Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood: Martians and Others

February 27, 2013

‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry, and the Ship of American State…  The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor.  Elijah the prophet — from the American artist caste — foretells the Pequod’s doom, which comes about because the chief executive, Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.”

Margaret Atwood puts these words into the mouths of Martians, coming belatedly to American literature and liking it a lot.  When they get back to Mars, they’re going to read “David Foster Wallace, not to mention Edith Wharton and Raymond Carver and tons of others.”

These book-loving aliens make me think of others just the opposite.

In Octavio Butler’s Dawn, the first of the Xenogenesis trilogy (now retitled Lilith’s Brood), the Oankali come to the planet earth after much of it has been destroyed by nuclear war.   These aliens, having genetically engineered themselves to the point where they are now completely homogeneous, need other genes to diversify.   Even though they find humans abhorrent because of their combined high intelligence and high destructive capability, they want to interbreed all the same.  Lilith Iyapo is adopted for that reason.   She’s well cared for, but when  she asks for books and writing tools, they initially refuse to provide them, even though she insists that “we humans need to do such things to help us remember.” For the Oankali, books are better not read.  They’ll alter Lilith’s mind so she’ll have no need for them.

Atwood’s Martians “look a lot like diagrams of the human female uterus, complete with fallopian tubes and ovaries.”   The Oankali, on the other hand, covered with writhing tentacles, are so repulsive that human beings have to be drugged just to tolerate their presence.

I find that a parable in itself.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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