Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Unnatural Birth

                The Oankali certainly are one of the most interesting race creations I have ever experienced in science fiction writing. The late 1980’s were a time when scientific, particularly genetic, study began to grow almost exponentially. Butler, like many other science fiction authors, is imagining a world where genetics and people can be manipulated in a way to make them better. This is a very similar idea to the one that Wilson proposes. It all comes down to the idea that humans are creatures that have developed due to genetic changes, and we would need to alter those genetics in order to create a more perfect version of ourselves. Butler uses the genre of science fiction to imagine a creature that can be that force of genetic change for us to imagine what it might be like.
                The whole novel deals with these issues of change. The one part that I found to be particularly interesting was the very end of the novel. Ever since the idea of genetic engineering was formed, it has been a constant debate as to the ethics that are involved in it. Birth is the most natural thing that many people would think of, but it is not a flawless system. Humans have evolved over billions of years, but as Wilson points out, “The first dilemma is the rapid dissolution of transcendental goals … Those goals, the true moral equivalents of war, have faded” (Wilson 4). This statement and the passage above it illustrate Wilson’s idea that the human race should not accept complacency, and we should still be trying to advance forward. By advancement, I mean genetic altering that would give the changed person a better chance at success and survival. Success can be defined different, but for these purposes, I’ll just define it as Nikanj defines it. He knows that “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” (Butler 247-248). Nikanj impregnates Lilith with a baby that she had no chosen to have. Although the child would be superior, as Nikanj points out, she is still in the traditional human way of thinking that this difference is just too much to handle. The technology to at least slightly change human genes and create a functional genome is not very far away from us now, and people are still not prepared to accept this idea. Butler essentially inverts the idea of human choice in the matter. This ending also seems to have some biblical implications to me, alluding to the Immaculate Conception obviously, but religion is a separate topic here. Lilith is very distraught here obviously, and she cannot accept the alien’s actions. She even goes as far as to say, “It will be a thing. A monster” (247). It contains the DNA of both her and Joseph, but she still considers it completely unnatural because the alien added other features to make it more perfect. Lilith’s usage of the word “monster” brings obvious parallels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster and the monster that is gestating in Lilith’s womb both share similarities. They are both created out of the ambition that they will be the perfect creation, they are a combination of pieces from different sources, and they are both being rejected by their creator. This idea of rejection from the creator brings everything back to the basic human fear of genetic change. Both of the creators, Victor and Lilith, know that the thing they are creating will be superior to other beings, but they cannot accept it as their own conception.
                I believe that Butler uses a rape metaphor as a way to force this genetically advanced child on Lilith. Although she rejects it, the alien knows that it will be an amazing child capable of almost anything. I’m not yet aware of what happens to the child after it is born, but I feel that this changed child might remove some of her natural maternal instincts towards it. If this is the case, it would just further the analogy that an unnatural child would not truly be the mother’s at all. The alternative to conventional thinking is presented by depicting generational improvement as a forced procedure rather than a matter of choice, and it’s a very radical idea for Butler to give these characters that ability.


  1. I think there's a lot of potential for good material in the Biblical comparison you give in this entry, but I suppose if that's a separate issue to you then it's not totally necessary to expound upon it. With the almost god-man relationship the Oankali have the humans, there's a definitely a few parallels between the two works.
    In light of many people questioning the actions of the humans for being stubborn and unwilling to accept the changes being forced upon them, I think it might be valuable to explore the reasons for the Oankali's blunt, aggressive plan of action towards the humans. Unusual situations often call for unusual measures and reactions, and in light of the relatively bizarre nature of the Oankali's activities, perhaps the resistance of the humans doesn't seem as drastic or difficult to comprehend.
    Also, as we read further into the second book, and learn more about this offspring that Lilith will be mother to, the Frankenstein comparison you raise could definitely become more important. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to keep Frankenstein in mind.

  2. I don't think the first paragraph accomplishes anything at all - it's an ok summary of the context of the novel as it relates to Wilson, but at the very least, you should have used the context to clarify your argument.

    As far as your argument - it should be obvious that the novel is concerned with the ethical consequences of genetic engineering. Could any sane, intelligent reader understand the Oankali in a way which doesn't engage with this issue in *some* fashion? Much of the long, messy middle paragraph basically says this.

    What's more interesting in the middle paragraph is the claim that a Wilsonian transcendental goal is being articulated here. That's more interesting, and less obvious. It needs to be detailed and defended if it's going to be your argument. Are *you* willing, in other words, to stand up and say that radical, Oankali-esque genetic engineering is exactly what humanity needs? Is that what you're getting at.

    I am interested in what you're trying to do with the role of rape in the novel, but it seems like an afterthought more than anything. Are you arguing that the rape is resistance to (or the reaction to the resistance to) transendental goals?

    Short version: this seems rushed and careless in many ways, with too many generalities and too little actual argument, but there are some areas of real potential.