Advantage, Evolution, and Connection in the works of Octavia Butler

While reading Govan’s article “Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction,” I was struck by the following passage:

“In each story, a physical, psychic, or attitudinal difference associated with the heroine sets her apart from society and often places her in jeopardy; each survives because her ‘difference’ brings with it a greater faculty for constructive change” (84).

It struck me that this true without exception in every one of Butler’s novels we have read so far: Shori had the ability to walk in the daylight, Anyanwu had the unprecedented power to control every cell in her body, Mary created the Pattern, the disease spread in Clay’s Ark and the infected survived because of heightened physical abilities and their symbiotic relationship with a micro-organism that utterly hijacks all forms of terrestrial life, and Teray had almost all of Coransee’s psionic strength plus extremely fine perception and control over biological matter. Virtually every protagonist in Octavia Butler’s novels is more evolved and ultimately more adaptable than those around them.

In every case, the privileged (from a biological standpoint) character wins out, and I think this raises a ton of questions: do those characters deserve to survive and thrive purely based on the accident of their inborn or biologically acquired abilities? Does Butler frame the novels so that her readers want to support characters who are advantageously endowed? Is she trying to advance a transhumanist perspective? What are the losses to humanity that come with such extraordinary gains? Does this on some level work as a metaphor for race relations? And finally, what does it mean for the characters that their triumphs are merely the result of a momentary advantage in a world that is constantly improving and evolving around them?

I cannot possibly answer all of these big questions with a single blog post, but I’ll hit some of them. For Shori, Anyanwu, Mary, the Clayarks, and Teray, there is a somewhat triumphant ending in which each character overcomes a threat to his or her survival. In that sense, the endings are happy, but unlike traditional happily ever afters, with these endings the clever reader wonders how long the characters’ good fortunes can last. The only major protagonist we see after the ending of the novel in which we are introduced to them is Anyanwu, and in Mind of My Mind we see her sidelined, scared, and eventually suicidal. Doro too, once the undisputed master of the new super-race, is gone by the end of the second novel, overthrown by someone more powerful. The message is clear: no matter how amazing an ability seems the first time someone develops it, eventually someone else will develop an ability that neutralizes it. Butler shows off a quite sophisticated literary model of biological evolution in her novels, and shows how the same ideas can be applied to power relationships.

I think Butler had a wonderful understanding of the theory of evolution, and here’s why: on the one hand, you can read each of her protagonist’s successes as the triumph of a superior adaptive trait, but on the other hand, each of them triumphs not through will alone but partly through their relationships with others. Another quote from Govan shows this quite well:

“Each of Butler’s heroines is a strong protagonist paired with, or matched against, an equally powerful male. This juxtaposition subtly illustrates differences in feminine/masculine values, differences in approaches to or conceptions of power, differences in the capacity to recognize and exercise social or personal responsibility” (84).

And in her article “‘Sun Woman’ or ‘Wild Seed’? How a Young Feminist Writer Found Alternatives to White Bourgeois Narrative Models in the Early Novels of Octavia Butler,” Duchamp says basically the same thing of Anyanwu:

“Doro constantly asserts his sovereignty as an individual and is certain that childbearing weakens women because it does not allow them to enjoy total individual sovereignty. Anyanwu, in contrast, sees her world as a plurality of relations and interdependence” (Duchamp 91).

Beyond their physical and psychic traits, companionship, interdependence, caring for others (especially family, a trapping of African social anthropology) are all factors that enable these characters to survive (if only temporarily). But far from going beyond Darwin’s theories, this emphasis on the importance of one’s relationships for survival comes straight from the horse’s mouth. In The Descent of Man, Darwin mentions ‘survival of the fittest’ exactly twice, yet he mentions ‘love’ 95 times, and ‘moral sensitivity’ 92 times. It was Darwin’s belief, as it is clearly Butler’s, that biological beings succeed most when they work together with others. For me, this goes a long way towards resolving the moral dilemma raised by characters’ triumphing solely through evolutionary advantage. I am much more okay with characters’ successes if they come from teamwork and result in mutual benefit than if those triumphs are won solely through individual effort and results only in benefits for the individual. There seems to be a level of moral superiority conferred on these characters whose successes benefit others as well as themselves. Shori lives to spread her genetic advantages through the Ina. Anyanwu lives to care for her descendants and as many of Doro’s children as he asks of her. Mary lives to grow the Pattern, the ultimate incarnation of interpersonal connection and interdependence. Eli and his family live to care for the human survivors of the Clayark disease. Teray is left to take the Pattern when Rayal dies, and there is little question that he will be more attentive than Rayal and more benevolent than Coransee. Each of these characters was able to win out because of their superior abilities, but they also depended on their relationships with others – flying in the face of the Lockean model of individual sovereignty – and their success is also the success of their family and allies. Through her narratives, and in line with Darwinian thinking, Butler shows us that only by coming together can we overcome the looming threats to our survival.

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