Agonist Symbiosis in Xenogenesis: Past as Prelude in Octavia Butler’s Post-Colonial Science-Fiction Utopias
Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy — the science-fiction novels Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989) — articulates a political agenda for the 21st-century humanities that is implicated in and oppositional to the idealistic discourses, mundane practices, and violent coercions of capitalism, colonialism, and utopianism by which Western Europe’s and the United States’ burdened empires once encircled the world. Imagining a space-alien species of gene-traders, the tentacled Ooankali, whose conquest of humanity alters our species’ reproductive biology, gendered identities, and familial and social relations, Butler’s narrative traces post-Singularity society’s development through multiple, hybrid generations to deconstruct the fictions of transcultural reciprocity on which Western imperialisms’ triangulated systems of global exploitation depend. Against Ooankali invaders’ asserted beneficence, Butler’s symbiosis metaphor frames various characters’ disparate readings of their experiences, illustrating that cooperation is not a value-neutral term and that true reciprocity is not pre-emptive of the Other’s judgments on shared events. Butler’s trope refuses to validate the conqueror-victim paradigm for post-colonial readings of power’s exercise in colonial contexts; instead, it projects humanity’s enmeshment in kaleidoscopic patterns whose complexity we cannot grasp with our familiar, polarizing terms. Xenogenesis offers symbiosis as a cluster of conceptual alternatives for thinking, speaking, writing, and living human transcultural relationship in a global society. The narrative gives urgency to this agenda when it predicts the inevitable outcome of the Ooankali’s acquisition and exhaustion mode of symbiosis: no life-sustaining, homeostatic Gaia here but an inhospitable rock stripped lifeless by insatiable desire. This reading of Xenogenesis argues that we who value the humanities must confront superpower aggression, multi-national corporate exploitation, and agonizing fundamentalisms — and their self-aggrandizing political, economic, and moral legitimacy — with our best impulses to open cultural dialogue and negotiate transcultural cooperation for the world’s communities’ mutual survival.
Keywords: Symbiosis, Science-fiction utopia, Octavia Butler, Post-colonialism, Cultural Dialogue, Human Ecology, Role of the Humanities
Dr. Jennifer S. Nelson
Professor, English Department, Community College of Southern Nevada