Bouncing off my previous Blog Post, I will be continuing the analysis of consent and its role in the decision-making process. Similar to Percival Everett’s “Zulus”, Octavia Butler in “Clay’s Ark” creates a fictional future society where characters are faced with a daunting decision that will deeply affect numerous individuals on a global scale. In “Zulus” it was the choice of whether or not to release a chemical agent ending all human life on earth. In Butler’s “Clay’s Ark”, the characters are faced with the decision of spreading or containing an alien symbiont that has adapted to live inside the human body. Both Everett and Butler, through their characters moral dilemmas, are able to express the importance of consent and the influence that it should have on our decision-making process.
This type of moral dilemma is clearly demonstrated by the characters living in the microcosm that is the Clay’s Ark ranch. In the novel, the character Eli, a geologist who was a part of the Clay’s Ark mission to the Centauri System, becomes infected with an alien symbiont that merges with human DNA and slightly alters it, giving the infected individuals new abilities and urgent compulsions such as the persistent need to spread the organism to others. In order to manage this compulsion, while still preventing a world-wide epidemic of its infection, Eli creates an isolated, self-sufficient community where the organism can be contained and those infected can live an almost happy life. Additionally, in order to appease the compulsion, Eli sends groups of individuals to gradually capture and take in groups of people, infecting them and thus making them a part of the community. Although the situation is still highly non-consensual, it is Eli’s best effort at preventing world-wide catastrophe while still pleasing the organism.
Despite Eli’s best efforts however, his system is put to the test when Blake and his daughters are abducted into the community. Blake is a doctor, and the minute he is captured and forced onto the ranch he is persistently motivated to find an escape for his family in order to receive what he believes to be real medical attention, thus risking a world epidemic: “He hoped he could escape them too and get real help. Medical help, finally” (Butler 592). Blake’s grave mistake when making this decision is overestimating his ability to fight the organism’s given compulsion. Thus, he puts the world in danger just to hold on to a hope that he might be able to save himself and hopefully his children from the organism. Eli and Meda (a fellow resident of the community) continuously urged Blake of the dangers of leaving the ranch and the precaution that it requires. Yet, despite all of the warnings and basic understanding of how the organism works, Blake still makes the decision to escape. In this decision, Blake does what he feels is best for himself, without care of the consequences that it could have on the world around him. It was a decision made in arrogance, as Blake believed that he could study the organism better than Eli ever did.
Eli and Meda had gone into great detail about the organism and how it is a creature of its own with its own wants and needs. But despite the warnings from individuals who have been fighting the organism’s compulsions for years, Blake still seemingly chooses to do what he wants for himself. However, when we look more closely at what we know about the organism we can also question as to whether Blake’s motivations for leaving the ranch might have been altered by the organism. Especially since the minute he leaves the ranch, he is unable to resist the compulsion, and infects a truck driver immediately after his escape: “I grabbed him, her father said. “I couldn’t help it, couldn’t control it. He smelled so…I couldn’t help it. God, I tore at him like an animal.” So like the blue sleeve, the blood on his hand was not his. He had spread the disease” (Butler 618). In studying the organism, it is clear that it actually alters the human brain. Thus, we can conclude that when Blake made the decision to leave the ranch the decision was not entirely his own. When describing the organism to Blake, Meda had stated: “He said his wife and the other doctor did autopsies on the crew member who died before them. They found little round organisms in the brains of every one of them” (Butler 498). Eli’s wife, who was a doctor, had done all she could with advanced technology to study and stop the spread of the organism, but no methods were effective, and it became clear the organism become infested in your brain.
When we personify the organism to have its own thoughts and motivations, consent and the process of decision making becomes an entirely new and tricky concept to grasp. Was Blake entirely in control of his actions and his thoughts at the end of this novel? Or was it simply the organism pushing him to do what it has wanted all along, to infect the planet. Looking at it from this perspective, we can compare the characters Blake and Eli and their will power in fighting the organism. Was Eli or Blake more justified in their actions? Begging this question, we have to remember that Blake was captured against his will by Eli and forced to be infected with an organism that he never consented to have. After he survives the infection, Blake is then informed that he is not even allowed to leave the ranch that he has been kidnapped to and he is condemned to give up his other life and create one on the ranch. From Eli’s perspective we can say that he is doing his best to make a bad situation right in the best way he knows how. So, who is truly to blame for all of this nonconsensual action? At the end of the day, it is the organism that we have blame; however, we must not forget that human-will still plays a factor as the organism is not fully in control as demonstrated by Eli and his efforts. In comparison, it can be concluded that Eli was entirely more successful as a character at containing the organism and its compulsions than Blake.
So, through all of this confusion what is Butler trying to communicate to us? The character’s moral dilemmas are intense, and they are faced with a question of should I do what is right for me or right for everyone else? Blake chose to do what he felt was right for him – escaping the ranch. Eli on the other hand chose to do what was right for all, even if the methods were nonconsensual. In defending himself, Eli might argue that creating the ranch was the lesser of two evils – infecting some in order to prevent infecting all. Unfortunately, all of Eli’s efforts to contain the organism are destroyed at the end of the novel by Blake’s decision to escape.
Circling back to “Zulus”, we can look at how Kevin Peter’s decision to end the world had similar motivations to Blake escaping the ranch. Kevin Peters was an intensely cynical character who felt that the post nuclear apocalyptic world had nothing left to offer him or anyone else for that matter; thus, releasing the agent would be a mercy to all humans left living on the barren earth. To Kevin Peters, the choice seemed black and white, the only answer was to end it all. Looking at Blake in “Clay’s Ark” however, it is clear that his decision-making process had become clouded with the underlying motivations of the organism. Although he may have escaped for himself, he still gives in to the organisms urges and infects an individual once he escapes. In conclusion, Butler is communicating to us that consent is a dense and highly complicated idea. Taking these lessons into account, and in studying the decisions of characters such as Eli, Blake, and Kevin Peters, it becomes clear that in order to make a consensual decision, you must consider all angles, motivations, and perspectives.