“That’s the nice thing about science fiction,” Octavia Butler says in Mike McGonigal’s interview “Octavia Butler.” She continues: “Back when I was a kid and began reading it, it was called the literature of ideas. […] You can have video game science fiction on the screen, in movies, and you can also have science fiction that makes you think. I prefer the second kind” (Francis, ed. 137). Butler’s fiction is definitely a ‘literature of ideas’ and it certainly makes readers think. The applications of Butler’s work are seemingly endless—the worlds she creates can stand on their own, but also have a multitude of tie-ins with historical and current political and social contexts. Butler’s work can be applied to state regulated violence, the perceived fungibility of bodies, issues of consent, gender, and race. Butler keenly observes the ways that people and groups of people are constructed by outside structural forces—but constantly works to complicate these identities and demonstrate the ways that they are restrictive and damaging.
I like reading Butler because I trust her. She makes me uncomfortable and she places me in traps that force me to observe my own biases, but I trust that she has a reason for everything that she does. She—by her own admission in “Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney,” an interview with the MIT Cultural Studies Project—doesn’t write, “about good folks and bad folks” rather, all her, “characters have something to say for their position” (Francis, ed. 156). I’d argue that to an extent Butler does encourage one dimensional views of the characters and situations she creates; she traps readers into judging characters and situations but then masterfully subverts and complicates these assumptions. This pattern of entrapment and subtle revelation of said entrapment not only leaves readers with the complexity that Butler claims but also directly demonstrates to readers how easily they can be interpolated into incomplete ways of thinking.
One striking example of the traps and complexity with which Butler deals occurs in Patternmaster. The Clayarks are referred to again and again as animals and their power is consistently associated with the body, forming a dichotomy with the Patternists’s power of the mind. However, Butler subtlety demonstrates that the Clayarks are more than the animals they appear to be. The Clayarks, for example, are able to speak to the Patternists, while the Patternists have no way of communicating with the Clayarks—though it is easy to assume that the Clayarks lack intelligence because the reader only observes this broken language might forget that the Clayarks communicate in their own ways. Further, the reader is told before Teray and the Clayark’s conversation that, “outsiders were not necessarily the inferior people that Teray had considered them” (Patternmaster, 641). Butler creates a framework in which the Clayarks are judged and dehumanized, a framework which is easy to exist within without question, but also intersperses pockets of complications to these interpolating models forcing her readers not only to consider the positons of the Clayarks but also to consider their own willingness to engage in dehumanization.
The multifaceted nature of Butler’s work does lead to difficulty. One problem that we discussed in our group on Thursday was the trouble we had in reading Butler and making sure to neither divorce her work from its real world context, nor to reduce it to only a reflection of those things. The blog post I was most invested in, perhaps, was “Eugenics and Reproductive Violence.” I was horrified, though interested, to contemplate the history of systematic reproductive violence, and found Butler’s work a great lens through which to enter this conversation. However, I struggled to not just use Butler’s work as a reflection of the real world and a pointed allegory. In some ways though, this difficulty is indicative of the afrofuturist genre—which Butler’s work might be read as a part of. It is important not to reduce the work that Butler does in imagining new models and ways of being to preexisting models—even though this work may have direct implications in the real world.
After reading an entire semester’s worth of Butler’s work I was able to unpack some of the complications that I had not been able to resolve when I just read Lilith’s Brood last semester. Over and over again I had failed to allow the Oankali the right to live last semester. Specifically, I struggled to believe the argument that the Oankali mutually traded with the humans, because I could not see any consent in their contract. However, as I mentioned in my annotated bibliography, after reading the afterword to “Bloodchild” wherein Butler introduces the concept of “paying the rent,” I realized that I was stuck in a limited and violent thought process. I was unable to understand the complexity that Butler was toying with. A second reading allowed me to notice and consider the more subtle complicating moves that Butler made in Lilith’s Brood, and I was able to see the faulty, human-centric, framework that I had been working within. I realized that I was attempting to preserve some sort of human ‘purity’ by continually falling into the argument that consent could not possibly be given in what I termed the coercive situations of Lilith’s Brood. After reading “Bloodchild” and rereading Lilith’s Brood I was able to consider the far more interesting, and less reductive, question of what humans might be willing to trade in order to survive. In some ways there is no outside of some level of coercive structures and making the argument that consent is impossible with any level of structural pressure is really just a way of elevating the human experience and right to live above the experiences of every other life form, and certainly doesn’t do important work with the extremely important idea of consent.
I tried to explore some of the other moments in Butler’s work that I had perhaps glazed over but where Butler was challenging me. I wrote one of my blog posts, “The Sacred Image and Transwomen in Butler’s Fiction,” wondering about the room that Butler allows for transgender individuals. In my post I specifically dealt with one instance where Anyanwu labeled the idea of sleeping with Doro as a man while Doro inhabited the body of a woman an “abomination.” I eventually saw a more developed conversation which could be applied to the same transgender issues in Lilith’s Brood, but I was particularly attuned to this conversation, because I was struck by Anyanwu’s apparent disregard for it in Wild Seed. Professor McCoy suggested that I examine each time Anyanywu says “abomination” in Wild Seed. I did this in hopes of seeing other ways that I may have been interpolated into a world view that I would later be confronted with the implications of. Anyanwu says the word “abomination” around ten times in Wild Seed. She refers to Doro’s breeding program, deformed children her people killed, her marriage to Isaac, the idea of mating with an animal (before she becomes a dolphin), and drinking animal milk each as an abomination. Doro has his own definition of the word: “You have left your village, Anyanwu, and your town and your land and your people. You are here where I rule. Here, there is only one abomination: disobedience. You will obey” (Wild Seed, 113). What I think is really interesting about Anyanwu’s usage of this word, though, is that she admits to its relativity: “What was common in one place could be ridiculous in another and abomination in a third” (Wild Seed, 104). In fact, most of the actions that Anyanwu calls abominations, she eventually does. Butler treads the line between collapsing into moral relativism and allowing space for multiple ways of being. Butler’s work does not view any practice one dimensionally, though that is not to say that she eschews any level of moral judgement. Rather, Butler—again, as always—forces her reader to deeply consider their initial reactions and their own exclamations of “abomination.”
As a senior English major I’ve had a few conversations recently about what my coursework has taught me. I believe that I have become a much better writer and reader since freshman year and place a lot of value in the varied kinds of texts and critical perspectives that I have been able to work with. Another thing, less expected, thing that I will take away from my classes, though, is an understanding of the way that we constantly use models to try to comprehend and reckon with our world, even though these models constantly fail us. This is what I feel Butler works with as well, and is what she allows her readers to see when she creates traps and highlights our failures to allow others complete personhood. What is so difficult about this material—about grappling directly with entrenched models—is that there is no functional way outside of them. Reading texts like Butler’s has been invaluable because I have been able to learn about the current and historical context for Butler’s work—and have become more attuned to structural violence and language and practices that perpetuate the idea of bodies as fungible, for example—but I have also been able to deconstruct the ways that I might inherently reproduce and accept reductive models of people and the world around me.