Feminist SF Throwdown: Atwood V. Butler

I finished Maddaddam in a plot-fueled daze. Then I immediately began rereading Octavia Butler’s “Xenogenesis Trilogy,” which is conveniently/frustratingly published in one volume entitled “Lilith’s Brood” with cover art that looks like it’s soft core porn.

The thing is, the trilogy is bona fide SF. Aliens, apocalypse, ethics, science. The “nature of humanity.”

If that publisher thought for half a second about how bullshit that cover is, they’d realize that if they pretended Octavia Butler were a dude, and put some flipping aliens and stars on the cover, and a big blobby spaceship that itself is alive, to more accurately represent the book’s actual content, maybe they’d DOUBLE THEIR CUSTOMERS.


Instead, they made the book look like it’s about a skinny black woman having sex.

Which, technically, happens in the trilogy. But only through a gender-neutral being who mediates between her and another’s nervous system in a mandatory threesome, and no one touches anyone. Etc. Science fiction sex. You know how we do.

So this post isn’t exactly a review of Maddaddam or of the Xenogenesis trilogy. It’s an exploration of how two storied feminist writers represent gender in their SF epics.

In Maddaddam, the embittered lonely hacker dude has the chutzpah and chops to eliminate most people and create his version of a new humanity. He thinks he’s engineered away all the human traits that cause social problems.

And since he’s a lonely barely-not-a-teen dude, he thinks that romantic pain is central to human’s self-destructive tendencies. So what’s his solution?

5-way sex. On a clearly delineated breeding schedule. Genitals turn blue. No ambiguity, no guessing, no lonely nights in bars. Fine, right? But it’s 4 men and 1 woman. Which I’m generously guessing is because it would eliminate paternity shit? Male possessiveness of women? Or something?

But come on. 1 woman and 4 men? Men who signal their interest using bouquets of flowers?

It fits the logic of Atwood’s character. A lonely hacker genius dude, about to realize godlike powers at such a young age, probably does think that such a scenario will solve all the world’s problems. Because while his girlfriend is a survivor of the child sex trade, he probably hasn’t spent much time thinking about women from their own perspective.

But I can’t help thinking that it’s a bit of a cop-out for Atwood. With such provocative gender politics throughout the novel, this part of “Craker” life seems like a lost opportunity to propose a more equitable future. Especially considering that by the trilogy’s end, humans have integrated the practice into their hybrid culture. This is our future, says Atwood, with a surprisingly optimistic tone.

Meanwhile, over in Octavia Butler’s world, sexuality is considerably more complicated (and interesting! I said it! Butler’s book is denser and richer than Atwood’s!)

A brief plot summary to orient y’all: Humans have all but destroyed themselves in some kind of global nuclear war. The Oankali have decided to rebuild their planet and rescue them, but under very particular terms: The Oankali depend on “trading” with species—genetically merging with their trade partners to continually rebuild themselves, add diversity, and survive foreverandeveramen.

For humans, this means that, while Oankali sex is mind-blowing—the neuter partner connects the man and woman to create the kind of pleasurable merging that exists, for us, only in the fantasies of children taught that pre-marital abstinence is the best route to happiness/heaven/god’s divine love—they will never be able to comfortably touch their spouses again without their third partner/mediator. And they will never be able to have human children.

The Oankali reason that humans are inherently self-destructive. Because of our genes. Because of our ancient hierarchical behavior clashing with our species’ much newer intelligence. If humans were allowed to breed on their own, without Oankali intervention, they’ll simply destroy themselves again. Better to have the best human traits carried on forever as part of Oankali life.

So we’ve got all this awesome complexity about the nature of coercion, of power, of gender and race. We also get some surprising gender essentialism–to wit, even the masterful genetic engineers of the alien race can’t engineer the self-destructiveness out of the male hybrids. Men are just more troublesome. And the savior of the human race is male. Also, needless to say, making all sex happen in threes, with brother/sister/neuter mates, was radical enough at the time. (Straight) male discomfort with their desire for non-women hinted enough, perhaps (?), at the existence of queerness.

Before this turns into a thesis, I’ve got one more comment about one of the more interesting aspects of the trilogy that I don’t think I caught last time. Even though last time I read it, I was still officially an academic, trying to get an academic job and everything. And I ought to have been thinking like this.

So the standard ways to interpret SF aliens (and robots): they represent racial and/or gendered “others” in our time and place. They also offer a contrast by which we can better understand our own selves, in our time and place.

Oankali culture is, at its heart, about integration—without assimilation—of difference. Their interrelationships, with sexuality an extreme but not exclusive example, depend on a merging of individuals. They physically connect, transmit information, share feelings, and in very non-human ways, dissolve into each other. Temporarily. And with control. But still.

By contrast, human—especially US—culture is so much more about individualism. And in the trilogy, the humans that resist assimilation are afraid precisely of this process of merging. Humans refuse to merge with each other—sexually or otherwise. Some experience this fear as homophobia—a desire not to desire a non-woman. But in general, humans in the book are terrified of losing the boundaries of themselves.

Which, to me, is a truer and more radical truth than the premise of the plot, about the “Human Contradiction” that will inevitably lead to self destruction: hierarchial genes competing with intelligence.

Or is human/American radical individualism synonymous with hierarchical behavior? Does one inevitably lead to the other?

Pretty good for soft core porn.

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One thought on “Feminist SF Throwdown: Atwood V. Butler

  1. […] my recent reread of this trilogy, I fixated on the character of Crake. Born Glenn, scion of the biotech engineering class, eating […]

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