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Lilith/Nikanj: still OTP after all these years. April 30, 2011

Posted by Erin Ptah in Meta.
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I finally got my hands on a copy of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling, the last book of hers that I hadn’t read. Would’ve had to do it eventually, as she is still my all-time favorite author — I even got to tell her so at a book signing once. (Okay, what I actually said was that it was a toss-up between her and Orson Scott Card. At the time I didn’t know about his blatant homophobia; if it had come out at all back then, she doubtless knew about it, but was gracious enough not to bring it up.)

What prompted me to stop sitting on my hands and track it down was having this review open in a tab, and wanting to close it. (According to the date, it must have been open less than a month! That’s actually pretty good for me.) So I found the book, finished it, and read the review…

…and was profoundly disappointed by how shallow it was.

This was going to be a brief counter-review, then it spiraled into an essay about Fledgling‘s place in Butler’s entire oeuvre. Will contain general spoilers for most of her books; discussion of racism and slavery; and reference to consent issues of all kinds, including whole categories she came up with just so she could write about them.

So!

Almost from the beginning of Fledgling, I was struck by how familiar it all felt. It didn’t come as any surprise to find out that this was her last novel: it retreads a lot of the same territory, not in the way of a new author feeling out a strange experimental concept, but of an experienced one who doesn’t feel like breaking new ground today, and would rather kick back and relax with an old favorite.

Which is a weird thing to say, as the content is, in an objective sense, pretty disturbing. So let me jump back a bit.

The first of Butler’s novels that I read, and one of the earliest she wrote, was Kindred. (The cover of my copy leaves a space before the final “d”, as if inviting you to fill in an “a”.) It’s a good starting point because it’s the least sci-fi (or fantasy, if you like; some of her premises toe the line) of all her works, and thus the most closely related to issues we might actually experience. Time travel is integral to the plot, but it’s a plot device, never explained, only there to facilitate the very human dilemmas.

Kindred‘s main character is Dana, a modern black woman recently married to a white man. Some unnamed force begins dragging her back in time, at seemingly random points, to save the life of a reckless ancestor of hers, Rufus, who keeps getting himself into dangerous situations. The catch is that Rufus is a white antebellum slave owner (or will be; he’s a child for their first few meetings), who entered her family tree by…well, you do the math.

The novel doesn’t shy away from going at all the layers of Dana’s situation. Every action she takes to save Rufus is one step closer to facilitating a rape, which is in turn necessary to her own existence. There’s nothing she can do on a big enough scale to affect the system of slavery; it’s a wrenching struggle to see her trying to survive within it, even with the protection Rufus provides. His understanding of her wrestles between “savior” and “inferior”, with a deep consciousness of the power he has over her. On developing a conflicting set of sympathies toward him as a human being, she tries to use her influence over him to push him into being a better person, which works about as well as you could realistically expect. As if all this weren’t enough to explore, Butler has Dana accidentally pull her husband back along with her, meaning they both have to play the expected roles of the era, with toxic effects.

It’s a mess. It’s a gloriously rendered mess of human conflict. Butler dives into a system with a blindingly obvious moral bedrock — slavery: bad! — and pulls out a stunning web of complexity without ever once sacrificing that founding principle. (It is awesome, and you should read it, is what I’m saying.)

Slavery is a recurring topic in Butler’s other novels, although none of them explore it with as much power as Kindred. Wild Seed spans several centuries, and its main character, Anyanwu, ends up on a slave ship in the earlier ones. (I should point out that Anyanwu is an immortal shapeshifter who wouldn’t have been there if it didn’t serve her purposes. That said, can you imagine Lestat putting up with a situation like that? The fact that Anyanwu’s original form is black and female, and that she always defaults back to this in spite of the social benefits of appearing white and/or male, could be a whole essay on identity in itself.)

And then there’s the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, which takes a whole different angle. Humanity as a whole is the colonized power; the alien invaders, called the Oankali, are taking ownership of us: culturally, bodily, genetically. And we’re going to like it.

Okay, backing up again. The Oankali are a fascinating species for a ton of reasons (the three sexes and their dynamics would be yet another whole separate essay), but the story is driven by their biological need to seek out diverse creatures and then add the new genetic material to their own. They can directly construct the genomes of their offspring, so no worries about incompatibility. (They can also mess with the physical structure of existing beings, which sounds like a total horror show until you realize it means they can cure cancer.) Humanity is reeling in the aftermath of a massive nuclear war, which makes it a handy time for the Oankali to swoop in and take over. Their plan is for the next generation of humans to be hybrids — or, if you like, the next generation of Oankali with a human upgrade.

And all of this is discovered for us through the POV of the titular Lilith (yes, she’s black, although at this point in human history it’s not nearly as consequential), who falls in love with an Oankali. No matter what the wishes of the rest of the species, it’s clear that her personal decision is to be part of a hybrid family, and to parent hybrid children.

…Of course, this tends to happen to most humans who spend a lot of time with the Oankali. Even the ones who start out dead-set against it.

It’s as if Butler was out to discover if it was possible to construct a scenario in which a colonizing power is benevolent, and the absorbed civilization is genuinely better off for it. (It’s significant that humanity is the colonized side, while the invaders are the unsettling Other. Now if only Avatar had been about a Na’vi infiltrating a band of humans and then leading them to victory.) We’ve just demonstrated our inability to take care of ourselves in the most destructive way possible, while the Oankali simply Do Not Do war. As a bonus, they’ll cure our diseases, and it’s not like we’ll be forced into it. Just…possibly given a little hormonal nudge into finding them attractive and/or falling in love, if we weren’t there already. Is that so bad?

I’m not going to give my answer to that, at least not here. (Seriously, read the books. Especially if you like third-gender characters; the last in the trilogy is from the POV of a third-sex hybrid.) The point is that the book crafts a world in which this is a serious issue, and proceeds to treat it seriously, with three-dimensional characters navigating it and dealing with the fallout.

So you see what I mean about Butler inventing new varieties of consent issue. That’s another theme that comes up time and time again in her worldbuilding: a fictional concept becomes the catalyst for questions of morality that aren’t quite analogous to anything the real world has to offer. In Patternmaster, it’s telepathy and mind control. In Clay’s Ark and the short story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”, sci-fi diseases. “Bloodchild” is another variety of alien that needs humans to breed; a complicated social arrangement plus consensual-but-addictive(?) hormones makes everything murky.

And then there’s Fledgling.

The superpowered group here is the “vampires”, a humanoid race called the Ina who may or may not be alien (their origins are lost to history). They burn in sunlight, drink blood, and live for hundreds of years. Drinking from humans feels erotically good for both parties, has the effect of keeping the humans healthy and long-lived, and creates a chemical bond that leaves them possessive and devoted to each other. Gee, I wonder why this sounds familiar.

In what for Butler is a twist, our protagonist, Shori, is not human; although she wakes up on the first page with no memories, so it’s a while until she figures it out. (A point that’s odd for the story’s internal logic, but convenient for the readers: memories of human things like airports and computers click into place when she hears them mentioned, but everything related to Ina society remains unfamiliar, except the language.) In the meantime, she feeds on the first human she meets, forming a bond without fully understanding what she’s doing.

One awkward point of that review I linked: it writes off this whole dynamic as “paedophilia.” Yes, it will probably hit too close to home for people with related triggers and/or squicks, and that aspect deserves to be warned for. Doesn’t make Shori human. The humans who are attracted to her are under the influence, and the drug — her “venom” — is addictive, emotionally and, eventually, physically. You can’t possibly relate that to the situation of an abused human child.

I won’t argue with the point about the basic heteronormativity. That’s fairly common for Butler (even the Oankali fall into set sex/gender arrangements…although the aliens in “Bloodchild” get points for queering it up a bit). Although I’m not thrilled with the use of “the characters are homophobic” to argue “the narrative is homophobic.” Other books of hers contain various *ist and *phobic characters; some get karmic justice, but, as in life, some don’t.

Back in Fledgling, Shori goes on to run through the gamut of Butler tropes. We’ve already got the otherworldly consent issues. There’s also the Ina community structure: you get communities of long-lived humans controlled by benevolent inhuman overlords. (Anyanwu eventually runs one of these. See also: the Oankali; the aliens of “Bloodchild”; even, to some extent, the mental wards in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”.) Oh, and, gratuitous polyamory! A given Ina needs five to eight humans to avoid overfeeding on one of them, and they marry each other in groups: a trio of sisters will marry an unrelated trio of brothers. (The Oankali are all over this. Five-way marriages are standard: male human, female human, ooloi Oankali, male Oankali, female Oankali.) And let’s not forget the token angst fodder: the tragic early death of one of the very humans who was being set up to live a long life. (I’m not going to spoil who suffers from this; just trust me, it’s happened before.)

For a Butler fan, the whole novel was almost the equivalent of a trashy romance paperback. No, there’s nothing original, you’ve seen all these tropes before…but it’s kind of comforting to lie back and soak in the familiarity. You see why I said it felt like (its own bizarre form of) comfort!fiction?

One more trope: genetic engineering. Shori is the product of an effort to make Ina children stronger and hardier. Since Ina are incredibly sensitive to the sun, and also incredibly pale-skinned, they threw in some black human DNA to give her that phenotype. Good news: it worked! Bad news: she now gets to deal with the racism of some of the Ina, toward human hybrids in general and black human hybrids in particular. Now, in spite of her continued lack of memory, she has to prove to the world that she counts as fully Ina.

The review, again, criticizes this by trying to treat the Ina as human. The Ina mainstream is supposedly the equivalent of white!human!culture; the fact that Shori doesn’t reflect “Blackness as a culture” is seen as a bad thing. Never mind that it doesn’t make any narrative sense for a character who is the only one of her kind, not to mention suffering from amnesia, to have a distinctive culture in the first place. Never mind that, if you want a reflection of black!human!culture, all you have to do is look at the non-amnesic black human characters in, oh, everything else Butler has written.

As for the novel’s construction of slavery (humans as happily addicted servants for Ina) and racism…okay, for categories like these, I’m not going to complain about people disagreeing with me. They’re broad and subtle and the treatment is subjective and if you don’t like it, well, you don’t have to. But I submit this theory for consideration:

Just as Lilith’s Brood is a reconstruction of colonialism, with humanity as the happily colonized, so Fledgling is a reconstruction of slavery. If it’s not a particularly rigorous reconstruction, that’s because it wasn’t written to be deep or philosophical or to make a statement, but mainly as an exercise in hitting all of the author’s narrative kinks.

And I sure hope she enjoyed it, because after all the groundbreaking she did to become SF’s first published black female author, she deserved to have some fun.

(And seriously, if you want an unflinching dissection of realistic slavery through a sci-fi-tinged lens, go read Kindred. Like, yesterday.)

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