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  • Power, Politics, and Domestic Desire in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood
  • Aparajita Nanda (bio)

Octavia Butler’s works, from her short stories and novellas to her science fiction novels, focus on themes of power, control, bondage, and a desired freedom from servitude. Power structures inevitably center on the master/slave or the captor/captive trope. Her handling of this issue takes on complex manifestations in her works, where enslavement and genetic evolution often form the core of the narrative. Within this framework, hostile and repressive regimes enforce a controlled society. Butler brings race, gender, and sexuality to the foreground of speculative fiction as she deals with complex social and political issues in all their ambiguity. Her handling of these issues defiantly explores taboo topics of incest, bisexuality, genetic mutations, and complicated male and female relational dynamics in the throes of oppressive power politics. In the trilogy Lilith’s Brood, Butler deconstructs the simple binary of oppressor/oppressed through an interaction between the two, apparently on mutually beneficial terms, that may lead to the survival of both.1 The story becomes far more complicated as it embraces insidious forms of force, compulsion, subtle mental conditioning, and human choice, where compulsion, attraction, and repulsion between the oppressor and the oppressed take on fascinatingly interlinked forms of desire.

Butler achieves her goal by locating her narrative in speculative fiction that combines traits of science fiction and fantasy.2 She combines the “epistemological gravity” of science fiction with the “technically reactionary” quality of fantasy to create an alternative space that can interrogate past subjugations of history and look at reactionary statements that sought to disrupt the regimentation of the rule (Jameson qtd. in Miéville 232). Despite these combinative qualities, this space belongs to speculative fiction: as opposed to other types of fiction, this particular genre is a necessity that allows one to speculate with traditional realist censors turned off. The importance of colonialism as a historical context for the genre of science fiction has been recognized by a number of critics.3 John Rieder in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction asserts that “no informed reader can doubt that allusions to colonial history and situations are ubiquitous features of early science fiction motifs and plots. It is not a matter of asking whether but of determining precisely how and to what extent the stories engage colonialism” (3). Rieder proposes that the “other” of colonialism, replete with its core ambivalence, often forms the essence of science fiction narratives. I argue that Octavia Butler picks up the theme of colonial oppression and subjugation and in her parable of postcoloniality presents us with a set of aporias built on several inevitably linked discourses of power, genetics, and evolution that confound the limitations of the traditional discourses by acknowledging the ambiguity at the heart of the colonial project. She makes a major intervention into the discourse of postcoloniality [End Page 773] by suggesting a third meaning that is neither colonialism nor “not colonialism.” Theory often tends to polarize or oversimplify, while literature, especially the novel, tends to work more on the level of contradiction and ambiguity.4 Butler was thinking seriously about a “third” form of colonialism in the 1980s, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s arms race with the Soviet Union: the colonization of nuclear weapons and the potential self-destruction of humanity.5

Butler’s Lilith’s Brood deals with this third form of colonialism that deconstructs the rigid binaries of oppressive, colonizing, and alien Oankali and victimized, colonized humans, as it recognizes ambivalences within these definitions by acknowledging Oankali as propagators of diversity and healers with an altruistic purpose, and humans as erratic and violent.6 What makes the Oankali interesting as colonizers is that they exhibit some, many, or most of the traits of colonizers without easily being branded as oppressive equivalents of Spanish or British colonizers. What Butler achieves, then, is a situation in which the colonial narrative as such is critiqued as an administratively coercive, inegalitarian situation in need of “domestic trysts” (as opposed to “domestic bliss”) even when its motives are genuine.7 Perhaps the colonial dynamic is more clearly rendered in Lilith’s Brood precisely because...