First Impressions: Who Fears Death

These are my first impressions after reading Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor; 2010) in March 2016. Many spoilers.

220px-WhoFearsDeathbookOnyesonwu is the mixed-race daughter of a rape with hair and skin the color of sand, despised by both her mother’s and father’s people, who discovers that she possesses great magical powers: shapeshifting, resurrection of the dead, and the ability to transport herself into an alternate reality.

This story is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, so far in the future that the people have forgotten their history and only know what is written in the Great Book, a religious text all children have to study. Only a few vestiges of modern civilization remain–some computers and handheld electronic devices, as well as water capture stations that enable people to live in the desert. (At one point, Onyesonwu and her companions take shelter from a storm in a cave where they discover a mound of dead computers and other electronics, which frightens them for unspecified reasons, hinting at an ingrained fear of the trappings of our modern civilization.)

Onyesonwu’s mother’s people, black Africans called the Okeke, have been murdered, subjugated, and enslaved by Arabic Africans called the Nuru, with the blessing of the Great Book. White people seem completely unknown to either race–perhaps mostly killed off in whatever apocalypse happened?–and Onyesonwu only meets one white character, a sorcerer-mentor whose skin color completely mystifies her. Another race of nomadic red people live in the desert in the center of a gigantic sandstorm; they practice magic routinely and seem to have no modern counterparts.

Onyesonwu’s mother was brutally raped and impregnated by a Nuru soldier. Onyesonwu discovers later that her biological father is a sorcerer who will lead a genocide of the Okeke. She undergoes female genital circumcision at the age of 11, believing that this will make her family more accepted in her village. This causes her to involuntarily transport into an alternate plane, where she attracts her father’s attention. Onyesonwu undergoes training in the magic arts so that she can protect herself from him, and eventually learns that she is prophesied to defeat the genocide.

Sidenote from Wikipedia: The novel was inspired in part by Emily Wax’s 2004 Washington Post article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” which discussed the use of weaponized rape by Arab militiamen against Black African women in the Darfur conflict. According to Wax: “The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines.” Okorafor wrote that this article “created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped through my world.”

Onyesonwu is an angry young woman. She is angry at the enslavement of the Okeke based solely on their race, and angry at the Okeke for subjugating themselves to slavery. She is angry at the treatment she and her lover Mwita receive because they are mixed-race outcasts, or Ewu. She is angry at the treatment of women by everyone–rape, prostitution, enforced celibacy of unmarried women via the FGC rite, the refusal of the village sorcerer Aro to take her on as a student at first just because she is female.

Onyesonwu’s story is a subversion of the Christ story. She is prophesied to free her people from enslavement, and she knows that she will have to sacrifice herself as a result. She embarks on her own hero’s journey to confront her father, taking her lover and best friends with her as traveling companions. She enacts several miracles along the way, but these are miracles of vengeance and wrath, not healing and teaching. She blinds an entire village. In another village, she makes all the men disappear and impregnates all the women. She is stoned to death as she has foreseen, but once her body is dug up and reburied, she is able to avoid her execution and escapes from the desert land to a distant paradise.

Because of her anger, Onyesonwu is not an easy savior to admire or like. Not only does she lose her temper frequently and unleash her great powers on everyone around her, but she also is impatient and snappish with her friends and often elects to run away instead of confront conflict. While she comes to regret some of her decisions, such as undergoing the circumcision rite, she doesn’t show remorse for many of her deeds. Her anger is part of her, and justified. Probably she would be unable to accomplish what she does without it.

But Onyesonwu’s anger–women’s anger–often makes us uncomfortable, and we are unused to seeing it as the focus of literature. That, and many other things, can make this a difficult book to read. Onyesonwu turns her critical eye on everyone around her. No one is an innocent in this world–except perhaps the mysterious red tribe, where Onyesonwu experiences a period of learning, growth, and relative tranquility. This book is steeped in magic, unfamiliar cultural references, and an ambiguous history. Sometimes we have to read between the lines; other times, we have to let events flow without questioning the logic too closely. Opening ourselves up to this story may be difficult, but the experience is powerful and rewarding.

First Impressions: Lilith’s Brood

These are my first impressions after reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler (published as an omnibus edition in 1989 and reissued in 2000) in April 2007. Some spoilers.

51Wx5H9EKBL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis novels were first compiled into one volume in 1989, but that compilation is now out of print. Grand Central Publishing has reissued the compilation in an attractive trade paperback to capture new readers. And I’m glad they did, because I probably wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.

When I finished Lilith’s Brood, I actually wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, but I thought about it a great deal, which I think is a sign of a book worth reading. The underlying theme disturbed me, partly because I didn’t find much hope in it, partly because I found myself agreeing with the series’ assessment: that humankind is fated by our own biology to destroy ourselves.

Lilith’s Brood includes three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, which comprise the Xenogenesis series. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war. The few human survivors have been picked up by an alien spacecraft and kept in stasis while the aliens, the Oankali, study them. Lilith is one of the first to be awakened and to be integrated into an Oankali family. She is being trained to awaken others, to introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and to reveal the Oankali’s plan: to produce Oankali-human offspring, a brand-new hybrid species.

The Oankali are genetic engineers and reproduce by genetic manipulation. They have no disease or old age, and they can communicate with one another at the cellular level. They survive by traveling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means that humans can no longer reproduce with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Also, when the Oankali leave, they will consume the remainder of Earth’s resources for the journey.

Of course, there is rebellion. Many humans choose to live long, childless lives rather than join with the Oankali. Lilith does not, because having been integrated with an Oankali family, she has become physically dependent on them. The next two books follow the lives of two of her children, as the Oankali-human interbreeding progresses. I don’t think I would have been compelled to keep reading the second novel if it were a separate sequel; each book on its own seems somewhat incomplete.

Throughout all three novels, the humans — living in primitive conditions on Earth — are portrayed as without hope, a species that, if allowed to reproduce, would attempt to destroy itself again within a few generations. Humans are hierarchical and competitive, unlike Oankali. As individuals, they can be intelligent and compassionate. But as a group, they are violent, destructive and territorial. Even when the aliens allow some humans to start a new colony on Mars and have children, the Oankali hold out no hope for their future.

That’s what makes this series so disturbing. The only hope posited is essentially that a greater power from the outside will find us, cure all our diseases, and create with us a better people than we can ever hope to be. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another. I look at the news every day and feel that this is true. But I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of evolving past whatever impulse causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, not look to some alien or god to save us.

But if I’m looking for that kind of resolution, I won’t find it in Lilith’s Brood. Still, I’m glad I read it. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with Butler’s conclusions, her writing made me think about and question some of my own assumptions.

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This essay also discusses Into the Forest (Jean Hegland; 1996); A Gift Upon the Shore (M.K. Wren; 1990); and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985), among various other stalwarts of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. There will be spoilers for these books.

Pop quiz, hotshot. It’s the apocalypse: What do you do? What. Do. You. Do?

If hundred (thousands?) of post-apocalyptic books and movies are to believed, you break out your cache of automatic weapons, gun down every guy you see, capture a woman and lock her in a cage for later, then chow down on some roasted baby.

There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on there. The apocalypse novel is one part fear, one part fantasy. All the rules are suddenly gone; you can do whatever you want! It’s a dim view of humanity that assumes that all people want to do is murder, rape, and eat human flesh. As if all that’s keeping us from murdering each other are electricity and laws.

This is a fantasy, though, because this is not what people do. Yes, people have done all those things; there are plenty of examples to point to. But as a general rule, people prefer to live together cooperatively. Thousands of years of human history backs me up on this. The whole of human history has been a progression away from wanton violence and brutality. In a disaster, our best natures tend to come out, more so than our worst. We help our neighbors; we don’t blow them away.

20170404Station Eleven presents a more realistic apocalypse than these earlier views. Of course there is violence, but violence is not the raison d’etre for the book. The terrible first years are elided entirely; we prefer not to talk about that. Instead, the post-apocalyptic sections focus on men and women coming together to survive, build community, and preserve what they feel is worthwhile. Sometimes they have to kill, but only when they have to. The only character in Station Eleven who hearkens back to the cliche of the every-man-for-himself apocalypse is the Prophet, and he’s clearly a deviant.

It’s hard to say whether this focus on community building and preservation is a feminine characteristic. Most of the violent, no-holds-barred apocalypses have been written by men and are inhabited mainly by male characters. (For some good examples, see Lucifer’s Hammer; The Postman; Swan Song; The Road). Contrast these with a few examples by women: A Gift Upon the Shore and Into the Forest. Each of these post-apocalyptic stories focuses on a pair of women and is more concerned with rebuilding–albeit on different terms–than tearing down.

Always_pbThere’s a catch, though: no boys allowed! When men enter these books, what do they do first? Rape, murder, subjugate their wives. This is also a kind of fantasy, a feminist fantasy. It can be hard to imagine a utopia as long as there are men around. An apocalyptic event is pretty much required if we want to create a truly egalitarian society. Always Coming Home  describes such a society, rebuilt on the ashes of our world, where men don’t know they are supposed to dominate women. Indeed, the people of Always Coming Home could be the far-future descendants of Into the Forest’s Eva and Nell.

I don’t want to live in a world where I’m likely to be raped, decapitated, and eaten while I’m out gathering my breakfast blueberries. But I don’t want to live in a world without any guys in it either, for all the obvious reasons. I like to think we are all in this together.

Station Eleven is different because it imagines what ordinary people might really do if most of the world’s population was suddenly wiped out. People are more likely to cooperate than to brutalize one another. People are more likely to live together than wander the wilderness alone. It’s a lot easier for a group of people to feed and shelter themselves. We know this already. A sudden disaster, no matter how calamitous, would not fundamentally change that. It would be literally insane to wantonly kill and rape the random people you meet who could quite possibly become your doctor, your engineer, your master gardener.

And that’s another way Station Eleven stands out: It rejects the notion that an apocalyptic event automatically leads to regression and barbarism. This is a trope so old it’s got whiskers, but yet writers keep writing it. After the apocalypse, not only will we all turn inexplicably violent, but we’ll also give up on everything we’ve created: all our scientific knowledge, our technology, our art, our progress.

51-fhlPUz4LEarth Abides by George R. Stewart is not as barbaric as most other apocalypses, but it’s just as pessimistic. It doesn’t take long–only a generation–for people to forget how to grow food, live in houses, read! And they like it better that way. In A Gift Upon the Shore, Mary and Rachel make it their mission to preserve books–and thus all the human knowledge–for later generations. They wrap up the books and lock them away, but they don’t use them. Into the Forest goes one step farther: burn the books. The two sisters turn their backs on technology and civilization, and return to nature. Always Coming Home is the utopian outcome of where Into the Forest begins, a far-future nature-based society that has almost completely rejected technology, with barely a memory of what came before.

Again, this makes no sense. In a survival situation, why would we give up any advantages we had? We wouldn’t bury or burn our books; we’d read them. We wouldn’t throw away our technology; we’d try to use it any way we could. Station Eleven is a more hopeful book than either Into the Forest or A Gift Upon the Shore. The survivors build their villages in truck stops and airports, which makes sense in terms of access to resources. They struggle against a return to barbarity, which comes closer to the truth of human experience, a long struggle to lift ourselves up. They preserve music and theater; they make a museum of the remnants of the technological age.

While other apocalypses revel in the dark underbelly of human nature, they forget our universal characteristics. People have always felt driven to discover what we don’t know and to create art. We yearn for a connection to our past, our ancestors, and to preserve our memories. No matter what our species has gone through, we’ve never stopped doing these things. Station Eleven not only shows post-apocalyptic survivors doing these things, but it declares that these are the only things worth doing. Survival is insufficient, after all.

Station Eleven comic, drawn by Nathan Burton. (Source: Flavorwire)
Station Eleven comic, drawn by Nathan Burton. (Source: Flavorwire)

In Station Eleven, Shakespeare lives on. A traveling orchestra risks their lives to play music for others. And the loss of a comic book is a profound tragedy. Station Eleven takes place in the past as much as in the future because we live in both. If there were an apocalypse, and there were survivors, the link to the past would not break. While most post-apocalyptic books are about losing our humanity, Station Eleven is about reinforcing what makes us human.

We traveled so far and your friendship meant everything. It was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid. — Station Eleven

For further reading (leaving the blog): My first impressions of Station ElevenIt’s the end of the world as she knows it (NewYork Times Book Review)

Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

This essay briefly discusses The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); The Children of Men (P.D. James; 1992); Oryx and Crake (Atwood; 2003) and The Year of the Flood (Atwood; 2009); The Gate to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988); Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm; 1976); Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). There are no spoilers beyond very brief summaries.

I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?

We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99-percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.

Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian, and violent.

Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not contain an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.

From the movie version of The Children of Men.
From the movie version of The Children of Men; forced fertility testing is very dystopian.

Compare that with The Children of Men (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense. This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.

atwood1
Apocalypse + dystopia taste great together.

Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.

While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. The Gate to Women’s Country is a dystopia masquerading as utopia, a common trope. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.

Looks idyllic, doesn't it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.
Looks nice, doesn’t it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.

If it’s a true post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.