Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis and colonized thinking

Content warning: discussion of colonial violence, white supremacy

I am having a blast reading Imago by Octavia Butler (the third and final installment of the Xenogenesis/Lilith's Brood series) right now. Although I didn't get around to reading Imago until now, I read the first two Xenogenesis books years ago. It's been a really illuminating exploration of my own anticolonial politics to reread them.

Here's what I mean.

The books center on an alien race, the Oankali, who swoop in after global nuclear war and save humanity from certain extinction. But survival comes at a price (dun-dun-DUN!). I'll try not to spoil anything, but through the actions they take as part of what they call "the Trade" with humans (and, historically, other species), the Oankali basically corral and control humanity in some pretty powerful ways.

But the Oankali aren't malicious per se. They want what they think is best for humanity, and they do everything in their power to see that humans work to get there on their own. Sort of.

The Oankali are also hella badass as a high-concept sci fi alien race. They can directly perceive genetic material, the way humans can detect chemical properties through taste and smell. Certain among them can even manipulate genes using specialized biological organs. Their technology is bewilderingly advanced, a pinnacle of the art and science of closed biological systems. They don't build their tools and systems so much as grow them. They are ecologists by their very nature. They treasure diversity. They literally do not forget. And they never lie.

So it will come as no surprise that I fell in love with this fictional race, and came to see them as a higher evolution of "humanity" in the abstract sense: in an of optimistic, Star Trek kind of way, they are what could happen if we humans manage to shed all our petty bullshit and achieve our full potential as a species.

And hoooo boy was that some colonized thinking on my part! Let me explain. (Again, hopefully keeping it vague enough to avoid major spoilers.)

Basically, the Oankali are super colonial. They don't give humans a choice. Not a real one, anyway. Lilith, the main character of the first book, recognizes this. As she comes to understand the power they hold over her and the rest of humanity, she is forced to make greater and greater concessions. Although the Oankali select her as a sort of ambassador, they never really take her criticisms of their conquest seriously. They never lie directly, but they routinely withhold information, making true consent impossible. Although they "Trade," they don't collaborate. While they give individuals fairly broad autonomy, their self-appointed stewardship of humanity rules out all possibility of honoring our ties to the land, or to each other, or to our sense of self. Their intelligence and far-future thinking make them oblivious to their own intense paternalism.

All of this is an obvious nod to the false choice that capitalism presents: sell your labor or die. (Or just don't participate in society!) It's also a poignant critique of the long history of violent colonization that got us here: the genocidal euphemism of Manifest Destiny, the brutal mythology of "happy slaves," the Tuskegee syphilus experiments, forced sterlizations, and the quiet, clinical violence against people like Henrietta Lacks and their families, among many, many other atrocities. In every case, the white supremacist delusion that we (white colonizers) were doing colonized people a favor and had their best interests at heart—if only they knew—was at the center of our worldview.

And as I ate up the radically evolved, even solarpunk elements of the Oankali way of life, my ignorant colonized brain went along with the characters doing the colonizing.

Mind you, at the time I thought I was woke afTM. Trump had just gotten elected, and I counted myself among The Resistance. I knew about Manifest Destiny, chattel slavery, the dangerous mythology of American exceptionalism. I knew about our, erm, rich history of conquest in South America. I had voted for Obama, twice!

To be generous to myself, I knew enough to be suspicious of the parts of me that readily forgave the Oankali. But if you'd asked me at the time, my take would have boiled down to "sure, the way they go about it is fucked up, but they're still improving humanity overall. Just look at all the cool stuff we can do with the Oankali's help now!"

What I failed to recognize was the deeply inhumane way human self-determination is dismissed as unevolved, even self-destructive. The Oankali identify a dichotomy of traits they call the Human Contradiction, which they know for a fact will doom humanity unless they, the saviors, alter our course. To allow humans control over their destiny wouldn't just be futile, it would be downright cruelty.

Just like them, my enchantment with their achievements and abilities made for some very rosy lenses.

Which is, of course, the whole point. Octavia knew, perhaps better than I will ever know, about paternalism, white saviorism, and the very human tendency to convince oneself that one is Doing the Right Thing.

Although I must admit to a little embarrassment, I don't feel guilt or shame thinking about my initial reaction. The Oankali are nothing if not foils of our own humanity and inhumanity. If they are villains, they are sympathetic ones. It is impossible, the more you learn about them, not to admire their wisdom, their meticulousness, their patience. Did I mention they never forget?

But we must not forget, either. No matter how advanced we see ourselves becoming, we cannot lose sight of what makes us human: our connections with each other, our flaws and contradictions, and our ability to shape our own destinies.