By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
The series Xenogenesis explores the psychology of survivorship. Would humans survive an apocalypse? What would we be willing to do to survive? Octavia Butler raises these questions through a devastated Earth in which only a small number of humans have been saved—not by their own ingenuity, but by aliens.
In the Xenogenesis trilogy, xenophobia isn’t just a euphemism for racism. It’s an uncontrollable fear in open-minded humans as they try to adapt to the aliens who have saved their species.
Lilith, a grief-stricken 26-year-old black woman who has lost her husband and child in the wars that have devastated Earth, meets Jdahya. He is an Oankali, which means gene-trader since these aliens trade genes with each new species they encounter.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Jdahya: The Oankali
Jdahya has been bred to be as similar to humans as possible, he has a humanoid body, and sensory organs on his face in the general arrangement of eyes, nose, and mouth. He also has something that looks like hair.
But as Lilith gets a little closer—not too close—she realizes that the hair and the facial features are actually tentacles, some large, some small. Each of them automatically follows her movements, since each tentacle is a very sensitive sensory organ that acts simultaneously as eyes, ears, nose, and some other sense that humans don’t even have.
The Human Contradiction
Despite their vast experience in alien encounter, the Oankali experience xenophobia too, especially because of the human contradiction. To the Oankali, the humans have great potential—they are intelligent and creative and some of them can replicate cells at an astonishing speed in a mutation the humans call cancer.
At the same time, the humans seem completely unable to control their beautiful cancers. The humans had trouble controlling lots of things, which is evident in what the Oankali call the human contradiction since it isn’t something they’ve ever seen in other species.
Intelligence and Competition
The humans have two incompatible traits, intelligence and competition. The only outcome that can follow from such a contradiction is species death. The humans balk at this idea. They realize that they owe the Oankali their lives, but some argue that they have learned the lessons of the Earth’s destruction; they do have intelligence, after all.
But any Oankali burrowing its tentacles into any human sees that the contradiction is right there at the genetic level. It’s dangerous, compelling and entirely incontestable, which is why it would be unethical for the Oankali to allow humans to reproduce without Oankali intervention since their descendants would only move toward total species annihilation once again.
They proclaim that the only way for humans to find a better, more equitable life—and to avoid self-destruction—is to fundamentally change at the genetic level.
Learn more about the “fear of the Other” in dystopian storytelling.
Alien Sex and Hybrid Families
The gene-trade with the Oankali, which includes alien sex and hybrid families, is full of complex power dynamics. There are three genders, male, female, and ooloi. The ooloi has special sensory arms that provide it with the ability to do deep gene manipulation.
The humans soon come to see the ooloi as the ones with power. A constructed family has five adult members, a male and female Oankali, a male and female human, and one ooloi. These will have many children, each representing a new adaptation, a new genetic manipulation.
Gender in an Oankali Family
In an Oankali family, the two mothers generally have babies at the same time, and the babies are born without gender. Gender isn’t determined until after transition, which is kind of an extreme form of puberty, but most kids develop a sense of gender identity by the time they’re four or five.
The two babies are closely linked and they’re called pair siblings, and their gender is therefore linked. They will either both become ooloi, and go off to two different families, or they will become a male and a female and will grow to become mates.
Butler creates aliens who not only break the taboo we have against inter-species sex, but also the taboo we have against incest.
Attraction and Repulsion
Lilith, the most fair-minded and emotionally balanced of the humans according to the Oankali, is repelled by the alien. As she gets to know the Oankali, taking the reader along with her, Lilith’s initial visceral disgust turns into something more complicated, a dual feeling of attraction and repulsion.
The ooloi are master genetic manipulators. They can easily identify and correct any diseases in humans, lengthening the human lifespan and dramatically improving health.
They also provide powerful erotic experiences, since as soon as the ooloi has burrowed one of its sensory arms made up of multiple tentacles into human skin, humans experience the neurochemicals of sexual arousal and release. All under the ooloi’s control.
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The sensation is far beyond anything Lilith has ever experienced. Far beyond anything any of the humans have experienced. It is a pure neurological pleasure spiced with a hint of revulsion. The humans love it and hate it in equal measure.
The sexual subjugation however, goes beyond the inter-species sexual acts. The Oankali have also taken control over human procreation since the ooloi have rendered all humans sterile without ooloi intervention.
Can’t the humans fight, one might wonder? Within the world of Xenogenesis, a human rebel with unparalleled mental control is not the answer. If a human tries to attack an Oankali, and some humans do, the Oankali can easily subdue the human with a single chemical injection.
An ooloi can carefully deliver an injection that only renders the human unconscious, but the male and female Oankali, who don’t have that kind of control, involuntarily deliver fatal injections if attacked without warning.
A Totalitarian Dystopia
The humans conceive of their new situation in many terms—slavery, imprisonment, prostitution. It appears to be an impossible situation, which we often see in totalitarian dystopias, and we know how those go.
Most people accept the social structures, no matter how restrictive. And a few people that we come to care about rebel against the totalitarian machine, only to be thwarted in the attempt. The reader feels suitably chastened, suitably warned by the cautionary tale.
Common Questions about Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis and the Human Contradiction
In the Xenogenesis trilogy, Jdahya is an Oankali. He is a gene-trader as these aliens trade genes with each new species they encounter.
In the Xenogenesis trilogy, Octavia Butler creates aliens who not only break the taboo we have against inter-species sex, but also the taboo we have against incest.
In the Xenogenesis trilogy, the humans face sexual subjugation at the hands of the Oankali. The ooloi render all humans sterile and, without their intervention, the humans cannot reproduce.