` One out of every four sentient species is a victim of domestic violence — imaginary family values

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I have seen various discussions online about colonialism, and of course, these make me think about colonialism in SF—especially the kind where our planet becomes someone else’s colony.

Stereotypically, in these kinds of stories, the aliens are either Bad Guys or Good Guys. If they are Bad Guys, they dominate the planet by sheer brute force, disintegrating anything that stands in their way until (in American SF) our plucky heroes find the aliens’ weakness and create a glorious victory for humanity, or (in British SF) everyone dies. If the aliens are Good Guys, then they are protecting us from the baser elements of our nature until we can rise to full membership in the galactic community. The problem with the stereotypical Bad Guy scenario is that historically, colonial regimes among humans never1 act purely with brute force; an effective colonial administration knows how to co-opt at least some of the natives. The problem with the stereotypical Good Guy scenario is that it uncomfortably resembles a justification for real colonialism: the aliens in these stories are, so to speak, taking up the little green man’s burden.

Thinking of Good Guy aliens made me think of Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy (formerly titled Xenogenesis); I had read these books when they first came out around twenty years ago, and recalled them as a well-written and original take on the whole alien-invasion theme. The aliens in this series are the Oankali, who arrive on Earth shortly after nuclear war has wiped out most of the human population. Their schtick is to exchange genetic material with other species, so that the descendants of each contact with a new world acquire new traits. To this end, they scoop up as many nuclear-war survivors as they can and prepare them to become parents of human-Oankali hybrids. The main character of the series, Lilith Iyapo, is charged with training other humans to survive in Earth’s recreated wilderness and mediating between them and the Oankali. Over and over through the series, the Oankali remark on a “contradiction” built into the human condition: that we are both intelligent and hierarchical, and that without an injection of some Oankali genetics, this combination will doom us to self-destruction. So: Good Guy aliens. More or less.

I reread Dawn looking for stuff about colonialism, but what struck me about the book, instead, was the gender politics.

  • Victims of domestic violence are frequently confined and stalked, unable to move freely, right? Lilith spends the first book on a spaceship and in the opening chapters, she can’t even open a door.
  • Most of the humans that Lilith trains hate her for being a collaborator with the enemy. She refers to herself as a “Judas goat”, but I was reminded of a not-uncommon pattern in abusive families: Dad beats both Mom and the kids, but the kids resent Mom for not standing up to Dad.
  • Control of sexuality and reproduction is one hallmark of domination in male-female relationships, and indeed, the Oankali decide whether or not Lilith is fertile, without even asking her opinion.

And consider these quotes (page numbers are from the trade paperback edition of LB):

“We… do need you.” Nikanj spoke so softly that Joseph leaned forward to hear. “A partner must be biologically interesting, attractive to us, and you are fascinating. You are horror and beauty in rare combination. In a very real way, you’ve captured us, and we can’t escape….” (p. 153)

Isn’t that one of the classic excuses for sexual assault? “She was so attractive, I couldn’t keep my hands off her.” And savor the irony of humans trapped on a spaceship being told “you’ve captured us”.

…It reached out and caught his hand in a coil of sensory arm. “I won’t hurt you. And I offer a oneness that your people strive for, dream of, but can’t truly attain alone.”

He pulled his arm free. “You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!”

“You have, yes.” It opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment away from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed without seeming to force him down. “You see. Your body has made a different choice.”

“Let go of me.”

It smoothed its tentacles again. “Be grateful, Joe. I’m not going to let go of you.” (pp. 189–190)

Ten pages earlier, Lilith had intervened violently to prevent one human from raping another. In this scene, though, an Oankali commits what in a human-on-human context would be clearly recognizable as date rape, using the rationale he said no, but he didn’t really mean it—again, a classic—and Lilith just watches approvingly.

In spite of all this, the Oankali do come off as generally sympathetic characters. Perhaps they give me this impression because the human characters, throughout the series, are frequently brutal to one another—more often for the sake of conventional crimes (banditry, kidnapping, etc.) than over anything directly involving the Oankali. Like I said, the Oankali are Good Guy aliens. More or less.

PS: Butler also wrote a novellette, “Bloodchild”, that examines human-alien family dynamics from a different angle. I recommend the Lilith’s Brood novels, but I think “Bloodchild” is one of the finest SF stories ever written.

1 Well… hardly ever.

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