JANUARY 5, 2014
WHILE ALIEN SEX on the page or the screen is sometimes played as fantasy, some scientists and thinkers have seriously pondered the kinds of issues that might arise if humanity comes across alien intelligences and wishes to engage them (consensually, we hope!) in intimate activity. At the very least, as the author of Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone, Lucas John Mix, suggests, “Intelligent life on another planet would force humans to question whether the uniqueness of humanity comes from some particular property or simply reflects our own ego.”
Within the small amount of nonfictional literature that seriously considers potential alien encounters, we find two consistently recurring issues: difference and consent. Whatever life we encounter, either in our spacefaring or in alien visits to our own world, such life is bound to be substantially different than our own. When we actually encounter the truly alien, the numerous representations of humanoid aliens in the Star Trek universe may come to seem just a quaint projection, an imaginative attempt to populate the galaxy with familiar forms and shapes.
In The Promise of Space, internationally famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke speculated on the possibility of meeting aliens as the human race reaches for the stars and becomes a space-faring civilization:
In the long run, the prospect of meeting other forms of intelligence is perhaps the most exciting of all the possibilities revealed by astronautics. […] This prospect, though it cannot be ruled out, appears highly improbable. It seems unlikely that any culture can advance, for more than a few centuries at a time, on a technological front alone. Morals and ethics must not lag behind science; otherwise (as our own recent history has shown) the social system will breed poisons which will cause its certain destruction. With superhuman knowledge there must go equally great compassion and tolerance. When we meet our superiors among the stars, we need have nothing to fear save our own shortcomings.
Surely, a close encounter with an alien species will excite — and terrify. It may inaugurate a time of peaceful co-existence, or harbor the beginnings of annihilation. It will challenge us, and our beliefs, about our place in the universe. As such, we need to be prepared — not just scientifically and technologically, but ethically and morally. We need to be able to greet profound difference with an awareness of our own failings and blindspots. Clarke knows humanity’s story, a history riddled with conflict between different groups and cultures, meeting one another and responding with hostility, war, or subjugation. Will we respond likewise when we meet others from off planet?
While SF visions such as Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek offer us fetching possibilities of interstellar “federation,” we should keep in mind our seemingly pervasive distrust of difference. Whether that distrust is innate or culturally constructed, our history as a species is rife with racism, not to mention sexism and homophobia. Can we expect our response to alien visitors or encounters to be so transformative that we set aside our histories of racism and sexism and embrace the truly other? Is such a transformation likely, particularly given the fact that such an encounter would (1) question some fundamental religious convictions held by many about the uniqueness of humanity and (2) possibly result in other substantial changes for our species — culturally, politically, and technologically? Writing in the 1970s, Carl Sagan pulled together a collection of documents from a panel of international participants on the topic of Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETA). S. Von Hoerner, from the US, speculated on the possible consequences of first contact:
I think if a Stone Age culture comes into contact with us, this means absolutely the end of that Stone Age culture, although this may take a while; and if we come in contact with some superior civilization, this again would mean the end of our civilization, although also that might take a while. Our period of culture would be finished and we would merge into a larger interstellar culture.
We might debate whether or not we would become part of a “larger interstellar culture,” but the changes suggested here— at least the insistence that change on a large scale would occur — seem sensible. We would have to begin negotiating out numerous differences — of a potentially unforeseeable nature.
Can SF serve as a guide for such changes? Potentially. When alien civilizations clash in the Star Trek universe, they usually battle over typically human concerns: resources and territory. At times, cultural differences emerge, and Starfleet and the Federation rely on the “Prime Directive,” an austere policy of non-interference. Even in the imaginative realms of Star Trek, the highly-trained scientific crew cannot always determine if they are interacting with life or not — and sometimes, the crew disobeys the “Prime Directive” for utterly human reasons. Regardless, these situations depict the Starfleet officers and ships within a position of variable agency and control of the situation, with the option to interact (or not) before them—and precedent to show the consequences of either choice. Should humanity find itself in a similar position of authority to intervene with another species, Star Trek offers useful examples. But what if we didn’t have that choice? What if contact was thrust upon us? For the long-term effects of the collision between man and alien, we leave the episodic worlds of Star Trek behind for a master novelist to construct humanity’s detoured path after an alien civilization changes it forever.
The SF author who has perhaps most extraordinarily captured the imagination of readers with her tales of alien encounters is Octavia E. Butler. One of the very few African-American female writers of science fiction, Butler achieved great fame and success before her untimely death in 2006. A recipient of both the Hugo and the Nebula, she also was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant in recognition of her use of science fiction to explore provocative social topics, particularly race relations. In Kindred, for instance, a young privileged African-American woman finds herself time-ported back to the antebellum South, where she is treated as a slave. Through her experiences, she and the reader become increasingly aware of the long-term lingering effects of slavery on the psyches of Black Americans and on US culture and politics as a whole. Few prior to Butler, perhaps only Samuel R. Delany, had tackled issues of race so boldly and directly. But Butler’s plots also crackle with issues of gender and sexuality, and her early trilogy of novels, initially entitled Xenogenesis and later re-issued as Lilith’s Brood, offer stark meditations on one possible future of race and sexuality.
The trilogy, comprised of the short novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, tell a tale of mass alien abduction and colonization. The human race has perished in a worldwide conflagration, apparently of human origin. Published initially in the late 1970s, Dawn suggests that nuclear war may have been (and might still be) the cause of humanity’s (self)destruction. An alien race, the Oankali, discovers earth and has the technology to regenerate individuals from small sets of genetic material. Dawn opens with one such human, Lilith, waking up and trying to make sense of what’s happened to her. Her captors remain unseen, but she soon discovers that they are aliens who travel the galaxy in search of “trades.” They are willing to assist humanity, helping it recover from destruction and flourish again — but at a price. The Oankali seek genetic material, and they essentially interbreed with the races they discover, adding to their gene pool some of the best characteristics and qualities of those races and imparting some of their own better qualities and abilities in exchange. For instance, we learn that Oankali have amazing self-healing abilities.
The Oankali have identified, however, a fundamental flaw in humanity: a genetic gift for intelligence coupled with a predisposition to hierarchy. Such in turn leads humanity to figure out better ways to create divisions amongst people, impose order, punish deviation from “normalcy,” and engage in war to ensure the status quo. The “price” of interbreeding with the Oankali is that this contradiction will be bred out of the race, and humans will transform over time into human/Oankali hybrids. As one of the ooloi interbreeders tells Lilith, “Our children will be better than either of us. […] We will moderate your hierarchical problems and you will lessen our physical limitations. Our children won’t destroy themselves in a war, and if they need to regrow a limb or to change themselves in some other way they’ll be able to do it. And there will be other benefits.” Biologist Joan Slonczewski, writing in a conference paper entitled “Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy: A Biologist’s Response,” argues that, “[u]nlike the vast majority of alien abduction tales, Dawn actually presents a biologically plausible explanation for why the Oankali need to interbreed with humans”—namely, the contradiction that they isolate in the human genome. With this genetic twist, Butler dispenses with merely titillating scenes of interspecies sex in favor of grounding such intercourse in necessity. We will have to interbreed to survive.
At the same time, one of the most disturbing and challenging elements of Dawn is the depiction of the interbreeding itself. Oankali reproduce in a complex three-way genetic exchange between males, females, and ooloi, a third “gender” who are masterful manipulators of genetic material. In order for humans to “mate” with Oankali, they have to intimately encounter the ooloi, who fortunately have the capacity to calm, heal, and give tremendous pleasure to their human lovers. Lilith and others initially find such encounters quite distressing, and some humans, the resisters, reject them out of hand. But we quickly see Lilith and others learning to enjoy such alien sex, which is all the more fascinating when considering that the Oankali and large, gray and highly tentacled, with the oolio themselves having multiple appendages, including an important “sensory arm” through which they sample genetic material.
The result of such a program of interbreeding will be inter-species hybrids, and indeed, hybridity permeates the Xenogenesis books. For instance, we learn that Lilith is not white — an assumption some readers may make until we discover she is herself somewhat of a hybrid, of mixed African descent. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Oankali have chosen her to assist them in introducing other humans to the idea of interbreeding with the aliens. But more may be at stake here than just putting a black woman at the center of a science fiction story—as important as that was (and still is). Butler may be fantasizing less about a future of interbreeding but rather allegorizing about our all-too-human past of interbreeding. After all, Africans were forcibly removed from their homes and made slaves throughout North America, where, over time, many of them interbred with their white masters. Butler may be suggesting that the survival of post-slavery African Americans in the US in particular depended, at least in part, on them not separating from the larger culture, but breeding into it.
Remember that Butler was writing shortly after the end of the major civil rights movements of the 1960s, and her work in many ways meditates on the various assimilationist and separatist positions advocated by figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Butler seems to pull for a middle position, in which the abducted must interbreed for their own survival — but, at the same time, their “masters” will themselves be steadily changed as well. And indeed, in the novel, the Oankali are transformed as part of the genetic “trade,” with human/Oankali hybrids becoming more powerful and tolerant over time. Likewise, in the US, both increasing protest in favor of civil rights and greater contact across racial lines resulted in the steady erasure of miscegenation laws, not to mention other equality movements. Equal rights and the right to engage each other intimately have gone hand in hand. Butler seems to suggest that in greater inter-mingling and inter-loving might rest hopes for greater mutual understanding and respect.
This view of inter-loving, though, isn’t offered as a utopic solution. Butler has one of Lilith’s construct children, Akin, become instrumental in the second volume, Adulthood Rites, in convincing the Oankali to let resistor humans have a terraformed Mars so they can establish their own separate colonies, without interbreeding with the Oankali. This compromise represents a huge change in Oankali thinking in that they choose to honor human self-determination. The Oankali learn the importance of consent and are themselves changed as a result of their contact with humanity.
Throughout the novels, issues of consent and self-determination arise again and again. We, as a species, may be directed by our genetic inheritance, but we have also developed the capacity to choose paths — paths that can trace the trajectories our genes seemingly dictate, paths that manipulate and alter that inheritance, and paths that may walk a “middle ground” or ultimately completely transform what our humanity is. Interestingly, Butler names her heroine “Lilith,” who, in Biblical and ancient Hebrew mythology, is Adam’s first wife who refuses to submit to him and mates instead with angels; as such, she represents the relinquishing of older ideas, older mandates to be fruitful and multiply in traditional ways. Lilith signals a new humanity, a different trajectory for human development and evolution. The intriguing question for Butler is: what path will Lilith choose, and, more importantly, what is the role of human choice in negotiating our future?
The Oankali themselves may ultimately represent less an alien influence than the somewhat “alienating” technologies through which we are already manipulating our genes, altering our humanity, and, in some senses, becoming “alien” and “other” to ourselves. Xenogenesis as a title could be rendered as “alien origins,” and Butler is perhaps offering us her sense in this trilogy about how we are on the verge of embracing our own “alien origins.” She doesn’t posit, as some do, a past alien origin for our species in ancient human-alien interactions, but rather speculates on how our own genetic manipulation will create a new humanity—or humanities. Molly Wallace, writing in her essay, “Reading Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis After Seattle,” asks, “Do the new hybrid beings like Akin sound the death knell of humanity, or do they merely represent humanity’s next evolutionary phase?” Indeed, some theorists, such as Donna Haraway, have seen in Butler’s writing a depiction of the coming “cyborg,” the interweaving of humanity with machines that will transform what it means to be human. The cyborg is a hybrid, born of the inter-mixing of previously established and seemingly immutable and separate categories, such as the human and the machine, but also suggesting the dissolution of other, more artificial and socially constructed categories, such as black/white, male/female, self/other. The cyborg arises out of mixing, and, as the Oankali want, combines the best of multiple worlds in(to) something transformative, new. For Haraway and her followers, such as Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, editors of Posthuman Bodies, the cyborg and the hybrid are types of the “posthuman” self — the next stage in human socio-cultural evolution and development that signals the breakdown of previous limiting categories. As Halberstam and Livingston write: “Queer, cyborg, metametazoan, hybrid, PWA; bodies-without-organs, bodies-in-process, virtual bodies: in unvisualizable amniotic indeterminacy, and unfazed by the hype of their always premature and redundant annunciation, posthuman bodies thrive in the mutual deformations of totem and taxonomy.”
Contributing to Halberstam and Livingston’s collection, Susan M. Squier writes specifically about Xenogensis, describing how in it Butler “re-imagines posthuman, polysexual, interspecies reproduction.” On one hand, such critics appreciate the posthuman body for the mixing and rematching that it brings, particularly as it questions categories (such as race and gender) that had previously kept people separate from and alien to one another; think about the assertion that men are from Mars, women Venus. On the other hand, however, becoming posthuman signals threat as well. Halberstam and Livingston write that “[p]osthuman bodies are the causes and effects of postmodern relations of power and pleasure, virtuality and reality, sex and its consequences. The posthuman body is a technology, a screen, a projected image; it is a body under the sign of AIDS, a contaminated body, a deadly body, a techno-body; it is…a queer body. The human body itself is no longer part of ‘the family of man’ but of a zoo of posthumanities.” Halberstam and Livingston do not necessarily want to caution us away from embarking on a posthuman future, but they wish us to recognize that doing so is not without consequence.
What might serve as a guide as we potentially embrace the posthuman? What might assist us in thinking through the consequences of such posthumanity? Science fiction certainly assists us in imagining possible futures. But other critics assert that a careful consideration of values is necessary at this juncture. What values do we use in making decisions, both about our individual and our species, both in the present and in shaping our futures? Science fiction critic Sherryl Vint writes at length about Butler’s trilogy in Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction, and she maintains that Xenogenesis is a narrative about the “values which underlie our technological choices” and how those values often “are the most important determinant of their consequences.” How so? One powerful example from the book shows us. Many humans generally fear the constructs, the hybrid beings created by human-Oankali interbreeding. Besides representing just the general human fear of both the unknown and the future, this fear represents the specific concern with the products of genetic manipulation. We should exercise caution, such fear tells us. At the same time, another possible caution in undertaking genetic engineering has actually less to do with the potentially fearful products of such engineering but with concerns about what it means to be a “normal” human being. Who gets to define what’s “normal”? After all, if we tinker with the human genome, we might do so with a vision of what is optimal for humanity, in the effort to create that optimal human being. The Oankali believe that the human genome is flawed, and they are attempting to “fix” it; they operate from a set vision, a sense of how intelligent organisms should behave. But as Sherryl Vint puts it, such views can be dangerous: “We do not need to fear the monstrous others that might emerge from genetic engineering; instead, we should beware the desire to define a ‘base line’ of normality for the human genome and limit at the very cellular level those bodies we allow to materialize.” Initially, the Oankali do not want the resistors to breed, and they actually prevent them from having children. Their ultimate goal is to remove the resistors forcibly from earth. Only Akin’s intervention saves the resistors, creating for them an alternate path so they can pursue their own self-determination. Such twists in the story reveal how even the most well-meaning values (such as the Oankali’s desire to “fix” humanity) can run rough shod over others’ sense of their own future, so a constant questioning of values becomes a necessity.
Questions of self-determination recall to mind that the Xenogensis trilogy is also a story about colonization and its effects. For Patricia Melzer, writing in Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, Butler’s trilogy uses “difference” as a “tool of creativity to question multiple forms of repression and dominance.” With the arrival of the Oankali, humanity is now itself the “other,” the conquered class, the subject people who must be shown how barbaric they are, and how much in need of improvement, edification, and uplift. The story seems all too familiar, particularly to numerous indigenous peoples. Xenogenesis becomes another narrative about how difference is often used to create boundaries, particularly in terms of raced and gendered categories. Such may be why the notion of the hybrid, the cyborg, is so attractive to some; it seeks to overcome potentially discriminatory divisions along axes of difference.
Throughout the trilogy, major characters such as Lilith and her son Akin are faced with choices about which direction in humanity’s development and future they should embrace and promote or question and resist. Lilith makes the hard decision to choose interbreeding as a future for ensuring some ongoing vestige of humanity, while Akin later chooses self-determination, or allowing humanity to make its own choices regardless of the potential consequences. The trilogy explores the tension between the two characters — one making a difficult choice to become hybrid, the other making the equally difficult choice for separatism. In each case, we see the characters struggle—with no easy resolutions. The important lesson here may be the necessity of finding a way to navigate between survival and self-determination, between continuing our existence and honoring the rights of individuals to choose their own paths. Ultimately, Butler seems to suggest, both are necessary: the rights of the majority should not completely overtake the rights of minorities to self-determine; conversely, in ensuring our future survival, some compromises may have to be made, and loving across differences can create greater tolerance, even acceptance. Negotiating between these poles and making acceptable compromises requires substantial consideration, and no small amount of handwringing. But Butler insists that her characters—and readers—do the difficult work. And she recognizes that, whatever our decision and whatever path we take, we are fundamentally changed in the process. If we embrace the technologies of change, our humanity will change with them. But there should be limits to such an embrace, particularly if we lose our ability to self-determine. Such self-determination should be accompanied by intense reflection — that is, the ability to pause, to stop, to meditate on choices, directions, paths. Without such reflection, we embrace blindly, we plunge forward unthinkingly.
Butler’s novels also demand that we consider our relationships with each other, especially as humans who have classified and segregated ourselves into different groups, communities, and identities. Are these differences necessary? We should honor the right of self-determination, as Akin argues. But, at the same time, Patricia Melzer points out that Butler consistently moves toward destabilizing the difference between Oankali and humans, as though strongly suggesting that humanity’s salvation may only lie through “integration and acceptance of the other.” Remember: the Oankali (perhaps offering us Butler’s own view) have identified not intelligence but its combination with hierarchical thinking as the lethal element in the human genome; we categorize, classify, and hierarchize, imposing order and punishing deviation from that order. For Butler, that drive toward hierarchy leads to destruction — and must be relinquished. Again, she presents us with two possibilities: complete self-determination and separation on one hand, and integration across differences on the other. Finding the balance between both — honoring diversity, embracing the diverse; recognizing differences and accepting the truly different into ourselves — seems key in Butler’s vision. Literary critic Walter Benn Michaels points out that “Xenogenesis not only insists that all differences be understood as differences in subject position, as differences between what people want rather than what they believe; it makes difference itself the object of affect—the thing that is feared or craved, that is or isn’t wanted.” While we may want to acknowledge that ideological, cultural, political, and even biological differences are all very real, we nonetheless appreciate Butler’s view: humans are often fearful of difference, of whatever kind, to their detriment. Obviously, historical particularities count and not all differences are created equally. But Xenogenesis works powerfully at an imaginative level in inviting us to consider as readers the limits of our own tolerances. Would we make the same choices Lilith makes? Would we resist the aliens, or choose to mate with them?
Granted, Butler offers us an artificial situation here; the Oankali present humanity a stark choice, at least initially: join us or cease to exist. But the point may be that we are already here, stuck with one another, and we need to figure out how to manage our differences in ways that honor both self-determination and the need to work together — for the future of our planet, for the future of our species.