The Role of Nature in the Works of Octavia Butler

Examination Thesis 2008 60 Pages

American Studies - Literature




1 From Science Fiction Elements to “Nature”

2 Environmental Philosophy & “Gaia”

3 Speciesism




“Then when I was twelve, I discovered science fiction. It appealed to me more, even, than fantasy had because it required more thought, more research into things that fascinated me. I was developing an interest in geology and paleontology – the origin of the Earth and the development of life on Earth. The manned space program was getting started, and I was fascinated with that. My favorite class in junior high school was eighth-grade science. Other planets, evolutionary biology, botany, microbiology….I wasn’t a particularly good student, but I was an avid one. I wanted to know about everything, and as I learned, I wanted to play with the knowledge, explore it, think about what it might mean, or where it might lead, write stories about it.” (Parable of the Sower: 334 f.)

The science fiction (SF) writer Octavia Estelle Butler (1947-2006) was a pioneer in many ways. She won several Hugo and Nebula awards and was critically acclaimed as the most successful and most gifted female African-American author in a genre that is still mostly dominated by white males. Butler had been publishing stories since the early 1970s, imaginatively addressing issues such as slavery, race and gender in a science fiction environment – including elements of time traveling as in Kindred (1979) and telepathy and extraterrestrials in the Patternist series (1976-1984), which is made up of five novels and was republished in 2007 as the compilation Seed to Harvest. The Patternist stories already contain references to biological alterations of bodies and somatic mutations.

1987 marks the publication of Dawn , the first volume of the Xenogenesis triology which was also republished after Butler’s death in the compilation Lilith’s Brood. The series advances the idea of biological engineering to modern genetics in the same year when a committee of the National Academy of Sciences stated that organisms altered or created by the combination of genes between species pose no hazards to the natural environment and are “virtually risk free or have risk-to-benefit ratios well within acceptable bounds” (Schmeck 1987). Within the next two years, Dawn was followed by the sequels Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). The two novels continued the scenario of a post-apocalyptic civilization and a world controlled by peaceful, yet intrusive extraterrestrial hybrids. In the trilogy Butler considered the overall consequences for nature, humanity and civilization by extrapolating from actual scientific and social developments. This approach can also be detected in the near-future dystopia of the Parable series.

Parable of the Sower (1993) and the sequel Parable of the Talents (1998) have often been referred to as cautionary tales because they respond to environmental issues such as climate change, global warming, the lack of natural resources and other ecological problems. Besides the religious implications, the moral and ethic motivations of the Parable series can already be anticipated by the title. The ecocritic Patrick D. Murphy notes that “SF has a strong potential to function as a parable addressing the issue of how people become inhabitants and what it means to be indigenous in relation to environmental responsibility" (Murphy 2001: 264). The author concludes that “[e]specially through near-future extrapolation” the genre has the potential to “turn readers’ attention toward major socioenvironmental issues facing humanity today” (ibid: 277).

Among the variety of genres, SF seems to be a literary free mover; its ability to form a symbiosis with virtually any non-fictional sector of human interest and traditional literature, leads to the impression that it treats reality as a kind of open source project from which unlimited information can be withdrawn, digested, reconstructed, distorted, advanced and combined. Nevertheless, SF still has the problem of being recognized as ethically and politically important. Frequently the genre is labeled as lowbrow literature which is simple in language, with a dime novel tradition. SF is therefore often marginalized in bookstores together with fantasy and put aside as unrealistic and “literature for dreamers”.

At the examples of Lilith’s Brood and the Parable series, this term paper shows that the nature-related topics in Butler’s SF writings can be used to address environmental discourses. I demonstrate that SF can add a unique and useful contribution to many areas of environmental knowledge and concern. I further suggest that Butler does not write in an “escapist genre” (Benton 2000: 207) but in an artistic category that has the potential to respond to crucial questions about humanity in relation to nature.

In chapter 1, I open with an attempt to define the quality that makes an element of literature science fictional. Subsequently, I explore overlapping themes between SF elements in the novels and environmental discourses. This sets the stage for a more detailed survey I offer in chapter 2 of environmental philosophy and the so-called Gaia theory which was introduced by James Lovelock. I argue that “Gaia” has an immense importance for Butler and that her writings reflect “Gaian” notions even before the author consciously concerned herself with the theory. The application of Lovelock’s ideas to Butler’s works leads to important ethical questions with regards to our position as the dominant species on the planet. In chapter 3, I therefore further elaborate on the ethical dimension of environmental philosophy at the example of the anthropocentric notion of speciesism . I here argue that Butler’s SF literature offers means to unmask human concepts of domination over nature and also of exploitation among our own species.

1 From Science Fiction Elements to “Nature”

“’Nature’ is over. The twentieth century did it in. There’s not a liter of seawater anywhere without its share of PCB and DDT. An altered climate will reshuffle the ecological deck for every creature that breathes. You can’t escape industrialism and hide from the sky. It’s over. From now on, ‘Nature’ is under surveillance and on life-support. A 21st century avantgarde has to deal with those consequences and thrive in that world.” (Bruce Sterling in Robertson 2007: 43)

The first chapter gives examples of conventional and unorthodox SF elements in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood and the Parable series and examines them in the light of environmental discourses. My intention is not to cover all nuances or the full range of nature-related elements in the novels, but rather to suggest that there actually are links between Butler’s novels and environmentalism.

Science Fiction?

To begin with, it is necessary to emphasize that many attempts have been made to define the distinctive features of science fiction. Literary theories range from seeing SF as a predictive tool for science itself (Clute 1995: 311), to the widespread perspective that it is merely a term which is interchangeable with fantasy . The absence of a coherent definition hampers the exchange of ideas about the genre and often seals it off from sophisticated literary criticism. Darko Suvin is one of the few critics who specialized in the field of SF. In the tradition of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt , Suvin introduces the notion of SF as a type of writing which is characterized by “the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition” (Suvin 2005: 27). According to him, this definition circumscribes the realm of the genre and sets it in between the “realistic mainstream” on the one side and fantastic outgrowths such as the fairy tale or the myth on the other (ibid). Suvin believes that through “estrangement , mostly achieved by means of extrapolation, the present reality is perceived in a new light without losing touch with the actual universe with its fundamental physical laws. “Cognition” helps to secure this attachment to reality by creating an awareness of the natural world (ibid: 29 f.). Therefore, an invention or occurrence within a story is only science fictional if it can be traced back to a constituent of the real world. Thus, if there is no plausible explanation why something occurs or exists in a plot, it is supernatural and part of fantasy.

However, it is still difficult to set the boundaries of SF. James E. Gunn says that this is due to the hospitality to other established genres, reaching from “western” to “sports” stories (Gunn 2005: 83). In order to extract the essence of SF, Gunn offers the idea to “remove” the elements of the other genres, metaphorically speaking, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and look at the remaining “irreducible quality that makes the work science fiction” (ibid). The question is to what extend elements can be marked down and if there really is a quality which is exclusively science fictional.

With the simple statement “We make it up, then make it real” the African-American writer Walter Mosley argues that “there are few concepts or inventions of the 20th century” which did not appear in SF before (Mosley 2000: 405). Of course there were as many concepts which later proved to be impossible but SF has always acted as an indicator for technological or social developments of next generations. The elements of science fiction shape the scope of the future setting; authors estrange what is already rudimentary there and imaginatively extrapolate numerous details. The extrapolation can simultaneously be a critique of contemporary society and a positive stimulus or inspiration. Often the result is a world which, paradoxically, seems familiar and, at the same time, strange to us. Historical distance from the writing of the material makes it easier to spot some concepts that have already become reality or were prevented from becoming such.

The Alien Environment

The efficient use of the environment has always been an issue in science fiction literature. In positive scenarios, technological advancement often enables futuristic societies to satisfy their need for food, energy or space in ethically advanced ways by avoiding exploitation of people, animals and the land itself. For example, the Oankali, the extraterrestrial aliens in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, seem to have brought their efficient use of nature to perfection. In Dawn , the first book of the series, the heroine Lilith finds herself confined in a room which seems strangely sterile and complexionless ( Lilith’s Brood : 6). It turns out that her cell is in fact part of a larger organism which is a spaceship and the Oankali’s home (ibid: 30). Already at this point of the novel, the aliens’ different relationship towards technology and nature becomes obvious: there is virtually no non-organic substance used in their self-designed environment. From the way Butler presents the Oankali in the trilogy, it can be assumed that the extraterrestrials have always positioned themselves in their surroundings in a more integral and eco-friendly way than humans did. Chapter 2 elaborates on this assumption and presents the Oankali’s way of interacting with their living space.

The natural qualities of the ooloi , the neutral third sex in the Oankali reproduction process, indicate that the native ability of genetic engineering minimizes the need for tools and machinery made from rock, metal or plastic. Compared to conventional twentieth century SF with an abundance of high-tech inventions and artificiality, the Oankali’s rejection of technology rather seems to be a contrary element of SF. However, current developments in design, architecture and consumer electronics show that the blending of nature and technology rapidly gains importance. Earlier decades were often marked by an enthusiasm about artificiality, such as the concrete tower-blocks of the 1960s, the extensive use of plastic furniture in the 70s or the digital high-tech boom of the 80s and 90s. Changing aesthetic attitudes towards our ideal conception of environment set new trends for SF writing and the ways the future of technology is extrapolated as well.

In the course of Earth’s restoration, after mankind had brought itself close to extinction through a nuclear war, most of the human made artificial material was removed from the planet by the Oankali. In Adulthood Rites, the sequel to Dawn , Lilith’s son, Akin, who is one of the first crossbreed “constructs” between humans and aliens, “tastes” a piece of rare prewar plastic. His sensitive tongue which he uses to analyze things down to their constituent genes and molecules, tastes the synthetic material and the boy is immediately alarmed by its poisonous components: “It was…more poison packed tight together in one place than I’ve ever known. Did humans make it that way on purpose?” (ibid: 388) Butler’s concern for the negative health effects of plastics can be inferred from the importance she puts on this passage which stretches over three pages. Some people who refused the Oankali’s genetic alterations, the “resisters”, are present in this scene as well, and they suddenly reminisce about their negative experiences with the material:

“Plastics used to kill people back before the war,” a woman said. “They were used in furniture, clothing, containers, appliances, just about everything. Sometimes the poisons leached into food or water and caused cancer, and sometimes there was a fire and plastics burned and gassed people to death. […]” (ibid: 389)

This is clearly a statement targeted at American society of the late 1980s. The problem of non-biodegradable polymers was beginning to become a major environmental concern. United States recycling statistics of that time show that 99% of the plastic material was treated as regular waste and disposed on solid municipal dumps (Olmsted 1997: 535). I claim that Butler uses this piece of plastic as a metaphor for the way Western civilization was living in “prewar” times, namely the (non-fictional) 1970s and 80s. The substance stands for the fast pace of life, a chemical renunciation of the natural world towards a single-use society that does not take the long term effects of its behavior into consideration. The very short time that many plastic items are actually being used contrasts with its biological degradation which may be as long as one thousand years. It has the ability to outlive even human civilization and maintain its toxicity for 250 years in which the Oankali put the survivors to sleep and restored the planet. By focusing on plastic rather than radioactive residues, the novel emphasizes the everyday effects humans have on the future of the environment.

This scene seeks the contrast to the Oankali’s “strong, symbiotic relationship” with their host organism which is based on “biological affinity” (Lilith’s Brood: 35):

“The human doctor used to say it loved us. […] We serve the ship’s needs and it serves ours. It would die without us and we would be planetbound without it. For us, that would eventually mean death.” (ibid)

Jdahya, the first Oankali Lilith encounters, explains that the ship is both, plant and animal, and “more” (ibid). Lilith learns that the enormous organism has the ability to recycle and reuse organic leftover material such as uneaten food (ibid: 64). However, when she independently goes on an excursion to a different region and buries some orange peels in the soil, the ship shows a disordered reaction: “The soil began to smell, to stink in a way she found hard to connect with oranges” (ibid: 68). She realizes that “she had caused harm” (ibid: 68) to the organism and had done something that was against its natural balance. Lilith comes to know that she can only bury waste material in soil of the region in which it was created by the ship. With this passage Butler likewise alludes to actual waste problems on Earth and the discourse on the need for sustainable urban developments. The Oankali’s environment shows an immediate and acute reaction to even small scale pollution. If our planet is seen as an organism, the negative response is much more delayed such as the current climate change is the result of a large-scale pollution over decades and an imbalance between wastage and regeneration. From an ecological point of view, the Oankali system is perfectly sustainable as long as the natural balance is maintained. Brought from SF to the reality of the 21st century, this is also the goal of current urban management projects, often referred to as “Eco-Cities”. The ambitions are set high: the Chinese Dongtan city project, for example, is situated on an island just a few miles north of Shanghai. The planners intend to create a “zero waste” city with a “minimal ecological footprint of some 2.6 hectares per person” (Girardet 2007: 120). Dongtan will be a self-preserving but open community with an almost closed recycling system, green in appearance and at the same time home and place of work for half a million people (ibid: 121).

The Oankali’s environment is not attached to a certain place because their biological drive makes them travel through the universe in search of new “trade partner species” (Lilith’s Brood: 81) with whom they seek genetic exchange. The spaceships are at first planetbound; their seed is planted into the planet’s soil and they immediately start assimilating their surroundings to eventually leave a “lump of stripped rock” behind and become unbound (ibid: 531). During the process every organism is integrated into the ships body and in this sense there is no ecological destruction but instead an expansion of life comparable to a parent plant which spreads its seeds as it starts to wither. This reproductiveness and the curiosity towards the universe contrast with the resisters’ infertility which was caused by the Oankali in order to prevent uncontrolled human reproduction.

Exodus and Change

After Lilith enquires about the Oankali’s home planet, Jdahya says that it probably does not exist anymore and draws the analogy of a “womb” which eventually gives birth and is left behind (ibid: 37). Lilith mentions that in prewar times there was a belief that space was also the human destiny. This planet wide exodus is a common theme in SF literature such as in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which transfers Frederick Turner’s Frontier Thesis and the notion of Manifest Destiny to the planet Mars and its native inhabitants. Similarly, in the young adult SF novel Dream-Weaver by Louise Lawrence, Earth colonists set out to a planet which is seven light-years away and inhabited by a peaceful low-tech civilization.

The concept of “space as destiny” and the “seed” metaphor are also central to the Parable series. They are the most obvious intertextual link between the two narrative universes and their female African-American protagonists. In the dystopian near future setting of Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina starts a religious movement which she calls Earthseed. The religion’s basic philosophy is that “God is Change” (Parable of the Sower: 17) and its destiny “is to take root among the stars” (ibid: 77). Under the chaotic conditions of Butler’s United States in the 2020s, the government’s space program has lost its popularity. The majority of Americans believes that these explorations are a waste of money “when so many people here on earth can’t afford water, food or shelter” (ibid: 17). The seemingly science fictional ambition of traveling into space and settling on new worlds becomes Lauren’s obsession and she deeply believes that it will be possible. Eventually, the end of Parable of the Talents flashes forward to the year 2090 and suggests that Earthseed was a success with the first group of followers voyaging into space on a trip without return (Parable of the Talents: 406). The idea of the name for the Earthseed religion comes to Lauren while she is gardening (Parable of the Sower: 77). Here she draws a direct analogy between plant seeds with their ability to “travel” long distances without kinetic power of their own and the situation of humans in the universe. One of the fundamental notions of the religion is the believe that earth is a “dying place” and should be abandoned (ibid: 78), which is comparable to Lilith’s Brood insofar as here, the human-Oankali settlement will eventually leave the cradle of their seed behind.

Why does Butler let her characters have such an attitude of despair concerning the future of earth? Her novels seem to turn against environmental ethics and efforts to preserve nature as a home for future generations of beings. Butler’s dystopia has already left the hope for the planet’s rescue and shifts humanity’s aspirations to a life after Earth, similar to Christian beliefs in a heavenly paradise and the notion of a fallen and corrupted world. The striking difference is that Earthseed is not a religion that believes in another world in the sense of an afterlife but in a possible “here and now” on a different planet. Connecting the Parable Series and Lilith’s Brood, Lauren’s philosophy of “Change” is part of the Oankali’s natural evolutionary process. The humans’ departure from Earth in the Parable series marks the step towards a new evolution which is more deliberate than the old concept and individually chosen. Earthseed followers in a new natural environment will be subject to a different evolution, they will “change”, adjust and develop towards a parallel human society just like the Oankali who coexist in the universe in various insular forms of evolutionary possibilities. I suggest that Butler does not disregard environmental concerns but broadens our understanding of ourselves in relation to nature from Earth as a microcosm towards the idea of the universe as part of our living space. In the Parable series, Butler replaces the Oankali’s role as a nomad people with the human race which eventually begins to emancipate itself from its home-planet – we have become the traveling aliens, beyond the imagined walls of our old world.

In 1995, in between the publications of the two Parable novels, Butler picks up the issue of alien presence in SF literature in the essay The Monophobic Response. She diagnoses humanity with a “fear of being alone in a universe that cares no more for us than it does for stones or suns or any other fragments of itself” (Butler 2000: 415 f.). According to Butler, we create aliens out of this anxiety, and she compares our state with children who look for “powerful parent figures” (ibid: 416). In this sense Butler’s SF writing has matured after Lilith’s Brood since in the Parable series aliens are not present. What is left is the harsh reality of a world on the brink of social and environmental destruction without alien parent figures who will offer a second chance, take humanity by the hand or discipline it. To young Lauren, Mars becomes a kind of heaven and she identifies with a female Mars astronaut who died in an accident. Even though the neighbor planet is still “rock - cold, empty, almost airless and dead” (Parable of the Sower: 21) she sees it as a paradisiacal alternative to Earth on which only a “hell of life” is possible. In her view, Mars’ only flaw is that it is too close to her home planet which she despises so much. Lauren strives further, Earthseed is supposed to be a new beginning out of reach of human history. The tabula rasa attitude in form of an erasure of human history can also be detected among the Oankali in Dawn: “We’ll put you in areas that are clean of radioactivity and history” (Lilith’s Brood: 34). The alien’s juxtaposition of environmental destruction and human culture in the form of “history” shows that they believe in an interacting process between the two issues.

Virtual Reality

In the Parable series the urge to leave the old behind and to deny the disastrous reality amounts to an escapism which characterizes Butler’s near future society and is the reason for another science fictional element: virtual reality (VR). The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines escapism as “the habit of trying to forget unpleasant realities by means of entertainment, fantasy, etc.” (Cowie 1992: 302). In the Parable series Butler alludes to and extrapolates the emerging of VR technology in the 1990s. The development of hard- and software which enables people to experience a computer-generated three dimensional environment through stereo visuals and surround soundscapes led Butler to the assumption that once this technology would be perfected it could result in a complete neglect of the real world. The first allusion to VR can be found in Parable of the Sower when Keith, Lauren’s brother, talks about “TV windows which enable users to see and feel everything” without having “to go into the street except to get food” (Parable of the Sower: 105). Later in Parable of the Talents, Lauren’s abducted daughter Larkin is called “Asha Vere” which is the name of a fictional virtual reality heroine who is part of the “Christian American” propaganda (Parable of the Talents: 220). The hardware that enables people to assume the role of imaginary characters is called “Dreamask” (ibid). The technology poses an opportunity but also a threat to the “Christian American Church” (ibid, p. 208) which forms a kind of fundamentalist terror regime in Butler’s near future dystopia. On the one hand the mask can be a brainwashing tool for Christian fundamentalism, and on the other hand it can be used for anti-Christian plots which involve sexual pleasure, individual liberty and adventure. When Larkin is eleven she gets hold of a modified Dreamask that gives her the “first pleasurable sexual experience” - which is actually a VR story about pedophiliac sex with a pastor. Lauren’s daughter begins to invent her own Dreamask scenarios, creating an alternate reality with everything she lacks in real life: love, adventure, family, friends and a pleasant surrounding area (ibid: 327 f.). Even though it is mentioned that Larkin keeps writing plots for the Dreamask, she never loses complete touch with reality. In this she is unlike many wealthy people who own a “virtual room”. The invention is a holistic further development which is described as a “womb with an imagination”, allowing users to completely shut themselves away in an imaginary world. Often the result is a misanthropic mental illness that makes it difficult for users to accept people with “real egos of their own” (ibid: 345). From an environmental perspective, the VR devices in the Parable series and the resulting escapism could lead to lack of identification with reality and thus also with nature. O’Brien points out that

In the sphere of cyber-culture, the possibility is sometimes cited of creating at least a virtual version of the nature we (may) have ruined –an issue referenced in films from Soylent Green through Blade Runner to The Matrix. (O’Brien 2006: 289)



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Role Nature Works Octavia Butler



Title: The Role of Nature in the Works of Octavia Butler