Human identity and science fiction

I’ve been working through Octavia Butler‘s Xenogenesis trilogy (a.k.a., Lilith’s Brood) in preparation for qualifiers. Butler, who died a year ago today, was an African American novelist who was the first science fiction author to win a MacArthur Fellowship. Her early work focuses heavily on the themes of race and gender (among others). With the Xenogenesis series, began in 1987, Butler makes human identity in general the central issue. A species of alien genetic engineers attempts to save the human species in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, but their means of doing so, genetic hybridization and improvement, destabilizes the meaning humanity. Characters argue about what it is to be human and what price should be paid for survival.

It’s interesting to read Butler against ST:TNG, which also premiered in 1987. Unlike the original Star Trek, which juxtaposed a utopian post-racist, post-sexist, post-nationalist humanity in the persons of Uhura and Chekov against the Klingon other who could stand in for blacks or Commies in turn, Next Generation took a more complex view of “human” nature. Humans and aliens, despite outward appearances, are usually treated as biological and social (if not political) equals; the species barriers are more cultural than biological. (The most interesting exception is the Ferengi, whose roles can be interpreted in a number of ways ranging from blatant anti-Semitism to an attack on misogyny and materialism to, in their DS9 iterations, a critique of the Trekkian leftist utopia itself.) In general, biology is secondary; humanity can be extended for all practical purposes to Klingons, Romulans, maybe even androids.

In Butler’s universe, biology is the root of human society and culture. Dawn opens many years after the end of human civilization; according to the Oankali who have “saved” humanity, humans are inherently intelligent and hierarchical–a combination that inevitably leads to disaster. Thus the only fix for humanity is a genetic one. For the aliens, almost all aspects of culture, even technology and material culture, are biological. The aliens commit no intentional violence, but have a deadly instinctual sting reflex; 3-way alien sex is primarily chemical and neurobiological, and doesn’t even involve physical contact except to interconnect their nervous systems. For Butler’s (post-)human characters the end of civilization is a small thing compared to biological transformations. The only value in the remains of Earth civilization, mainly of interest to the bio-luddite resisters, comes from whatever practical use can be derived from salvage.

So how does the culture- and knowledge-centric Star Trek universe line up with the bio-centric Xenogenesis universe? The Borg offer the clearest point of entry. While in-universe discussions of the origin of the Borg are numerous, their literary-cinematic origins are much more obscure. It’s certainly possible, though, that the Borg were partly inspired by Butler’s Oankali. Butler’s tendencies toward biological determinism would have been anathema to Gene Roddenberry; the Borg are the only recurring Star Trek species that offer no hope of cultural assimilation into the
peaceful Federation vision of humanity, and make a fitting arch-nemesis for the good collective (i.e., all the other humanoid races).

The Prime Directive makes for another interesting comparison. This doctrine of non-interference was a frequent point of contention as the Trek franchise evolved. The sentiment behind it was there in a few original series episodes, but in the Next Generation era (perhaps still feeling the weight of the Vietnam) the Prime Directive became a central practical and philosophical motif. New life and new civilizations means taking an anthropological perspective, and occasionally there are civilizations too unstable to keep from destroying themselves… sort of a Social Darwinism of the stars. This is what tempers the cultural assimilation aspects of the Federation. It’s the distinction between the third world and indigenous peoples. Even with the third world (i.e., post-warp civilizations), it’s more about the Open Door and the Big Stick than outright imperialism. In the later seasons, the movies, and in DS9 and Voyager (I can’t say much about Star Trek: Enterprise, since I’ve never seen it) there are plenty of points where the Prime Directive is pinched and poked, but for the most part it remains in place.

For Butler’s aliens, there can be no prime directive; they would stagnate and die themselves without new genetic trading partners, and here “trade” is of the non-optional, colonial (perhaps even slave trade) kind. The ethical crux is that the paternalistic higher beings really are saving the lower peoples from themselves. I’m not quite sure how to read this, especially from a feminist and anti-racist perspective. Whether we sympathize with Lilith (the black woman protagonist who grudgingly accepts the alien-imposed breeding program) or the resisters, neither offers much in the way of hope going forward… just different moral judgments on history.

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