the relationship that obtains in the new species between the shapeshifter and its partners, however, moves to avert the threat of a disabling condition of complete psychic disorganization by reaffirming the position formerly occupied by the "human." But instead of a fixity that remains identical with itself no matter the circumstances, psychological structure is presented as provisional and revisable, rhyming with itself from one occasion to the next yet never recurring in precisely the same manner. Butler’s effort to work through the crisis of abjection occasioned by the advent of modern evolutionary thought thus enacts the following passage. From an "erotics of being" transpiring under the rubric of the "human" that abominates the body and materiality in general, XENOGENESIS arrives at an "erotics of becoming" that does not simply dismiss identity in favor of desiring metamorphosis but, instead, proposes the self-similar mutations of a subject-in-process as a way to reconcile the need for psychological structure with the possibility of embracing the flux of matter in motion.


1. In a draft version of Moreau, Prendick speaks of a "peculiar orange-coloured fungus" (emphasis added). Fortunately for the present interpretation, Wells subsequently changed the fungus’ colour. Thanks to Robert Philmus for bringing this to my attention: see his variorum critical edition of Moreau (University of Georgia Press, 1993). Thanks also to Kelly Hurley, whose expertise in the field of Slime Studies has been invaluable throughout.

2. Philmus makes this point: Prendick and Moreau "agree that pain is the link between man and beast. But Moreau goes on to stress the need for man to sever that connection, to overcome his susceptibility to pain and thereby transcend his animal nature"; see his Into the Unknown: The Evolution of Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H.G. Wells (9).

3. Consider in this connection Stephen Prince’s discussion of The Thing: "As a horribly anomalous animal, the thing represents a form of cosmic pollution, an entity existing outside the accepted categories that give shape to human life and knowledge. Its very existence challenges the ontology separating human from non-human, solid from liquid, inedible from enedible. It threatens to erase the distinctions and, in doing so, to erase the bounded human world" (26).

4 Misogynist overtones are more marked in Bill Lancaster’s screenplay for The Thing, where the only female is a blow-up sex doll.

5. In an interview, Butler comments on the tendency in some evolutionist thought to attribute an adaptive benefit to every species trait: "I kept reading things like, ‘The purpose of such-and-such behavior is so-and-so’—in other words, the assumption that every behavior has a purpose important to survival. Let’s face it, some behaviors don’t; if they’re genetic at all, they only have to stay out of the way of survival to continue. Then...I read one of Stephen Jay Gould’s books in which he says much the same things. I was relieved to see a biologist write that some things—physical characteristics or behaviors—don’t kill you or save you; they may be riding along with some important genetic characteristic, though they don’t have to be" (McCaffery 62). For more on Gould’s critique of what he calls the "adaptationist paradigm," see my essay: "The End of Metanarratives in Evolutionary Biology" in Modern Language Quarterly 51:63-81, March 1990.


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Butler, Octavia. Dawn: Xenogenesis. NY: Warner Books Popular Library, 1987.

—————. Adulthood Rites. NY: Warner Books Popular Library, 1988.

—————. Imago. NY: Warner Books Popular Library, 1989.

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McCaffery, Larry., ed. Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Philmus, Robert M. "The Satiric Ambivalence of The Island of Doctor Moreau," SFS 8:2-11, #23, March 1981.

Prince, Stephen. "Dread, Taboo and The Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film," Wide Angle 10.3:19-29, 1988.

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Abstract. - Evolutionary theory has often figured in science fiction as a powerfully resonant topic, a privileged point of departure for the staging of a variety of highly charged concerns and conflicts. In some narratives, the positing of a shared kinship between humans and other animals provokes revulsion at the implied refusal of any claim to human preeminence in the greater scheme of things. But the erosion of "Man" as a putatively ontological category and the prospect, moreover, of reality as a Joycean "chasosmos" of perpetual change or metamorphois can also be depicted affirmatively. The theoretical elaboration of an evolutionary universe need not exclusively elicit horror and anguish. It may also prompt the speculative imagination to extrapolate a future for what might be dubbed "the post-human body becoming."

This essay examines a number of exemplary responses in SF to the advent of modern evolutionary thought. Discussion focuses in particular on John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing and Octavia Butler’s more recent XENOGENESIS trilogy as evolutionist narratives offering respectively traumatized and affirmative perspectives on a world in which, as Heraclitus long ago put it, "everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed." (EW)

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