Monday, March 7, 2011

Coping with Disaster

One thing that fascinated me about Octavia Butler's stories were their in-depth and frank discussion of human reactions to our baser fears. Whether the feared disaster are the diseases in "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" and "Speech Sounds," or the forced but necessary condition in "Bloodchild," the result is that the characters must cope with some disruptive change with what we as the readers see as a normal life. The interesting thing is that the revulsion we feel for the described situations is not solely biological, but rather socially constructed. All three stories deal not with a true apocalypse, but rather with a situation arising from a loss of control. We as social and sapient beings fear both biological and social disasters yet it is interesting in that the latter both affects and is created by a purely arbitrary construct. To summarize, there is no "instinct" for crafting a society.

The titular story in the collection deals with two fundamental human fears: that of parasitic (non-human) life growing within us (a purely primal fear) and that of loss of control to a non-human or human-defined entity. The latter is a far more interesting case to discuss, as it deals not with a biological impulse but rather with a social one. Over the past few thousand years, humans have adapted to be the rulers of the planet with no serious rival. However, in "Bloodchild" that principle is turned on its head as humans appear to be little more than 'pets with rights' for the Tlic. While the Tlic may seem worried for their humans at times (see page 18), it still remains that humans live on a "preserve" and that there is only a limited timespan in which grubs can be safely removed from their host before the latter is fatally injured/eaten (as almost happened to Lomas).

A Worst-Case Scenario, and One That We Fundamentally Fear

Fortunately for us, Butler does not restrict herself in her portrayal of humans' reactions to this situation. Gan's family shows the full range of emotions related to the biologically parasitic arrangement: the mother's passive-agressive fear, Qui's agressive disgust, Xuan Hoa's adoration, and Gan's hesitation yet decision to "sacrifice" himself to save his sister. As would be expected, he majority fear this situation in which they lack dominant power. However, I think it was an excellent creative choice on the author's part to show the whole spectrum of reactions rather than simply the two extremes. Humans must often deal in a "grey area" and I think "Bloodchild" does a good job of addressing our fears of change and lack of control.

While I don't have enough space here to give "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" and "Speech Sounds" a proper analysis in this manner, I do hope to touch upon their focal points. The former somewhat parallels "Bloodchild" in that it deals with humans losing control to some degree. Once more, the fear addressed is not solely biological as we also fear both a lack of self-control as well as ostracism from society. However, this disease does not affect everyone so the majority continue with their lives. In "Speech Sounds," society collapses after an epidemic (mostly) wipes out speech and apparently heightens agression. Once more, the fear is social in that we would either suddenly lack the means for effective communication, lose control of our baser impulses, or be ostracized because we were in the minority who were affected in a different manner. Nevertheless, some manage to persevere and the very fact that a bus still runs is testament to that.

Even Without Easy Communication, Transportation is Still Valued

In summary (and I apologize for a long post), Butler addresses our baser fears that aren't necessarily rooted in evolution or instinct. Nonetheless, we seem to fear these situations equally as we have developed beyond our own baser impulses and have moved into the realm of human-constructed reactions, desires, and fears.


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