I took this class because I wanted to expose myself to African American and feminist literature, and I thought that taking a course which focuses on science fiction, a genre which is partially responsible for my love of reading, would be a fun way to do that. Right off the shelf, then, Octavia Butler caught me in a trap, and it was the trap of assuming that I knew something about her work based on her assigned place on that shelf. Clearly I was in for a bumpy semester with this author, and like her characters I was forced to adapt. The problems Butler presents in her work are nasty and complex, and she ruthlessly showed me that many of the ideas I came into her work with were based on nothing. Language inevitably fails me in the attempt to discuss such an author, but I think that I can reduce what I got out of her work in a useful way down to this: we cannot escape the conditions of the world we live in, so we are forced to negotiate with and to some extent adapt to them, and the construction of our identities is the result of this process. To quote Earthseed: The Books of the Living, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you” (Parable of the Sower 3). That is as true of my experience contemplating Butler’s work as it is of anything else.
It took me a long time to control my tendency to try to escape an unfair situation whenever it came up in one of Butler’s novels. There were plenty of those in the works we read this semester, and every time one of them came up I found myself trying to think the characters out. In Clay’s Ark, for example, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out something Eli could have done that would be better than infecting a family with a plague and abducting and infecting strangers from the road. I liked his character so much, and I found what he was doing so despicable that I imagined whole complicated schemes in which the government kept him in isolation and occasionally sent in some evangelical Christians to fill his need to spread the disease. In Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind I had dreams of Doro creating a new kind of telepath who would be able to cure his insatiable hunger to devour consciousness. And most heart-wrenchingly, when Lauren Olamina’s daughter revealed that her uncle Marcus had known her whereabouts since the age of two and had hidden them from Olamina for thirty years while raising her himself, I protested that no one had to be so cruel, that Marcus could have shared Larkin/Asha without losing her companionship. I wanted the stories to be different, I wanted things to be fair, yet these reactions were ultimately irrational. Within the texts, the characters faced certain conditions, and what played out in each of these situations was more or less a logical progression from these conditions. Eli could not choose to die, and the Clayark disease gave him an uncontrollable compulsion to infect other people. Doro had psychic hungers that compelled him, and he understood them so poorly that he ended up actually creating and nurturing the means of his own destruction. And Marcus was so traumatized by his experiences and so lonely as a prominent closet-gay Christian America minister that his behavior can be understood, even if I will never forgive him. These characters did their best with the conditions they faced, and for the most part I think that what they did was the best thing that could be done in that situation.
Our work in class showed me what a mistake it would be to write off the difficulties these characters faced as the kind of impossible situations that could be found only in novels. The biological impulses that drove the Clayarks and the Oankali to spread and reproduce were mirrored exactly in images of the fungus that controlled the brains of ants and compelled them to climb. We saw individuals’ decision-making reduced to mere biology in cases as obscure as toxoplasmosis and as familiar as pregnancy. And, to me, biology was the least of it. Ghettoization and gentrification, wildfires and droughts, the entrenched racism in our society’s institutions – all the result of complex forces far outside the control of the individuals subjected to them. In the case of the biological restrictions we face in the real world, there is little we can do to change them, but the second class of conditions we face are all partially created by people. Wildfires and droughts are the result of our environmental policies, ghettoization (as Coates points out) is the result of public policies, and racial discrimination generates at least in part from our construction of certain groups as other. The most sobering part of accepting the novels’ situations as they are was that doing so meant that I had to admit to being partially responsible for creating similar situations in the real world (which is, I am sure, exactly what Butler intended).
Since the unfair situations could not be escaped, they had to be negotiated. I want to deal with this negotiation in several ways but to start, one thing that was impressed on me over and over in more and more profound ways was the immense power of soft power. In Wild Seed, Anywanu enters into a relationship with Doro and quickly discovers that she has no hard power to compel Doro to leave her children alone and thus he has almost absolute power over her, and she “is forced to choose between negotiating the conditions of her oppressive circumstances and suicide” (Duchamp 87). She chooses the former, and for much of the rest of the novel we watch as she makes small gains by convincing him through logic, trading with him by offering to raise some of his difficult seed, and ultimately forging a partnership with him by making him realize that he loves and needs her. She has to compromise her beliefs to get along with him, she has to allow him to continue killing and continue breeding her children, but she gains by convincing him to treat his people well. Doro wanted to dominate her, but she endured his domination while working to undermine it. Lauren Olamina does much the same thing in the Parables series. She faces overwhelming odds, but through patience and self-control, she survives the outside world, and through convincing people to join her she starts a movement and helps to change the world. Akin obtains a consensus from the Oankali to create a human space on Mars through reason and persuasion, the same tools Anyanwu and Olamina used. As Duchamp notes, this is the antithesis of the white bourgeois narrative model, in which the individual conquers insurmountable odds (90).
Butler is making a powerful statement about power dynamics through these situations: they are always a negotiation, and even the entity apparently on the disadvantaged end has power over the supposedly dominant entity. The message I got was that you don’t always need to point a gun at your oppressor and say “there is risk in dealing with a partner,” though Butler clearly thinks there are situations in which that is called for as well. Before taking this class I would have failed or died in every one of those situations. It would never have occurred to me to be that patient or that subtle in trying to get what I want, and hopefully the new ways Butler has given me of conceptualizing power dynamics will prepare me to negotiate unequal power dynamics whether I meet them in the professional world or in the Apocalypse.
I did have to negotiate unfair circumstances while taking this course. I truly enjoyed Butler’s novels, but there were weeks when I fell behind on the reading because of the demands of other classes, my applications to internships and study abroad programs, swim practices, and efforts to get my computer repaired. Even this paper suffers from under-revision. I had to compromise, because the constraints I face at this time of my life are that I have more things that I want to do than I have time to do them. This is not a new situation this semester. Normally, I resent having to cut corners in classes; in some small irrational way I blame myself for not doing more. But this class was different: we admitted it when we didn’t do the reading. We spent so much time dissecting the various unavoidable causes for characters’ behavior, it felt good to be treated as someone trying to make the best of his circumstances instead of a robot who was supposed to automatically do everything required of him for this one class. My inner over-achiever will never be satisfied with failing to complete my assigned work, but I believe that this class helped me closer to a rational, if grudging, acceptance of my own limitations and constraints.
I wish that I had been able to engage with this class more thoroughly. I wish I had time to fully flesh out the half-dozen or so other blog post ideas I have scattered throughout my notes, I wish that I had all of my readings done on time and that we could have had the discussions Dr. McCoy planned for us. But we live in a limited world, as Butler knew, and I’m happy with what I got. Thanks for a great semester everyone!