Science Fiction Studies

#65 = Volume 22, Part 1 = March 1995

Cathy Peppers

Dialogic Origins and Alien Identities in Butler’s XENOGENESIS

Octavia E. Butler’s post-apocalyptic trilogy XENOGENESIS is about a new beginning for the remnants of humanity, those few humans who are still alive after a nuclear apocalypse to be "rescued" by the alien Oankali. In order to continue to survive, the humans are offered the "choice" of reproduction only if they engage in a species-order version of miscegenation with the Oankali. As the title of the trilogy suggests, XENOGENESIS is an origin story, a story about the origins of human identity, but it is a story with a difference. XENOGENESIS means "the production of offspring different from either of its parents"; this is reproduction with a difference, the (re)production of difference. And the "xeno" of this genesis comes from the Greek xenos, which in its original bivalence meant both guest/friend and alien/stranger. As an origin story, this trilogy tells about the genesis of an alien humanity, of a humanity which will survive not, as Donna Haraway puts it, by "recreat[ing] the sacred image of the same" (Primate Visions 378), but because Lilith, the African-American heroine of the first novel, will become the progenitrix of the new race of "constructs" (children born of Oankali and human parents). She will give birth to herself as other. As she asks the Oankali, "What will our children be?" Their answer: "Different.... Not quite like you. A little like us" (Dawn §1.5:44).1

The focus of my reading is to see how Butler’s trilogy enacts what Donna Haraway calls a "cyborg" origin story. While Haraway claims in "A Cyborg Manifesto" that "the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense," it is important to note that she does not say that cyborgs have no origin stories. She makes a distinction between traditional Western origin stories, which are based on "salvation history," and are "about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing," and cyborg origin stories, which "subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture" by focusing on "the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that has marked them as other" ("A Cyborg Manifesto" 175).2 This distinction is important because it offers a way out of the double-bind "feminism" often finds itself in when it encounters the "postmodern."

In general, postmodern critics/theorists exhibit an allergy to origin stories, seeing them, as Lyotard sees "master narratives" in general, as outmoded reifications of humanist, essentialist notions of identity. The various versions of the postmodern "anti-aesthetic, anti-essentialism" offered by such critics as Brian McHale and Larry McCaffery tend to construct an image of postmodern fiction as dismantling master narratives wherever it finds them, eschewing the "individual" as a sentimental attachment, and replacing the nostalgic search for origins with a sometimes grim, sometimes gleeful insistence on Baudrillard’s simulacrum (which tells us that we live in a world of copies with no originals). In the postmodern/sf critical tradition (which has its own origin stories3), this has led to a privileging of cyberpunk as "apotheosis of the postmodern" (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. 193). It has also led to claiming a "post-gender," origin-less cyborg as the new ideal for our posthumanist bodies and identities. In the process, as postmodern sf’s other, feminist sf is characterized as being mired in essentialist humanism, nostalgically longing for maternal origins.4

For a feminist, for this feminist, the anti-essentialist, anti-origins attitude taken up by mainstream postmodernism needs to be challenged, in order to recognize that those whose stories have been written out of the dominant accounts have different stakes in the desire to re-write origin stories. As a way out of the dichotomy set up between the postmodern allergy to origins and the (supposed) feminist recuperation of essentialist origins, one might merely out-Foucault Foucault. It is, after all, to Michel Foucault’s 1971 article, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History," that we might look to establish the "origin" of contemporary postmodern attitudes about origin stories.

In that article, Foucault claims that we should "challenge the pursuit of the origin" because "it is an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their carefully protected identities; because this search assumes the existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession" (78). To challenge this discourse about origins, and the lack of value in origin stories it implies, one need only turn to Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he notes that "discourse can be both an instrument...of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy" (101).

There’s an ambivalence in Foucault here, one I’d like to exploit in order to open up the discourse on origin stories to questions of gender and race. As a feminist, I can recognize the problems in how traditional origin stories are used to reproduce the logics of domination by positing "natural, original" gender and race differences. At the same time, it’s important to read how alternative/rewritten feminist origin stories destabilize, contradict, and contest the traditional discourses of origin on their own turf. These origin stories are powerful precisely because they not only denaturalize the dominant accounts, but also because they partake of the enabling power that marks all discourse about origins.

XENOGENESIS, as a "cyborg" origin story, partakes of these qualities. It "seizes as tools" our culture’s most powerful origin stories, those stories which are at the origin of what it means to be human in the Western order: the Biblical story of our genesis as "Male and Female, created He them"; the sociobiological story, which situates our identities in our genes; and the paleoanthropological story of our evolution from our Stone Age ancestors. To these dominant discourses, the trilogy adds what Foucault might call a "subjugated knowledge," a genealogy often written out of the dominant accounts, and therefore a powerful tool for resistance: the narrative of the African diaspora and slavery (a/the origin story of African-American identity). XENOGENESIS, as an origin story and as sf, is not about denying the discourses of science (biology, anthropology), nor the discourse of Biblical genesis; rather, it’s about changing them from within, using the very power of these discourses to help us imagine the origins of human identity in other ways.

XENOGENESIS resists "recreating the sacred image of the same," not by merely re-telling one origin story with a difference, but by putting the four originary discourses I mentioned above into a dialogic relation with each other. As Mikhail Bakhtin sees it, while monologic discourse, or a traditional Western origin story, might pretend to the illusion that there is one Truth to tell, "any living discourse" cannot escape its existence in a "dialogically agitated environment...entangled with alien" contexts (276). Just as the surviving humans in XENOGENESIS cannot escape being entangled with the alien Oankali, the origin stories retold in the text exist only in dialogic relation to each other, and it is in this excess of genealogies that oppressive ideologies are exposed and resisted, and simple essential identities are contested.

So here I want to map the four originary discourses/origin stories which Butler makes use of in XENOGENESIS: the Biblical, the sociobiological, the paleoanthropological, and the slave narrative. My point will not be simply to see how each traditional narrative is changed, but also to consider the changed meanings made from their dialogic interaction with each other. As I hope to show, the kinds of identities we can imagine are dependent on the kinds of origin stories we can tell. Ultimately, Butler’s trilogy exposes the relationships between gender/race and genealogy, showing us how to acknowledge difference without necessarily resorting to "essentialist," traditional humanist, bounded-self identities.

1. Adam’s Others: Biblical Genesis and Slavery. A quotation from Bakhtin on the (almost) inevitably dialogic nature of any living discourse:

Every discourse...cannot fail to be oriented toward the "already uttered," the "already known".... Only the mythic Adam, who approached a virginal and as yet verbally unqualified world with the first word, could really have escaped...this dialogic inter-orientation with the alien [word, self, language]. (279)

In place of this "mythic Adam," XENOGENESIS begins with one of Adam’s others, Lilith, which reminds us that even "our originary ancestor" in Biblical discourse did not stand alone at the start of the human story.

Adam himself is "created" in two slightly different versions of Genesis: in 1:27, "God created man in his own image; male and female created He them"; in 2:7-25, God creates Adam from dust, Adam gives names to the animals, and then Woman (Eve) is created from Adam’s rib. Lilith’s genesis story, however, happens off-stage between these two chapters. Originally a Sumero-Babylonian goddess, she was assimilated into the Biblical genesis by Hebraic tradition as Adam’s first wife; however, because she refused to submit to his rule (in particular, would not lie beneath him in sex), she was repudiated and cast out of Eden. Her "fate" was to couple with "demons" and give birth to a monstrous brood of children.5 Clearly, in a genesis story that begins with Lilith as first ancestor, we have a text which does not pretend to have the privilege of escaping a dialogic relation with the "alien" or with the "already known" stories of the origins of gender and race.

But this re-telling of genesis from Lilith’s point of view is not a simple utopian re-valuing of maternal origins. This "reconstruction" of Lilith is not innocent of the power dynamics of the history of race and gender. While some feminist revisions of Lilith’s story insist on her heroic agency,6 Butler’s African-American Lilith is forced to live the "choice" enforced during slavery. Lilith is "awakened" by the Oankali in order to "parent" the first group of humans who will be returned to the reconstructed post-apocalyptic Earth. Once there, they will only be allowed to reproduce and survive if they engage in "miscegenation" with the "demons"/the Oankali. Lilith sees her role as being a "Judas goat" leading humanity to an undesired mutation, and her hope throughout the first novel is to prepare the humans for escape once they reach Earth. In short, she is anything but eager to embrace the power of being the progenitrix of the new human race. In a conversation with the first Oankali who tells her what will be, she says, "It is crossbreeding, whatever you call it.... Then she thought of grotesque, Medusa children.... Snakes for hair. Nests of nightcrawlers for eyes and ears" (Dawn §1.5:44-5). Lilith’s use of Medusa imagery here is not only a reference to what the Oankali look like— their sensory organs are tentacles—but also an echo of the serpent-like demon children of the Biblical Lilith.

This re-creation of the black woman’s "choice" under slavery—that is, the non-choice of being permanently "available" to the sexual desires of the slave owners—reminds us not only that any historically accurate genealogy of African-Americans must acknowledge the spectre of coerced miscegenation at its origins.7 It also reminds us to take racial history into account in any recreation of Lilith. As Sondra O’Neale notes, while earlier religious iconography included "the black a glorious archetype...these images of black women as equally acceptable cultural standards of beauty" began to change, until, by the 16th century, "art created to accomodate the emerging slave trade" presented black women "as icons of evil rather than... divine beauty." For example, "the black woman was introduced as Lilith...made responsible for [Adam’s] sin" (142).

Here, because the text puts the origin story of African diaspora and slavery into dialogue with Biblical discourse, we are led to see how a recovery of black women’s identity must also take into account the fact that a potentially empowering goddess like Lilith was "racialized," "became black" as part of aesthetic representation in the service of slavery. Thus, while Lilith in XENOGENESIS does eventually "concede" to mating with the Oankali8, and while she does gain power from this "choice" (physically—the Oankali enhance her strength and memory; and narratively—she becomes the "mother" of the new race of "construct" children whose lives are chronicled in the second and third novels), Lilith is still a "slave" to the negative connotations of her name. Throughout the rest of the trilogy, she continues small resistances to her life with the Oankli: her construct children note that she clings to writing things down, even though she’s been given an eidetic memory; she continues to touch her human husband’s hair, even though mating with the Oankali leaves the other partners unable to stand physical contact without mediation by the ooloi (the third sex of the Oankali). And she repeatedly "escapes" temporarily to be alone as much as she can, even though mating with the Oankali makes one physically dependent on being near the ooloi.

Further, in Adulthood Rites, she tacitly approves of the desire of the Resisters—those humans who, on Earth, have escaped mating with the Oankali even though it means their continued sterility and eventual extinction—to be allowed to settle a human-only colony on Mars. This, despite the fact that the Resisters have, in their legends, recreated Lilith as the traditional Biblical icon of the evil mother. As one of the Resisters tells her:

You should change [your name]. It isn’t very popular.

I know... I’m the one who made it unpopular.... I awakened the first three groups of Humans to be sent back to Earth. I told them what their situation was, what their options were, and they decided I was responsible for it all.... Some of the younger ones have been taught to blame me for everything—as though I were a second Satan or Satan’s wife. (Rites §1.6:289-90)

They further accuse her of having "sold out" humanity like Judas, and even speculate that she did so because she’s lesbian (Rites §1.6:291).

The second novel’s narrative shows how, in the struggle to remain "pure, essential humans," the Resisters retell the traditional Biblical story to narrate their new "origins." The third novel, Imago, includes a group of Peruvians who escaped being found by the Oankali, and they also use the Biblical story of Mary to narrate their origins and to remain "pure." In both cases, putting the origin story of African-American diaspora and slavery into dialogue with traditional Biblical accounts does not deny the enabling power of the genesis origin story, but rather asks "enabling for whom?" by resisting it on its own turf, opening it up to accounts of the origin of gender and race.

2. (Eu)Gen(et)ic Engineering: Sociobiology and Slavery. From the beginning of Dawn, Lilith’s perception of her situation echoes the discourses of both the slave narrative and sociobiology. Her "awakening" to discover that she has been taken from Earth to be kept captive on an alien ship orbiting beyond the moon reconstructs the African slave’s Middle Passage. Like the African slaves in America, she is (at first) denied access to reading or writing materials, those things "humans help us remember" (§2.4:65). Hence, while the Oankali can tell Lilith the "stories of the long, multispecies Oankali history," the most Lilith can do is scratch Nikanj’s name in the dirt with her finger (§2.4:64-65). And, like Harriet Jacobs describing the moral contradictions fundamental to life under slavery—"There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible" (55)—Lilith, too, realizes that "She was a captive. What courtesy did a captive owe beyond what was necessary for self-preservation?" (§2.4:67). She perceives the morality of "her prepare [the other humans] to be the Oankali’s new [reproductive] trading partners" as "impossible" (§3.1:117).

At the same time, the slave master Oankali are also figured as the ultimate sociobiologists. One of the meanings of "Oankali" is "gene traders," or, as one Oankali puts it, "We do what you would call genetic engineering... naturally" (§1.5:43). Because the very essence of the Oankali compels them to "acquire new life," to mate with and thereby use and manipulate other species’ genes, Lilith perceives herself as a "genetic experiment." While the "genetic engineers" insist that their gene trading is not about "slavery" (§1.5: 26), the narrative of XENOGENESIS relentlessly keeps the discourses of slavery and sociobiology in continuous dialogue.

But this dialogue is not about using the story of slavery to flatly deny the explanatory power of biology to construct our human identity; it is about changing the sociobiological story from within, using its very real explanatory power to help us imagine the origins of humanity in alien ways, ways more open to including our "imperfections," our differences within. In this way, XENOGENESIS is a "cyborg" origin story in two senses: discursively, it’s not a monologic "salvation history," but a dialogic hybrid, creating an other human identity by "seizing the tools to mark the world that has marked" everyone except white men "as other"; and it’s also a story of our origins as cyborgs. As Donna Haraway claims, "we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology" ("Cyborg Manifesto" 150). Though the cyborg generally indicates a hybrid of machine and (usually human) organism (e.g., Robocop or Terminator), Haraway expands it to encompass a broader notion of boundary-crossing identity, an ontology within which, in general, the boundaries which have separated "organic/natural" from "technological" have grown porous. In this sense, we are reminded that what we know of the "natural body" is the product of the culturally powerful discourse of biology. And biology is a "logos," a discursive technology, and such "technologies [are] instruments for enforcing meanings" about the individual ("A Cyborg Manifesto" 164).

Where the African-American narrative of slavery finds its origin in miscegenation, rather than in the "purity" of the races, the cyborg narrative of human identity might find its origin in a sociobiological determinism. But rather than reinforcing the story of the "pure, bounded individual" who "evolves" through a competitive "survival of the fittest," it finds our origins in genetic "miscegenations"—mutations, symbiosis. Perhaps we are "biologically determined" ("our fate is in our genes"), but not in the ways we usually think.

Butler’s use of sociobiological explanations for human identity in her sf tends to focus on "imperfections," (Bonner 52) and she continues this focus with a vengeance in XENOGENESIS. For example, the Oankali are particularly attracted to Lilith’s "talent" for cancer, which they are able to genetically engineer to enable the regrowth of lost limbs, and eventually to create construct children who are shapeshifters. Seeing cancer in this way not only puts a positive spin on something we normally find hideous (and fatal), it also disrupts the usual sociobiological story of human evolution, which assumes that every biological characteristic has a clear purpose either favoring or disfavoring survival. And, as I’ve had reason to come to understand, cancer is a particularly frightening disease because it doesn’t allow for the usual medicalized use of military language to describe it. We cannot "battle" cancer as a "foreign enemy" which has "invaded" us and must be "expelled"; cancer cells are not wholly other, but exist precisely on the border of me/not me. In revaluing cancer, the text is also therefore valuing "mutation" and "boundary-crossing" identity.

Beyond the use of cancer, the Oankali themselves are represented as completely symbiotic beings: originating from a single-celled organelle ancestor which proved itself capable of mutating enough to mate with virtually any other organism (even ones which "were unable to perceive one another as alive" [Imago §1.4:530]), the Oankali have gone on to grow and change in inter-breeding with species across the galaxy. Some of the new" species" of Oankali which have resulted are embodiments of Oankali technologies (e.g., their ships and transport vehicles)—they do not make non-living technologies— and all the Oankali, including these, are able to link up in a sort of embodied version of the internet and communicate together in "the closest thing to telepathy" Lilith has ever seen (Dawn §2.11:107). But it’s not just the Oankali who are symbionts; enforced contact with them makes humans see how we, too, are already symbiotic beings. As Nikanj (an ooloi) explains:

Examine [a human]. Inside him, so many different things are working together to keep him alive. Inside his cells, mitochondria, a previously independent form of life, have found a haven and trade their ability to synthesize proteins and metabolize fats for room to live and reproduce. We’re in his cells too now, and the cells have accepted us.... Even before we arrived, they had bacteria living in their intestines and protecting them from other bacteria that would hurt or kill them. They could not exist without symbiotic relationships with other creatures. Yet such relationships frighten them.... I think we’re as much symbionts as their mitochondria were originally. They could not have evolved into what they are without mitochondria. (Rites §3.1:418)

Here we see Butler making use of sociobiology to tell a story not only of Oankali origins, but of ours, as well. And yet, it is not quite the usual sociobiological story, nor is there a simple, unquestioned acceptance of this idea of symbiotic identity. Despite the fact that the humans’ relations with the Oankali are marked by a powerful erotic desire, "such relationships [still] frighten them," and with good historical reason.

As an African-American writer of sf, Butler’s use of the discourse of sociobiology is similar to that of the minority writers examined by Nancy Stepan and Sander Gilman in "Appropriating the Idioms of Science." As the discourse of science in the late 19th century rose to become "an especially weighty discourse of identity," and in particular, as science was (and still is) marked by the ideology of racism as a reinforcement of slavery, many minority writers, who were constructed as raced objects of study by this very science, "reacted by actively seize and control...the idioms" of science, "to use its tools and techniques to define and defend themselves" (171-72).9

Butler’s appropriation and redeployment of the idioms of sociobiology involves recasting the usual origin story of the evolutionary rise to dominance of the heroic individual (that first organelle floating in the primeval soup) through ruthless competition and survival of the fittest, by privileging instead the "marginally acceptable" story of Lynn Margulis, the microbiologist who collaborated with James Lovelock on the Gaia hypothesis. Her "symbiotic theory of the origin" of the species remains "controversial" (McDermott 49). Margulis’ theory that many of the microbiotic components of our cells, like the mitochondria, evolved from free-living species which later entered into symbiotic relationships, posits a human identity which suggests that "All of us are walking communities." As Jeanne McDermott describes the implication of this alternative origin story: "Margulis challenges the...myth of the rugged individual—alone, self-contained, and able to survive" (50). If, as Margulis suggests, "our concept of the individual is totally warped," and "we...are [really] composites," or symbionts, "living together in intimate association of different kinds of organisms," then our usual notions of "individuality" and "independence" are really "illusions." In addition, "the traditional view of a cutthroat Darwinian world," in which the mechanics of evolution justified "exploitation, since it was natural, [as therefore] morally acceptable," is also an illusion. It becomes "a fallacy" to think that "evolution works at all times for the ‘good of the individual’"; instead, there is a "thin line between evolutionary competition and cooperation...guests and prisoners can be the same thing, and the deadliest enemies can be indispensable to survival" (Margulis and Sagan 57-66).10

It’s hard to think of a better representation of the relationship between the Oankali and the humans in XENOGENESIS. As Lilith and the other humans are forced into an intimate alliance with the Oankali, these "deadliest enemies" become "indispensable to human survival." In choosing to privilege Margulis’ symbiotic story of origins over the traditional Darwinian one, Butler is able to expose and contest the eugenic aspirations driving the latter. The eugenics movement, born at the turn of the century, xenophobically reacting to immigration and nostalgically carrying forward the logic of slavery, dreams of a recreation of the (imagined) racially "pure" origin of the species. Eugenic dreams were both supported by the Darwinian logic that "exploitation" of "inferior races" by "superior" ones is "natural" and therefore "morally acceptable," and in turn supported the scentific use of biological discourse to construct "race." And they still function in this way. Currently, eugenic dreams of creating a "pure and perfect humanity" continue to supply the logic for our contemporary uses of the prime technology of sociobiology, genetic engineering.

Butler’s representation of genetic engineering in XENOGENESIS is complex because she insists on restoring the originary history of this science to its contemporary manifestations. Thus, the Oankali genetic engineers are neither simply "indispensable" aids to human evolution nor "deadliest enemies"; the dialogue between these two versions is never neatly resolved. Early in Dawn, here is Lilith’s reaction to the Oankali plan:

In a very real sense, she was an experimental animal. Experimental animal, parent to domestic animals? Or ... nearly extinct animal, part of a captive breeding program? Human biologists had done that before ... used a few captive members of an endangered animal species to breed more for the wild population. Was that what she was headed for? Forced artificial insemination. Surrogate motherhood? Fertility drugs and forced "donations" of eggs? Implantation of unrelated fertilized eggs. Removal of children from mothers at birth.... Humans had done these things to captive breeders—all for a higher good, of course. (§2.4:63)

Notice how this paragraph traces a genealogy of genetic engineering back to its origins in slavery. From the apparently laudable goal of saving species from extinction, to the contested use of reproductive technologies on women, to the use of slave women as captive breeders is indeed a slippery slope.

And yet, we are reminded, the Oankali genetic engineers don’t trade on the basis of slavery (§1.3:26). What humans have done historically in the interest of eugenic control (mired in what the Oankali call our "Human Contradiction," which puts intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior), the Oankali do "naturally." And in contrast to Lilith’s negative description above, when we later see examples of Oankali use of genetic engineering, we clearly see the intense, usually erotic, pleasure involved in their manipulations, and, on the whole, the Oankali seem to be engaged in biophilic, not eugenic, uses of technology.

The unresolved dialogic relation between the discourses of slavery and sociobiology in XENOGENESIS exposes the racist and sexist genealogy of the traditional biological origin story, but, by including Lynn Margulis’ alternative story of our symbiotic microbiological origins, Butler’s text also shows us the possibility of imagining less reductive notions of individual identity. In this, Butler’s narrative functions like the other narratives of women scientists described by Haraway: "In dispersing single meanings and subverting stable narratives of sex [and race], degrees of freedom in their culture’s constructions" of identities (Primate Visions 342). But this dispersion of meanings of "the biological individual" does not lead to what Susan Bordo calls deconstructionist postmodernism’s "imagination of disembodiment: a dream of being everywhere" (143). Butler’s sf contestation of sociobiology’s story of the individual does not argue that biology is irrelevant and human identity only the reflection of a disembodied culture. What is being argued instead is that our choice of biological stories makes a difference; as "cyborgs" whose "organic" identities are produced in part through an "interface" with the "technology" of meaning which is biology, we (or some of us) might have good reason to choose the alternative story offered by the Oankali.

However, as for other feminists trying to imagine the nature of identity in the face of a relentless ideology of "anatomy is destiny," for Butler, too, the problem of "essence" will not simply go away with the advent of an alternative story for microbiological anatomy. If the essence of human nature resides only in our genes, then the Oankali have already taken this essence before the trilogy begins; they have already read and copied all the genetic codes of the humans before awakening them to set up human-Oankali settlements. Taking E.O. Wilson’s (frightening) promise that sociobiology can "monitor the genetic basis of social behavior" as a caution (575), the text also raises the question of how far our biological nature determines our cultural structures and human behaviors. As even the Oankali genetic engineers know, there’s more to human evolution than genes; as they say, "we need cultural as well as genetic diversity for a good trade" (Rites 283).

3. Resisting a Paleoanthropological Recreation of the Same. As a post-apocalyptic story, XENOGENESIS has wiped the cultural slate clean in order to retell the story of human evolution. This enables Butler to question just how biologically determined the most "interesting" aspects of "human nature" are. As Stephen Gould notes, debates about biological determinism engender no controversy when it comes to such biological constraints as our inability to photosynthesize, but the social and political stakes involved in the paleoanthropological story are exposed when we come to the "interesting" "specific behaviors that distress us and that we struggle to change (or enjoy and fear to abandon): aggression, xenophobia, and male dominance, for example" (The Mismeasure of Man 328). The traditional story of human evolution from the trees to the development of technology and civilization has tended, as Misia Landau notes, to tell the same story over and over again: these "interesting" cultural structures and human behaviors find their origins in the logic of a Darwinian teleology, where natural selection determines them as most fit for survival (178).11 Thus we are told, especially by the likes of Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey, that "territoriality" (read: aggression, violence), "xenophobia" (read: racism), and "gross sexual dimorphism" (read: sexism) are "innate" features of human nature, and therefore biologically inevitable, both in the past and into the future.12

That Butler chose to title the ultimate volume of her trilogy Imago—which means the "perfect stage" of an animal at the end of its evolution—suggests that she is indeed telling a story of evolution in which the "most fit" will survive. But there is an irony to this title, and to its teleological implications as well. This evolutionary use of the term "imago" was coined in Linnaeus’ taxonomy for insects to name the final and perfect form after metamorphosis. In terms of the trilogy as a whole, what metamorphosis will humanity, and the paleoanthropological origin story, undergo before reaching "perfection"? And what will happen to those "innate" and "interesting" qualities of human nature, aggression, xenophobia, male dominance?

Hoda Zaki reads XENOGENESIS as reflecting Butler’s belief that "human nature is a biologically-determined entity"; the trilogy’s representation of "unmediated connections between biology and behavior" mean "Butler believes that human nature is fundamentally violent," that xenophobia is "innate," and that "men are intrinsically more violent than women." For Zaki, the trilogy posits "a human incapacity to change in response to radically altered conditions" (241-42). To be sure, we do see characters recapitulate those behaviors which traditional paleoanthropology tells us are the naturally- selected-for products of our evolution. The first human male Lilith meets after being awakened tries to rape her; in the Resister colonies it is not long before some humans create weapons and begin raiding and killing each other; and some of the Resister colonies divide themselves by race and react xenophobically to others.

But I don’t think the text rests this easily with the traditional story. As with the other origin stories it retells, XENOGENESIS puts this "already known" story into dialogue with an "alien" story of another evolution, redeploying the idioms of paleoanthropology in order to contest the "innateness" of a human nature based on violence, xenophobia and male dominance.

This dialogue begins in Dawn, staged as a "debate" between first Lilith and Paul Titus (the first awakened human she’s allowed to meet), and then between Lilith and Tate Marah (the first human Lilith awakens to prepare for resettlement with the Oankali). In the largest sense, it’s a debate about whether or not humans can rewrite the "Stone Age" origin story/script. Lilith, by virtue of her personal history as an African-American woman who has studied anthropology as a means of knowing cultural difference, and as one who has already lived with the Oankali, represents a version of the paleoanthropological story Haraway calls "Woman the Gatherer," as opposed to characters like Paul Titus and some Resisters who recapitulate the "Man the Hunter" story.

In the Man-the-Hunter story, human culture is built on innate aggression, dominance structures, and xenophobia, reflected in hunting, weapon-making, and traffic in women. As Haraway notes, in this story, "the crucial evolutionary adaptations making possible a human way of life" were those associated with "male ways of life as the motors of the human past and future.... Hunting was a male innovation...the principle of change" ("The Contest for Primate Nature" 82). In contrast, Woman the Gatherer (a contestatory story told by such scientists as Adrienne Zihlman, Sarah Hrdy, and others) is about "female mobility [as gatherers and] the transformative power of...mother-young relationships"; in this version, instead of meat-eating produced by hunting, the crucial evolutionary change was about becoming better gatherers—"the shift was not from plants to meat, but from fruits to tubers"—where "a sharp sexual division of labor was not" crucial. Altogether, the Woman-the-Gatherer story is about "the deconstruction of staples in the narrative of...technological determinism, masculinism, and war: e.g., male-female sexual bonding, male-male agonism, home bases as hearths for nuclear families, and the trope of the tool-weapon" (Primate Visions 345, 337).

We see several of these competing story elements being debated in the scene between Lilith and Paul Titus. Paul Titus, embodying the Man-the- Hunter story, dreams of hamburgers, and assumes that human life back on Earth will be like the (Desmond Morris version of the) "Stone Age," where giving birth in the jungle will be brutish and likely lead to death (and keep women in their place), and Lilith will end up living "like a cavewoman"; men will "drag [her] around, put [her] in a harem, beat the shit out of [her]." In contrast, Lilith claims, "we don’t have to go back to the Stone Age," or at least not that version. Lilith does not miss eating meat (the Oankali don’t eat it, nor do they encourage hunting) and sees the value of subsisting primarily on cassava and other roots/vegetables. And for her, "natural childbirth" (which she has already undergone in her pre-apocalypse life) may not be "fun," but it is preferable to pregnant women "being treated as though they were sick" (Dawn §2.8:90-93).

Lilith sees the possibility of living an alternative story of human evolution with the Oankali, and, when we see her and others living this story in Adulthood Rites, it is indeed a life which "deconstructs the staples in the narrative" of Man the Hunter. Hunting has been replaced by agriculture and gathering, which in turn obviates the sexual division of labor, weapons production, aggression and hierarchy, and leads to the displacement of the nuclear family.13 In short, the behaviors and social structures which traditional paleoanthropology tells us are innate and therefore ineluctable can be changed, not only by changing the story of our biological identity, but also by the processes of cultural evolution.

Still, as Lilith knows, there will always be those who choose to re-live the same old story. There is Paul Titus, whose "caveman" logic leads him to attempt to rape Lilith.14 There are the men Lilith awakens who attempt to reinstate male violence, dominance, and harem building. And there is Tate Marah, a white woman, who at first believes that "human beings are more alike than different" and are therefore doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the past (§3.3:131). In Adulthood Rites, this is essentially what the Resisters do. In their desire to remain "pure, essential humans," they recreate the traditional story of Man the Hunter, with various villages divided along racial lines, the (re)manufacture of guns and Bibles, raiding between villages, and social structures built around nuclear (albeit sterile) families and the traffic in women. As one Resister puts it: "That’s the way human beings are now [again]. Shoot the men. Steal the women" (§4.5:485). But the narrative makes clear that humans are not biologically determined to restore the sacred image of the same.

While a xenophobic reaction to the alien Oankali is figured in the text as a biological revulsion, so is attraction to them, and Lilith and others learn to overcome their revulsion. While human males, in particular, seem most invested in maintaining a Man the Hunter way of life (and, indeed, according to the Oankali, "human males bear more of the [tendency to hierarchical behavior] than any other people" [Rites §3.4:432]), we see various male characters resist this presumably biological imperative. And Tate, who becomes a leader of the Resisters, is finally shown to be both adaptable and dedicated to changing the "Stone Age" script of violence and male dominance. Thus the narrative implies that it is not necessarily biology that determines these behaviors and cultural structures, but social and political vested interests. Perhaps this is why it is characters in the middle of the sexual/racial (and species?) hierarchy of privilege—Tate, a woman but white; and Akin, Lilith’s construct son, who is male but bears the mark of race and species otherness—who convince the Oankali that the Resister humans should be given a chance to begin their evolution again on Mars. Perhaps because these characters gain some privilege from their places in the traditional evolutionary story, they are also in a position to question it most effectively. In any case, the Oankali do relent, although the "fitness" of this colony to survive on Mars is left ambiguous. Akin cannot decide whether the Oankali represent a necessary symbiosis ensuring human survival or predatory enemies blocking human evolution (§3.4:433), and while he is convinced, as are the Oankali, that human evolution is biologically determined, at the same time, "chance exists. Mutation. Unexpected effects of the new environment" (§4.5:488), so that perhaps the new genesis of humanity on Mars may not replicate the same old nuclear apocalyptic future.

While Butler questions the biological innateness of the Man-the-Hunter paleoanthropological story, she also turns the trope of evolutionary inevitability against itself by showing how the cultural structures and human behaviors produced by this story may themselves be evolutionary "dead ends," making humans unfit for survival. By the end of Adulthood Rites, several of the Resister villages have committed mass suicide, and the escalating weapons production and raiding have killed many more. In a particularly ironic and funny scene, the Resisters’ archeological salvage operation of a Catholic church turns up a plastic icon of Christ which Akin determines to be poisonous and non-biodegradeable. While Tate suggests that humans need these icons as reflections of their identity, it is also clear that as long as humans cling to this recreation of the same, this is how "people poison each other.... In a way, that’s how the war started" (§2.16:380-81). And, while the Oankali do relent and allow the Resisters to begin again on Mars, this part of the story happens off-stage, between Adulthood Rites and Imago, and is therefore a "dead end" in the trilogy’s narrative of evolution. Apparently, XENOGENESIS is not very interested in yet another story of origins which will probably only replicate a logic of purity and produce human identities which are (willfully?) "innocent" of the possibilities inherent in the "pollution" of symbiotic, cyborg identities.

Overall, as a story of origins, XENOGENESIS contests our culture’s most powerful originary discourses (Biblical, biological, anthropological), which are also therefore our most weighty discourses of identity, by insistently keeping each one in dialogue with the others, and with the African-American origin story of slavery as well. In this way, the text offers a reading lesson for keeping feminism in dialogue with postmodernism in the context of origin stories. If the Oankali are figures for postmodern anti-origins ("going the one direction that’s closed to us" [Dawn §1.5:39]), and the Resisters are figures for an insistence on an essential notion of identity, neither comes away unchanged from the encounter. The text offers a third choice between: 1) a postmodern call to "forsake the pursuit of the origin" (as Foucault recommends) or to reveal science as yet one more meaningless master narrative (in the Lyotardian sense), and 2) an essentialist desire to claim some gender/race identity based in a "biology" outside history or cultural construction (as feminists are accused of doing). We can, as cyborgs, choose among alternative stories of our biological inheritance (themselves technologies of meanings) with which to interface.

The trilogy itself privileges this third choice, represented by Lilith’s origin of a new "race" of "constructs": her children with the Oankali are the hero(ine)s of the second and third novels, and these constructs, being constructed out of the complex discursive dialogue I’ve described above, carry with them both the desire to reclaim potentially powerful origin stories which marks "feminism," and the recognition, which marks "postmodernism," that traditional origin stories have historically been oppressively reductive in their creation of identity. By the time we get to the third novel, the text fully embodies in its construct ooloi hero(ine) Jodahs a cyborg identity which breaks down the boundaries between human/nonhuman, male/female, and natural/ technological. This "genetic engineer" is both the scientist and the laboratory (it is the ooloi who manipulate the genetic exchanges of reproduction within their own bodies [Imago §1.4:530]); both (and neither) male and female (Jodahs is a shapeshifter, and we see it become both genders in different scenes). While Lilith’s presence doesn’t allow us to forget the erotic violence of forced reproduction at the hands (tentacles?) of the Oankali, the text still seduces us into a reading dialogue with the alien, partly by "romancing" Jodahs (note the use of romance discourse in a scene where it seduces a human mate [§2.7:614]), but more importantly by showing how, with the creation of Jodahs, the trilogy has come to the "perfection" of a new species which, while it may not be entirely "safe," seems preferable to the notions of identity we hold now.

It is this desire for the alien, the other, for difference within ourselves which, more powerfully than forsaking origin stories altogether, can allow us to recognize the value of origin stories while resisting and changing them from within. As Lilith says, "Human beings fear difference.... Oankali crave difference" (Rites §2.4:321); by putting readers in intimate association with the Oankali, XENOGENESIS generates xenophilia in place of xenophobia.


I would like to thank the SFRA for the opportunity to run a portion of this paper by an interested and helpful audience at its July 1994 conference. Thanks also to Octavia Butler, whose assessment of Wilson and Margulis in a quick hallway conversation encouraged me to keep questioning the "big guns" of Big Science. All misjudgments, misreadings, and uppity polemics are, of course, my own responsibility.

1. The three novels which comprise the XENOGENESIS trilogy are Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). I am quoting from the Science Fiction Book Club edition, which contains all three novels bound together with continuous pagination. Page and chapter references will be given in the text.

2. Haraway’s claim here, and in general her idea that women of color provide the best models for a "cyborg" ontology, might be seen as a "postmodern turn" to Audre Lorde’s famous dictum that "the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house."

3. In these stories of the origins of cyberpunk, written by the likes of Bruce Sterling and Larry McCaffery, William Gibson is cited as its male progenitor. If the origin story looks for earlier ancestors, as does, for example, Kadrey and McCaffery’s "Cyberpunk 101," writers like Alfred Bester, Thomas Pynchon, and William Burroughs are cited as sorts of sympathetic uncles; in any case, the lineage remains primarily male. The Kadrey and McCaffery story makes an obligatory nod to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the "prehistory" of sf is apparently a safe enough place to acknowledge women in the family tree), and mentions James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) as the only other woman sf writer (though she is not included in the actual anthology). While Joanna Russ’s The Female Man often gets an honorable mention as a precursor to postmodern sf, feminist sf is generally characterized as merely nostalgically utopian and in need of cyberpunk’s tough edge (see, for example, Gordon’s "Yin and Yang Duke It Out"). This amnesia about the women sf writers between Mary Shelley and Pat Cadigan reveals the feminist stakes involved in continuing to contest origin stories.

4. See Gordon, "Yin and Yang Duke It Out."

5. See Barbara Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 541-2; Marta Weigle, Spiders and Spinsters, 252-5.

6. For example, Weigle mentions the version written by writer-journalist Lilly Rivlin. See also Judith Plaskow, "The Coming of Lilith: Toward a Feminist Theology," Womanspirit Rising, ed. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 198-209.

7. Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), in particular, focuses on the heroine’s time travel back to American slavery in order to ensure that her slave ancestress has sex with the slave owner and originates the heroine’s family genealogy. As Sandra Y. Govan puts it in "Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel," Kindred "explores the tangled complexities of interracial mixing during slavery and beyond...the bonds of blood in Kindred...are the result of plain undisguised lust and the raw exertion of power" (88).

8. Though, as Frances Bonner points out in "Difference and Desire, Slavery and Seduction," Lilith’s first sexual encounter with the Oankali happens outside the representation of the narrative. And, indeed, Bonner’s reading traces the troubling "equivocating" in the novel’s representation of seduction/rape.

9. Stepan and Gilman also note that science’s discursive rise to prominence involved becoming more of what Bakhtin would call a monologic discourse, one which sharply distinguished itself from other literary and Biblical discourses. Early minority writers intent on challenging the hegemony of science’s ability to construct raced identities used the alternative Biblical discourse of "monogenism," but this was soon not a very effective contestatory choice.

10. See also Chapter 32 in Gould’s Ever Since Darwin.

11. Landau’s reading of the way a Proppian "hero narrative" provides the logic for traditional Western scientific accounts of the origin of the species is interesting. It is nonetheless a shame that considerations of "women, children, and those human groups who have been largely left out of Western accounts" is relegated to an admission of her text’s "limitations" and a footnote (184).

12. See, for example, Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape (1967), The Human Zoo (1969), or my personal favorite, the movie Quest for Fire, for which Morris was a consultant; Robert Ardrey, African Genesis (1961), The Territorial Imperative (1966), The Social Contract (1970), and The Hunting Hypothesis (1976).

13. See Bonner’s "Difference and Desire" for a more extended discussion of how XENOGENESIS deconstructs Oedipal imperatives and the nuclear family.

14. It is also interesting to note that one way Lilith fights off this rape attempt, in addition to physical resistance, is by playing Paul Titus’ own "caveman" logic against itself by conjuring up fear of violating the incest taboo.


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Barlow, Connie. From Gaia to Selfish Genes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Bonner, Frances. "Difference and Desire, Slavery and Seduction: Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS." Foundation 48:50-62, Spring 1990.

Bordo, Susan. "Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism." Feminism/ Postmodernism. Ed. Linda Nicholson. NY: Routledge, 1990. 133-56.

Butler, Octavia. XENOGENESIS. NY: Guild America, n.d.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr, Istvan. "Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism." McCaffery, q.v. 182-193.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. NY: Random House, 1978.

-----. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History." The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. NY: Pantheon, 1984. 76-100.

Gordon, Joan. "Yin and Yang Duke It Out." McCaffery, q.v. 196-202.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Ever Since Darwin. NY: Norton, 1979.

-----. The Mismeasure of Man. NY: Norton, 1983.

Govan, Sandra Y. "Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel." Melus 13:79-96, Spring-Summer 1986.

Haraway, Donna. "The Contest for Primate Nature." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. By Haraway. NY: Routledge, 1991. 81-108.

-----. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. 49-81.

-----. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. NY: Routledge, 1989.

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Kadrey, Richard, and Larry McCaffery. "Cyberpunk 101: A Schematic Guide to Storming the Reality Studio." McCaffery, q.v. 17-29.

Landau, Misia. Narratives of Human Evolution. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.

Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. "Microcosmos." Barlow. q.v. 57-66.

McDermott, Jeanne. "Lynn Margulis: Vindicated Heretic." Barlow, q.v. 47-56.

O’Neale, Sondra. "Inhibiting Midwives, Usurping Creators: The Struggling Emergence of Black Women in American Fiction." Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 139-56.

Stepan, Nancy Leys, and Sander L. Gilman. "Appropriating the Idioms of Science." The "Racial" Economy of Science. Ed. Sandra Harding. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993. 170-93.

Walker, Barbara. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Weigle, Marta. Spiders and Spinsters: Women and Mythology. Albuquerque: U New Mexico P, 1982.

Wilson, E.O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1975.

Zaki, Hoda M. "Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler." SFS 17:239-51, #51, July 1990.


There is a dominant trend in postmodern analyses of literature and culture to reject origin stories because they, like all such master narratives, are seen to produce only oppressive, essentialist identities. Far from "forsaking the pursuit of the origin," however, I read Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy as contesting origin stories on their own turf. This paper maps Butler’s use of our culture’s most powerful origin stories: the Biblical, the sociobiological, the paleoanthropological, and the African-American story of diaspora and slavery. In the process of putting these stories into dialogue, the trilogy exposes the stakes involved in continuing to tell and retell origin stories, and helps readers imagine the origins of identity in powerful new ways. (CP)

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