All posts by Erik Mebust


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!

Does Rape Obtain?

I would like to take a moment to return to the Xenogenesis trilogy because I’ve come to a little more clarity about an issue that I struggled with while reading Lilith’s Brood. The question I could neither escape nor answer while we were reading Xenogenesis was, does rape (or some other form of sexual violence), as a metaphor for what happens between the Oankali and humankind, obtain? I am concerned with the metaphor of rape primarily as it applies to two levels of human-Oankali interaction. First, I am concerned on the macro scale: did the Oankali force the humans into the gene trade, were their actions as a group morally defensible, and were the principles of consent violated by the Oankali? Second, on the level of the individuals as prefigured by Kahguyaht’s removal of Lilith’s cancer in Dawn and played out over and over for the rest of the trilogy: do the individual Oankali (and especially the ooloi) honor the humans’ right to give or withhold consent in the specific interactions between individuals we see in the books?

Continue reading Does Rape Obtain?

Two “Ways:” Olamina’s Books of the Living Compared with the Daodejing

While reading Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, I could not help but note the similarities between Lauren Olamina’s ideas and those of Laotzu, the mythic author of the Daodejing (the foundational text for Daoism, translated approximately as “The Classic of Dao (The Way) and De (Virtue)”). The two texts bear striking resemblances in their “historical” roots, style, and philosophical underpinnings.
Continue reading Two “Ways:” Olamina’s Books of the Living Compared with the Daodejing

The Worst Article Ever

Since everyone is doubtless beginning the scramble to finish their annotated bibliographies, I thought I would take a moment to blog about Nanda’s article “Power, Politics, and Domestic Desire in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood” – or as I have termed it, “The Worst Article Ever.”

The failings of this article are numerous, and I would like to begin by stating that I don’t think Nanda actually read the Xenogenesis series. On page 775, he describes Akin as “the first human-Oankali construct.” This is patently false: on literally the second page of the novel Adulthood Rites, Nikanj refers to Akin as “less human than your daughters” – which is a clear statement that Lilith has already given birth to female Oankali constructs. Akin is NOT the first construct, merely the first human-born male construct. The fact that Nanda misunderstands Akin’s importance on such a basic level blows my mind, but later in the article he one-ups himself. On page 777, he is talking about the implementation of the genetic trade and he describes the ooloi as “sub-adult Oankali.” I had to re-read this sentence several times, because it is so obviously wrong that I couldn’t believe that it got through editing. The ooloi are as adult as the males and females among the Oankali once they go through metamorphosis – how can Nanda not understand that? Does he actually think that three-way matings are mediated in this species by its pre-pubescent members? Has he been reading every ooloi in the series as a child this entire time?

The second thing I take serious issue with in this article is his unconscious sexism. He declares on page 780, “Men usually experience greater sexual desire than women.” In my paper copy, I wrote “What is this guy’s deal?” next to this sentence. I take serious issue with this idea because it feeds into the narrative that men are less responsible for their actions in cases of sexual assault and because it treats women as objects, as entities incapable of experiencing sexuality on equal terms with men and therefore entities to be exploited. The research I found was varied. Many scientific findings were statements like “women’s sex drives are more influenced by social and cultural factors,” “men seek sex more avidly than women,” and “women take a less direct route to sexual satisfaction.” These can all be viewed as symptomatic of a patriarchal system that conditions women not to take charge of themselves as independent sexual entities, and ideas like these that have scientific backing so poor that it does not investigate whether women are socially conditioned to conduct themselves the way they are observed only perpetuate these harmful ideas. Nanda goes on to congratulate Lilith on breaking this stereotype, but the way he phrased it reveals that he unconsciously perpetuates these ideas, and he has no business doing so in an article on the work of Octavia Butler.

On page 775, Nanda attempts to deal with Lilith’s situation as a captive. The text itself gives a better treatment of her predicament than Nanda’s article does, rendering irrelevant any function of literary criticism to enrich the text on which it is focused. Nanda goes on and on about how she is a “native foster mother” and thus simultaneously performs the functions of the state and works to subvert it. The Lilith Iyapo of the text is so much more rich than this interpretation that I have to accuse him of oversimplifying her situation and her as a character, and thereby erasing her. Lilith is a mother and in Dawn she does do the work of the Oankali in preparing the humans for Earth while feeling deeply conflicted about it. But she is so much more than that: she has genuine attachment and loyalty to Nikanj, she genuinely and consciously (if not unreservedly) buys into the Oankali’s vision, as exemplified when she tells Akin “when you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference” (329). Viewing her as a mere product of cultural forces is interesting but insufficient, and I think that in trying to explain Lilith in these terms Nanda is in way over his head.

The final thing I want to criticize about this article is that Nanda is not able to shake the narrative he came into reading these books with that “the Oankali evoke European traders in their initial forays into establishing a colonial empire. The Oankali adroitly camouflage their colonizing intent, enforcing restrictive reproductive rights on humans, in a rhetoric of altruistic salvation,” despite overwhelming evidence in the text that undermines this assertion (775). The Oankali are utterly unlike European colonialists – they are able to listen when Akin tells them that the human race deserves a second chance at independent evolution on Mars. This blatantly flies in the face of the history of European colonialism, which has never been able to truly “embrace difference.” It took no wars of revolution for the Oankali to stop their restrictive reproduction policies, showing that the Oankali are truly not ultimately motivated by a desire to consume everything around them. The Oankali seek difference, but they are capable of creating it as well, and that is where the comparison to European colonialism falls short, Nanda.

If you are considering reading this article for one of your annotations, I have one piece of sage advise – don’t.

Growing Up Alone

One encounter from Dawn that I think did not get enough attention during our discussion in class is Paul Titus’s attempted rape of Lilith. Nikanj explains that while it did not believe that Lilith would mate with Paul Titus, none of the Oankali expected him to react as he did. Nikanj goes on to claim that “he was content with his Oankali family until he met you” (97). Lilith echoed my thoughts during the scene on the following page: “in some ways you kept him fourteen for all those years.” The fact that neither Lilith as the victim nor myself as the reader seemed to really blame Paul Titus very much for this violent action forced me to stop and consider what it means to grow up, and whether one can do this without other members of one’s species. Continue reading Growing Up Alone

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. Continue reading Advantage, Evolution, and Connection in the works of Octavia Butler

Tribalism in Clay’s Ark

While reading Xhercis Méndez’s article “Confronting the Rhetoric of ‘Black on Black Crime’: A Response to Derailing Strategies,” I was struck by what she wrote about how in minority activists’ quests to draw attention to issues in their communities, “communities and injustices become minoritized in their isolation from one another.” This got me thinking about the way that different groups in Butler’s work isolate themselves from each other, to the detriment of all. Ultimately, this brought me back to the questions we started the semester with: “what brings people together” and “what keeps people together?” Continue reading Tribalism in Clay’s Ark

The “other-ing” Ina

Alarm bells have been sounding in my reading of Fledgling around the issue of implicit prejudice. As Shori (and by extension, we the readers) becomes better and better acquainted with the world of the Ina, the more the relationship between the symbionts and “their” Ina is explored (by both Shori and Butler), and I felt that something was amiss. It seems to me that the more important trope of race in Fledgling is not the way that the other Ina treat Shori, the member of their species who differs from them in appearance, but rather how the Ina of the novel treat humans, another group of sentient beings who are vastly different from the Ina in culture, history, and genetic makeup. Through the narrative device of her amnesia, Shori functions as an objective observer to these different attitudes. Continue reading The “other-ing” Ina