At the start of the novel we are introduced to Shori, who is suffering from violently induced amnesia, which then results in the complete memory loss of the past fifty-three years of her life– more specifically, she has no cultural memory. As a result, the violence that has been done to Shori in this novel are two-fold; on the one hand she has been violated physically by the brain injuries and burns her body sustains and later “heals” from, but she has also had both her culture and her identity violently taken from her as well—not even leaving her in the position to be able to properly grieve the family she has lost because, try as she might, she does not and cannot remember them. Like the cave she has awakened into, there is this big, empty, confusing void of a space where she is not only literally alone, but alone as an experimental hybrid of her kind—the only one of her kind.
In an interview, Octavia Butler says that, “by the time we meet her she is very much alone, because she knows nothing. She’s fifty-three years old, and all those fifty-three years have been taken from her” (Butler, 223). Besides the obvious plot line of the story, I can’t help but struggle and grapple with the undercurrents of what seem to be extremely uncomfortable, but nevertheless critically important issues to address, but that can, for most readers (like myself), lead to a lot of “problematic” run-ins with the content submerged within the text. Gradually, issues that revolve around topics such as race, purity, acceptance, choice, freewill, the implications of science and genetic experimentation, and the violence, both culturally and physically, that unfold as a result of the aforementioned “experimenting”, start to reveal themselves leaving the reader with an uncomfortable range and mix of emotions at varying points throughout the novel such as, frustration, anger, vexation, and/or sadness, while, also being unable to deny the urge to put the book down until they’ve read straight through to the end of it. At the end there is “resolve”, but at the same time it isn’t quite the resolve the reader was hoping for; because, let’s face it, Shori isn’t ever going to be able to get those fifty-three years of her life back and I cannot understand the kind of loss she must feel by the end of the novel—no matter the “justice” that was served.
A second issue within the novel that interested me was the concept of choice and/or free will. As Shori’s relationship with Wright quickly intensifies, so too do we as readers have to acknowledge and confront the freedom and choice he compromises as an individual, the more time he spends with her. Since Wright is Shori’s symbiont, he may be “hers” in the possessive sense but is still nevertheless a mutually benefiting member of the relationship– not only from the venom that gives him a longer life, a better immune system, and super great “sexy-sex”, but from the personal and emotional bond and companionship he receives as well. While many of the symbionts appear to lead very happy and fulfilling lives, their dependence on the Ina—more specifically, their Ina’s venom—unsettles me. They appear to be in such as state of physical, mental, and emotional addiction that even if, setting aside all chemical conditioning done to them by the Ina, they wanted to leave and go on to live a life without them, they couldn’t because their bodies would fail without the substance in the venom that their bodies have now become addicted to and can no longer live without. What does that say about the subsequent choices and/or feelings they then have towards the Ina? Are they purely, on a biological level, chemically induced into forming an attachment and bond to them just as a heroin addict forms a relationship to heroin? While the implications of entangling themselves into the final step of bonding as symbionts with their Ina might be made known to them, I feel like that’s akin to giving a kind-of-sort-of “almost” addict a couple hits of a highly addictive drug that they might not be “technically dependent” on yet, but then proceeding to ask them if they really wanted any to begin with–or whether or not their willing and/or would like to have more. Are any of the symbionts truly in the position to just “walk away” after experiencing their Ina drug-induced high? Maybe, but also, maybe not.
Nevertheless, I feel like this also causes us to briefly step back and consider how much of the Symbiont-Ina dependency/bond we see mirrored in the relationships in our own lives that we as human beings experience with others throughout our lifetimes. After all, how much of the actions we carry out throughout our daily lives are truly “free” and not at all pre-determined by, say, our genetic make-up/ biology, our experiences, our culture, and/or our society? No, we aren’t attracted to someone because of their venom as this novel portrays, but a large part of who we choose as a partner, whether it be lifelong or sexual, is due largely in part to the pheromones and scent we unconsciously give off, like Laura pointed out in her previous post. Does that make it any less chemically or physiologically induced? I think that many of our relationships, past or present, involve some degree of dependence that we as human beings rarely like to think about or acknowledge but that Octavia Butler nonetheless forces her readers to confront and address.