Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Science Fiction Studies: Octavia Butler on Biology and Behavior

Science Fiction Studies is a journal published three times a year by DePauw University that takes a scholarly look at science fiction, including reviews, interviews and literary analyses. They have posted a lot of interesting material online, so his is one of a series on what they have to say about biology in science fiction.

In 1996 Stephen W, Potts interviewed the late Octavia Butler. Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (now titled Lilith's Brood) features an alien species, Oankali, who attempt to colonize Earth with human-Oankali hybrids. In the interview, Potts and Butler discussed aliens and the biology of behavior.

SWP: Something similar is going on in the XENOGENESIS trilogy, isn't it? While teaching the books in my university classes, I have encountered disagreement over which species comes off worse, the humans or the Oankali. Humanity has this hierarchical flaw, particularly in the male, but the Oankali are the ultimate users, adapting not only the entire human genome for its own purposes but ultimately destroying the planet for all other life as well. Are we supposed to see a balance of vices here?

OEB: Both species have their strengths and weaknesses. You have small groups of violent humans, but we don't see all humans rampaging as a result of their Contradiction. For the most part, the Oankali do not force or rush humans into mating but try to bring them in gradually. In fact, in Adulthood Rites, the construct Akin convinces the Oankali that they cannot destroy the human beings who refuse to participate. The Oankali decide that humans do deserve an untouched world of their own, even if it's Mars.

SWP: In the case of both humans and Oankali, you offer sociobiological arguments for behavior: humans are bent toward destroying themselves and others; the Oankali are biologically driven to co-opt the genome of other species and to literally rip off their biospheres. Do you largely accept sociobiological principles?

OEB: Some readers see me as totally sociobiological, but that is not true. I do think we need to accept that our behavior is controlled to some extent by biological forces. Sometimes a small change in the brain, for instance—just a few cells—can completely alter the way a person or animal behaves.

SWP: Are you thinking of Oliver Sacks's books, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat?

OEB: Exactly. Or the fungus that causes tropical ants to climb trees to spread its spores, or the disease that makes a wildebeest spend its last days spinning in circles. But I don't accept what I would call classical sociobiology. Sometimes we can work around our programming if we understand it.

Of course the interview covers a lot of other topics, including science fiction as a white male genre, women and reproduction, and the empathic abilities of her character Laura in Parable of the Sower (which are biological, not psi powers). I recommend reading the whole thing.

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