Embracing difference: Xenogenesis, me, and my son


It has always been incredibly common for me to be surrounded by a pile of books. It is even more common now that I am working on my thesis.

The other day, my 3 1/2 year old son walked up to me while I was taking notes, stared intently at the book on top, and asked,

“Will she walk out of the book? Will the alien walk out of the book?”

The book he was looking at was Xenogenesis (also known as Lilith’s Brood), and the characters he referred to are Lilith and one of the Oankali, perhaps Jdhaya or Nikanj. Lilith looks somewhat concerned, and the Oankali has placed a hand on her shoulder.

My son proceeded to tell me that Lilith is his friend, the alien is his friend, and, “someday, I will be the alien’s kid.”

Given that the premise of the book is a future in which posthumanism or transhumanism (I would argue it is transhumanism) is nearly inevitable, I was astounded. I still am.

I vaguely recall discussing Xenogenesis with my son only once before. I believe I told him that the characters featured on the cover are friends.

Perhaps he retained that information in forming his conclusions about a possible relationship between himself and the characters, but I am still heartened by his apparent sense of a connection to a book I love so dearly.

When I was 13, Xenogenesis was simultaneously an escape from the world, and a promise of something more. Since then, it has become a research interest, and led me to a community of people who enjoy Butler’s work as much as I do. Finally, reading Xenogenesis and Butler’s other work has led me to think about difference in ways I probably would not have otherwise.

I like the idea that my son could embrace difference in such a way, imagining himself in – or after – the story. The experience also made me wonder about the images with which we surround ourselves. What do they teach us? What do they teach our children?

I don’t know. I am interested in finding out, though.

Best Bargain Book: Octavia E. Butler’s Survivor for $2

Best bargain book: Octavia E. Butler’s out-of-print Survivor for $2 at a used book store.

Obviously they didn’t know what they had. I found Survivor, along with Xenogenesis and one of my favorite novels by Tananarive Due, unceremoniously stacked with a huge lot of fantasy books.

Meanwhile, the Stephen King and Dean Koontz books were in nice, neat rows in the front. Privileging of white, male authors? Chicken or egg? I don’t know. But I was so happy to find that book, and I enjoyed Survivor, even if Butler didn’t think it one of her best.

Octavia E. Butler and Popular Science (Human Contradiction)

You might be asking, “What does Octavia E. Butler have to do with Popular Science?”

Well, a lot, really. Many of Butler’s works really were science fiction, though she was careful to delineate the difference in books such as Kindred.

She was a studious researcher, reading articles on psychology and neurology in order to write “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” and visiting the Amazon so that she could convincingly portray the setting of Xenogenesis.

In the April 2014 issue of Popular Science, the editor says that the human species “manifest[s] a quality called neoteny, the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood” and that neurologically, this means “we have an extraordinary capacity to continue learning throughout life.”

When a subject’s curiosity was piqued by a question … certain regions of the brain lit up. Those areas … correspond to the brain’s reward centers–the same ones that govern our desire for sex or chocolate or total domination in Call of Duty 4.

This is EXACTLY what Butler meant when she discussed the human contradiction in Xenogenesis. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Jdahya tells Lilith,

“You are intelligent … You are hierarchical…. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all…”

So while Ransom says that “curiosity … is not some romantic quality … [but] an adaptive response” that has “allowed us to master” the world,  we just might destroy ourselves getting there.

Also, Dutch band Delain just released an album called “The Human Contradiction,” inspired by Xenogenesis (also known as Lilith’s Brood).