2020 has unquestionably been a year of immense change for both our nation and the world at large, so it is appropriate that this semester I discovered Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, which features change as a prominent theme. Octavia Butler’s novels speak a great deal on the consequences of change, and how it can bring people together. I find that last point to be particularly important seeing as we are living in a time where in many ways people are forced to be apart.
In Dawn, Lilith reflects on how she deals with change. Butler writes, “She had learned to keep her sanity by accepting things as she found them, adapting herself to new circumstances by putting aside the old ones whose memories might overwhelm her” (Butler 159). Generally, one might be inclined to think that change is all about the future, but as Lilith recognizes, change has equal parts to do with the past. I have found that an attachment to the past is the primary reason that people are resistant to change. To add some credibility to this assertion, I might add that I am a relatively stubborn person myself who generally finds it difficult to respond to large-scale change. When coronavirus lockdown commenced, I was not prepared to transition to online schooling, and one summer later when I began this semester, I was still struggling with the ramifications of this change. The reason for this is not necessarily because asynchronous online work was more taxing than in-person activities, but because I still held onto the memories of how things were, and the contrast between those memories and my present situation was simply too great for me to easily adapt. The solution to this, as I learned a bit late in the game, was to take a cue from Lilith and accept things as I found them, rather than how they used to be or how I’d like them to be, and to put aside the “overwhelming” memories of the past, as oftentimes they can be a distraction to progress.
Another important lesson I learned this semester was that change is caused by challenge. In fact, you can’t spell “challenge” without it. One repeatedly mentioned challenge in Xenogenesis is the colonization of Mars. Akin says, “Mars isn’t for anyone who doesn’t want it. It will be hard work, risk, and challenge” (446). The oankali view Mars as a means of giving humans a new start, and a second chance to prove that their intelligence can triumph over their hierarchical tendencies. Pessimistically, they also say that “not even Mars will be enough of a challenge to change” (436) human nature. This statement in itself implies that profound change can only be enacted through profound tribulation. Like many themes in Butler’s work, this is especially relevant today on both a global and personal scale. Globally speaking, the coronavirus pandemic has been a massive crisis that governments have struggled to fight against with varying levels of success. I’m sure we have all heard some variation of the sayings, “we are living in strange times,” and “things will never be the same” repeated ad nauseum by just about everybody. Others have pointed to a silver lining: the drastic measures we took to combat the pandemic may prepare us for future crises, and out of necessity improvements have been made to health care systems all around the world. It is impossible to say the long-term effects that this crisis will have (especially for myself; I am definitely no expert), but in spite of the quite terrible year we have endured, I foresee that there will be many aspects of this pandemic that end up being learning experiences for world leadership.
At the very least, I believe this to be true on a personal scale, as the pandemic has certainly challenged my ability to adapt to new situations. On top of that, for the first time I am living on my own off-campus, which presents an entirely new set of responsibilities in itself. Learning to deal with online schooling, to deal with isolation and the new social challenges the pandemic has created, all the while figuring out how to simply take care of myself has been an ongoing process where I’ve experienced successes and failures. Overall, I believe that the net result of these challenges, just as Butler says, has strengthened me as a person and changed me for the better, placing me further along the path of becoming a competent self-realized adult in this world. Even now, I am still working on it!
I am certain that others can relate, as the challenges brought by coronavirus are circumstances we’ve all had to deal with. Paradoxically, in this time where we are forced to be apart, that shared experience has brought us together. It is interesting to note that while humans are brought together by commonalities, the oankali are brought together by difference. This is explained by one of the most fascinating passages in Imago: “Humans had evolved from hierarchical life, dominating, often killing other life. oankali had evolved from acquisitive life, collecting and combining with other life” (483) Elsewhere, it is written that “human beings fear difference,” and the oankali “crave difference” (311). Looking at the inverse of this statement, humans crave sameness, while oankali fear sameness. Butler insightfully connects this tendency to hierarchy in humans. Evolutionarily speaking, that which looked different than us was often trying to kill us, while the opposite is true for the oankali. According to Butler, this fear of difference is just as much an outdated remnant of evolution as other vestigial structures like wisdom teeth or appendices.
This semester I have often wondered what would happen if humans were somehow able to shed this fear of difference. Most obviously, racial discrimination would not be so rampant throughout the world, and we would not be dealing with horrific instances such as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Collaboration would be the norm as opposed to competition, and I doubt war would continue to exist in the way that we know it. Unequivocally, society would benefit. That said, I don’t think the oankali’s fear of sameness is entirely justified either. It is not always a bad thing that humans bond over being the same; one example that I’ve already mentioned is humanity’s shared experience of fighting against the pandemic, or this class’s shared love of literature, which has brought us together. Though maybe I only say this because I am human, I think humanity’s tendency to come together based on what makes us the same is a huge asset to us; a beautiful thing. What needs work is our ability to empathize with each other and come together over differences. In other words, both humans and oankali have some things to learn from each other.
In Imago, this fusion of perspectives manifests through the birth of the human-oankali hybrid Jodhas, but in reality, I believe that the fear of difference can be overcome through constant exposure to change and an increased empathy and understanding amongst each other. The Mars colony is in part an experiment to achieve this. The colony is characterized by constant hard work and adaptation, and is informed by the failures of human civilization on earth. But we don’t have to go to Mars to achieve this. Empathy, though an innate human feeling, can be taught as a moral principle, and if this were to become commonplace, I think a society of empaths would allow humanity to thrive.
The thing that most surprised me about Octavia Butler’s work is how closely it paralleled current events and also how immediately relevant it was to my own life. Reflecting on the Xenogenesis trilogy’s concepts of change and bringing people together was not an altogether difficult task, as Butler exhibits an almost prophetic vision of these concepts and how they apply to us in the past, present and future; on a small and large scale. At the same time as I came to learn numerous lessons in my personal life, with eerie timing Octavia Butler came to reaffirm these teachings for me in her literature. To me, that alone verifies their truth.