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Power and Agency in the Works of Octavia Butler

Introduction

Literature is a great device to explore a variety of themes, ideas, and theories, as it allows people to exercise the creative freedom of expression. Writing is a medium that allows individuals to channel their ideals, beliefs into words, inspire others, and relay messages they consider to be important. Creative fiction, in particular, can often be utilized as a vehicle to explore phenomena that directly apply to the real world. Using non-realistic scenarios gives the writer more flexibility and an opportunity to think outside the realm of direct possibility. In science fiction, in particular, authors often try to discuss topics connected with anxieties of the future, issues arising from technological and societal development, as well as problems that plague the society of today.

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For the purposes of this paper, works of an American author Octavia Butler. Butler is a prolific science fiction writer, having created a number of award-winning works during her lifetime. Many of them explore topics that are deeply connected with the human condition, focusing on both the personal and the societal. The themes discussed often concerned the issues Olivia felt strongly about, feelings of alienation, otherness, gender relations, and the influence of power, among others. The works that will serve as the focus of this discussion, Bloodchild, and Amnesty, in large are concerned with the topic of power. In both cases, humanity has to find ways of coexisting with a different species, find a compromise or face the consequences. Despite a drastic change in setting from the natural world, both stories are deeply personal, choosing to critique society from a singular individual’s perspective. Butler makes the reader empathize with her characters, finding humanity even in the unfamiliar, and gives them an opportunity to think about their own perspective on the world. It can be said that both works examine the concept of power, both in terms of humans as a species and people of different genders. The need to exercise power and authority in both cases is criticized as an excessive and often harmful habit of humanity. This portrayal of power will be contextualized and compared to Marx’s theories of power relations.

Bloodchild

In Bloodchild, humans have settled on an alien planet inhabited by sentient, insect-like people, called Tlic. The two communities form a strained but mutually beneficial relationship, where humans are aid the Tlic in hatching their children in exchange for protection and an ability to live on the planet. Both species are unable to live without each other’s contribution, as the Tlic cannot reproduce without laying eggs inside humans, and the “Terrans” in turn, are unable to live without relying on the insect people. This initial concept allows us to understand the life of the main character, Gan, as he struggles to accept his position in the world he was born in. Chosen from before his birth to be the one to bear the children of T’Gatoi, the leader of Tlic, the young man is torn between feelings of admiration, attraction, repulsion, and fear. T’Gatoi appears as a subversion of a typically female role, acting as a stern and strong protector, the one that talks through orders, not dialogue (Women through History: Subjugation, Emancipation, and Social Movements). The life Gan has been given does not present him with much agency, as his role as an egg carrier is placed upon him without his consent. His assigned mate, T’Gatoi, while generous and protective, is also forceful and often uncompromising, being the source of power in the relationship and ordering Gan around.

The lack of bodily autonomy from the latter and an inability to show weakness from the former creates a power imbalance, that negatively affects their relationship. While the two have been able to resolve their issues and successfully become more partner-like in their interactions, it can be said that the relationship between the Tlic and the Terrans is inherently unequal and harmful to humans. This can be read in relation to Karl Marx’s theories of power, and its spread in society. The man has thought that power, as a tool, is always in possession of a particular dominant group, that uses it to control and derive benefit from others (Marxian Theory of Power (Karl Marx), 2020). In relation to this particular story, it is difficult to precisely pinpoint which of the two groups is the one in control, because their roles are deeply dependent on each other. However, I think that the physical inability of humans to escape or change their situation, their lack of agency, and limited physical power in the face of another species leaves them unable to fully take control of the situation. The Tlic, on the other hand, while finding humans as an ideal breeding device, has also managed to live before their arrival, meaning that their dependence on the human population is mostly self-imposed for the sake of convenience. They use their societal position to deny people the ability to fully be in control of their lives and use them for their benefit.

Amnesty

Amnesty is the second work that is going to be discussed for the purposes of this work. It tells a story of humans’ relationship with the so-called “communities”, a species of aliens that appeared on the planet. The story is told from the perspective of Noah, a human abductee that works as a translator for the aliens. During the course of the book, she is interviewing potential candidates for a job with the communities, and also retelling her own experiences to them. When she was taken away, Noah and others like her were subjected to experimentation and torture, as the aliens tried to make sense of their new company and find ways of properly interacting with them. While many abducted people have suffered horrible abuses, they were not intentional, as the aliens were not able to understand the human capacity for pain, their emotion, language, or physiology. Noah understands that and works as one of the 30 translators in the US that try to strive for peaceful coexistence between the aliens and the humans.

On the other hand, other people in the story, the government, and the law enforcement see aliens only as a threat to be eliminated, mixing fear hatred, and disgust. The human people feel the need to suppress, to exterminate, and destroy anything they see as “the other”, something that potentially occupies their slot in the center of the universe. This desire can be further connected to the concept of power, as the human race seeks to establish its dominance through purely intentional violence and aggression. The story highlights a stark contrast between the aliens that harm through ignorance and curiosity, and humans, that harm for an explicit purpose. The population of earth is denied its full control of the planet, put in second place by those arriving from outer space, and this pushes many of them to seek destruction in retaliation. Humankind tries to take back control and exploit others, as something that feels most natural to them.

Works Cited

“Marxian Theory of Power (Karl Marx).” TriumphIAS. 2020. Web.

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“Women through History: Subjugation, Emancipation and Social Movements.” Qrius. 2016. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, November 17). Power and Agency in the Works of Octavia Butler. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/power-and-agency-in-the-works-of-octavia-butler/

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Power and Agency in the Works of Octavia Butler." November 17, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/power-and-agency-in-the-works-of-octavia-butler/.

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