When I started this project, I genuinely had no idea what to expect, having never read the Xenogenesis trilogy before. In fact, the only works by Butler I had read were Fledgling, Wild Seed, and the short essay Positive Obsession. I knew, because of the Broken Earth trilogy, that I wanted to focus on worldbuilding as a tool to create a space to talk about issues of social justice. Having read N.K. Jemisin, I knew that she had been influenced by Octavia Butler and thus also studying a series by Butler seemed like a logical addition to the project. I chose the Xenogenesis trilogy based on the Wikipedia summary — it seemed like there was more to talk about since it is more imaginative in the scope of its worldbuilding than the Patternist or Parable series.
Since that time. I have tried to immerse myself in Butler in order to better understand the Xenogenesis trilogy, which is an admittedly difficult read — in addition to reading the Xenogenesis trilogy, I read Bloodchild and Other Stories, started (and eventually put down due to lack of time) Parable of the Sower, and most importantly, read a book of interviews with Butler. While the questions and introductions to these interviews across the years were often repetitive, they provided some valuable insight into what she was trying to say with the Xenogenesis books.
One of the main things that I took away from this process of reading the interviews is that the tension between hierarchy and intelligence is something that Butler took at least somewhat seriously — in a 1997 interview AnnaLouise Keating asked Butler if, “…like the Oankali, you see hierarchical behavior in humans as a genetic characteristic,” to which Butler replied “Yes I do, when you consider that our hierarchical tendencies go back to algae.” While I still think that it can be seen as a facet of the worldbuilding (it isn’t explicitly discussed in any other work I’ve read by her), it helps to keep in perspective that this is a concept that Butler actually saw in our present world.
Another key thing that I took from the interviews is that Butler isn’t talking about slavery in the Xenogenesis trilogy, though it would be easy to fall into the trap of reading it that way, as she said over and over again that she is only writing about slavery if she explicitly says that she is. Of course, this isn’t the only experience Butler has had with the issue of people reading her works as something they are not — in the afterword to “Bloodchild,” she writes that “It amazes me that some people have seen ‘Bloodchild’ as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things though” (30). Similarly, because of what she says in the interviews and the fact that slavery is never explicitly mentioned in the Xenogenesis trilogy, it must be read as something else — a meditation on the human condition? A sociobiological thesis? More simply, an exploration of what it means to be human? I’m still working on that one.
The last thing that really stuck with me from the interviews is that Butler does a lot of research to make her books as realistic as possible. She talked about going to Maryland to do research for Kindred and going to South America for the Xenogenesis trilogy in addition to doing so much reading on a diverse array of subjects (one of the books she talks about a lot is An Anthropologist on Mars, which is about bizarre neurological cases), which makes the worldbuilding that much more interesting — she really does her research to make her worlds as realistic or believable as possible. I believe this is in line with something else she said in multiple interviews, which is that a book is only science fiction if there is science involved (she often takes issue with Kindred being classed as science fiction because it doesn’t involve any sort of technology for the time travel aspect). Thus, it reinforces my belief that studying the worldbuilding of the Xenogenesis trilogy is a) a worthy pastime and b) going to be fascinating.
In terms of what I’ve done and how that has changed how I see the project, there isn’t much that has changed per se, considering that I didn’t have a clear vision going in, but here are some thoughts on what the project and what I want to do moving forward:
The first is that the Xenogenesis trilogy is a lot more than I bargained for in terms of complexity! I hadn’t anticipated spending this much time just familiarizing myself with and trying to understand a series without doing much outside research. It’s been a little frustrating, considering I still have a long way to go, but at the very least I feel like I now have a better grasp on things. I am also happy to be seeing links between Butler’s work and the Broken Earth trilogy in terms of meditations on hierarchy and constructed human(oid)s; it makes the ways that I am going to link the two authors together more clear and thus will drive further research.
The other thing that I now know is that I have so much more reading to do. I want to read other perspectives on Xenogenesis to help try to parse things out for myself, and I really need to read some theoretical writings on worldbuilding so I can start thinkING about my future analyses of each trilogy that I am working with. I need to learn more so I can do more. This is exactly what I expected going in, but I wasn’t sure at what point other readings would come. Hopefully, this is soon, as I am eager to get to that portion of the project, and I know for a fact that I can’t begin without familiarizing myself with other people’s writings on worldbuilding. Basically, I have a whole lot of work to do!