Being a person is confusing. Octavia Butler does not hide that within her Xenogenesis trilogy. Oankali society is in a perpetual state of “trade” (Womb 5.) Throughout the trilogy, Oankali-human society is drastically transformed. It is at first divided between Oankali and humans, and then Earth becomes inhabited by constructs who are regulated by the older Oankali. Finally, there is independent life beyond the older Oankali. Even so, the changes this trade creates are broader. Individuals within Oankali society are limited because they cannot transform from Oankali to human or vice versa. Instead, they remain, for the most part, as what they were born. Although they change over time with new development, such as Lilith gaining additional strength with Oankali aid, no individual experiences a fundamental change which is beyond their personal limitations. This is what it means to be a part of the planting of the future, what it means to be the “tiny positioning movements of independent life,” but never its final position (Imago 16.) There is no final form of society, and therefore there is no ultimate, perfect person. All of us are a part of the blurry transition from one era to the next. This transitory Oankali society gets me to thinkING about my own life. Society is constantly changing around me. However, I am one person, and cannot adapt myself into the societally superior version of myself every five minutes. My task, then, is to reconcile the fact that I need to change and cannot change everything; that I am valuable but need the skills and actions of others. To commit to this reconciliation not only requires that I learn from others, but that I act in a way which allows them to keep their will and their autonomy. I do not want to move into the future only to press my outdated beliefs about what is morally correct onto others.
I have learned that bringing and binding people together relies a great deal on roles and assignments, and much less on free will than I might prefer. Oankali social structure is based on community roles. Oankali fit into sexual roles such as ooloi, whose purpose is to “keep [beings] in good health and mix children for them” (Imago 3,) and cultural roles such as Toaht, Dinso, and Akjai, which define their proximity to their trade partner. Regardless, all of these relationships define an Oankali’s niche within the trade. I do not think that this is a concept unique to the Oankali. Our society has similar roles: we have those who teach, those who lead, those who care for others. Technically, members of our society choose these roles. However, which roles we take on are greatly influenced by factors such as socioeconomic status and physical ability. Therefore, I feel comfortable in saying that I have a role of my own. I know some details about it based on my societal placements. I am an English major in the middle class and live in New York. My body also defines me. I am short and anemic. I am capable of becoming stronger. However, I certainly would not say that the realm of physical strength is something which gives me purpose–I have been brought up to care far more about developing my academic skills. I therefore have choices about what to do with my role, but I also have limitations and advantages which push me in specific directions.
The Oankali roles do not make them hierarchical, and I do not believe that human roles must be hierarchical. According to Jdahya, humans being hierarchical is “the result of a tangled combination of factors that only begins with genes” (Womb 5.) Hierarchical tendencies are not a death sentence unless we allow them to be. The problem is not inherent, but that humans were not able to catch their problem, which Jdahya describes as a “cancer.” However, seeing as the nuclear apocalypse has not happened in most places in the world, we still have time to learn what we can use in place of hierarchy. The Oankali use consensus in place of hierarchy, agreeing to a common solution from the vast experiences of the Oankali. It is surprising to me that consensus is a tool which we as humans possess to some degree. We are capable of listening to those who had relevant experiences at one time and coming to a decision as a group rather than one or a few individuals being viewed as the most valuable. I cannot change how human society functions, or how it ranks human experiences which are fundamentally different rather than compiling them. However, I can use consensus more in the way I relate to the world. Prior to this course, I would often view myself as “valuable” or “not valuable” based on how well I fit into a situation. However, one lesson I have learned over the course of this semester is that I am not less valuable as a person in a situation where my input is less valuable. My value as a person does not rely on where I fit in from a scale of “worst to best person.” I have my own abilities, and those abilities are only relevant sometimes. This is why it is important to gather the expertise of many rather than placing myself or another individual into a position where they could enmesh their personal experiences and powers into such a position unchecked.
However, caring for others in a consensual way requires listening to them when they describe how they want to act or not act on their individual experiences. Listening to someone and then prioritizing their decision of my own is a form of hierarchy. Humans sometimes do not say what they feel, but instead say what they are willing to make happen. I here define will as the driving force to take action. Since the Oankali know what humans actually feel, they have the ability to override this will in many ways. For example, Nikanj does so with the bioessentialist basis that the human body tells the truth about what should be done rather than the words a human says. It has the power to “know” what Lilith wants on a biochemical level, in the case of the end of Dawn that she wants a child who is closely related to Joseph. It has the ability to act on this knowledge without her knowing of it. It therefore impregnates her with the justification that it “wouldn’t have done it so soon, but [it] wanted to use his seed, not a print” (The Training Floor 9.) Here, Nikanj does what it feels is best, weighing the pros and cons of its decision to impregnate Lilith so early. However, it does not involve Lilith’s will in the decision making process. This method removes will from the equation. Nikanj’s impregnation of Lilith is therefore not done in good faith, which requires “acts of transparency,” even if Nikanj believes that it was committing an act of care because it received a consensus inside of Lilith’s body (McCoy.) However, this is not the only way for an Oankali to use its abilities with a human. Jdahya gives Lilith the choice to be stung by him and die (Womb 5.) Although he likely knows from the study of her that she will not choose to die, he does her a kindness by not making the decision for her based on those feelings. I believe that Jdahya, even though he is supposedly more removed from humanity than Nikanj, understands that it is important to allow one to act on their will rather than acting for another person in order that their will cannot interfere. Hierarchy is a problem when “human intelligence serve[s] it instead of guiding it,” but the care of consensus when that consensus is between components of a body is also destructive because it ignores human intelligence (Womb 5.) I do not wish to become so non-hierarchical that I no longer subjugate someone’s inner feelings to their expressed will. I will follow Jdahya’s example and respect the autonomy of those around me, even if I am certain that they do not match their true feelings. In doing so, I can acknowledge that my ignorance of other people’s lives is not my only shortcoming, but also that I am not the person to interpret the personal knowledge which others share with me into action without their consent.
To listen to the future is not a challenge without a reward. As Jdahya says when introducing Lilith to her future with the Oankali, “we’ll share those abilities [the ones from the new generation of Oankali] with you [humans].” I hope that I can both be a part of change and when I cannot change a part of myself, still be a part of the changed world. Lilith, although she cannot be a part of the generations who are partially Oankali, is still valuable within the Oankali world because she leads humanity into being at peace with that world. If my role ceases to be valuable, I will change, just as Lilith changes the way in which she transitions humans into the Oankali world from informing them about the Oankali in the Nursery section of Dawn to telling them about their own pasts through her paintings (Imago 4.) How my role will change will not always be up to me, but I will be able to choose how I approach my ever-shifting reality. I therefore hope that my approach is to embrace the future and the wills of the people who create it.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood: Dawn — Adulthood Rites — Imago. Aspect/Warner Books, 2000.
McCoy, Beth. “To The Forums! 2: Good Faith .” Canvas, SUNY Geneseo, 2020, canvas.geneseo.edu/courses/18639/discussion_topics/82208.