A few weeks ago we read selected passages from the works of Octavia Butler. I noticed that in both Wild Seed and Dawn there were references to breeding practices and I remembered that in Jemisin’s work there is an entire use-caste devoted to breeding. Selective breeding, of course, has its own place in human history, but I began to wonder why it was such a common theme in both science-fiction and fantasy novels.
When I read about breeding in fiction novels, there is always a disturbing connotation attached to the word. Part of this is because of the role breeding has played in our own society, with one of the most infamous examples being the belief of a superior Aryan race in the early 20th-century. The problem with breeding for “desirable” features is that this inherently labels all other features as undesirable. 1930’s and ’40’s Germany could not have pushed forth the ideology that Aryans were superior without also advocating for the notion that other races, Jewish people in particular, were inferior. A passage in Wild Seed reminded me of this where the speaker says he had to track down his people “before they were forced to mix their seed with foreigners and breed away all the special qualities he valued in them”. The “special qualities” which normally would have a positive connotation are listed side-by-side with “foreigners” breeding away those qualities. Breeding by definition assumes inferiority of something else and when human breeding is involved, this naturally is a disturbing thought.
The Stillness has its fair share of breeding both involving orogenes and stills themselves. The fact that there is a whole Breeder use-caste to create desirable features is proof that this is common practice in the Stillness. In the appendix for the Breeder use-caste they are described as “individuals selected for their health and desirable conformation”. This “desirable conformation” is linked to the Sanzed race which has its own description outlining that “Sanzeds are ideally bronze-skinned and ashblow-haired, with mesomorphic or endomorphic builds and an adult height of minimum six feet”. The distinctions that make someone Sanzed are largely arbitrary and yet in the Stillness Sanzed qualities are taken very seriously. Once again, it is not because of the pure benefit of any of the qualities, but rather so that other qualities can be labeled as inferior. The superiority complex that arises out of breeding is extremely evident in all of the Equatorial cities but especially in Rennanis when they are invading Castrima. Rennanis is very open about allowing other Equatorials to join their comm but Danel tells Essun “you Midlatters eat too much” to which Essun replies “so basically, you’re here to wipe us out”. Since breeding inherently sets up some qualities as inferior, those with the “superior” qualities turn to genocide for their own benefit, similar to what happened during the Holocaust. The unnaturalness of breeding links it to an inherently nefarious purpose.
The Sanzeds are not the only case of breeding in the Stillness, however. I think the reason breeding is so disturbing is even more apparent when a character like Alabaster is considered. Alabaster was bred specifically to become a powerful orogene of the Fulcrum. His entire existence revolved around being a tool for someone else. What is so disturbing is that Alabaster was denied choice in his life before he was even born. The problem with breeding is that since there is a purpose to it other than the natural reproduction of a species, it is an unnatural occurrence. Someone like Alabaster was denied getting to forge his own purpose and was instead given a role before he was even born. This fundamental lack of choice had an impact on Alabaster his entire life. When he is explaining the problems of the Fulcrum’s practices to Essun, she tells him “your genius is in a subject area that no one respects”. Alabaster’s entire existence has been framed around his artificial conception. Breeding is often used as a disturbing feature of science fiction both because it presents a struggle between those deemed superior with those deemed inferior, but also because breeding goes against the natural order. When choice is taken away, people like Alabaster are dehumanized before they are ever given a chance.