The novels of Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), often referred to as the “Grand Dame of Science Fiction”, exemplify Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s famous claim that “SF has ceased to be a genre of fiction per se, becoming instead a mode of awareness about the world”.[1] Butler’s rather grim view of humanity as flawed by a drive for hierarchies, her concern with the human body as a site of conflict, and her “insistence on hybridity beyond the point of discomfort”[2] inspired her revolutionary utopian/dystopian approach to race and gender as a feminist African-American author. Indeed, despite her insistence that her fiction avoids “all critical theory”,[3] a wide number of commentators have brought to the fore the critical relevance of Butler’s engagement with issues such as race and colonialism, power and agency, consent and oppression, as well as her representation of gender difference, queerness and queer desire. More recently, critics have started to pay attention to Butler’s more general concern with the definition of the human. Acknowledging Butler as one of her “theorists for cyborgs”,[4] Donna Haraway argues that “Butler has been consumed with an interrogation into the boundaries of what counts as human and into the limits of the concept”.[5] Indeed, most of Butler’s works explore the limits between self/other, subject/object, and nature/culture, emphasizing hybridity and its implications. A systematic reading of her novels and shorter fiction reveals that at the core lies an underlying and sustained preoccupation with what it is to be human, opening up the scope for a compelling (posthumanist) critique of the humanist subject, as this short essay attempts to prove.

A reading of Butler’s fiction from the perspective of critical posthumanism reveals a number of underlying currents. One of these is the exploration of otherness and difference, which goes hand in hand with a reconsideration of the prevailing dualisms of western thought. Butler’s work is populated by posthuman bodies and beings – symbionts, vampires, extraterrestials, genetic constructs, mutants and other figures of hybridity – that question (post)human embodiment and subjectivity, bringing to the fore the instability of what Elaine Graham calls the supposed “ontological hygiene” of humanity,[6] and drawing attention to the fuzziness of the limits between the human/nonhuman.

Such preoccupation with otherness and difference often takes the shape of an exploration of posthuman relations. Most of Butler’s plots circle around symbiotic relationships between human and nonhuman characters. The alien organisms brought back to Earth in Clay’s Ark, for example, are described as non-sentient symbionts that “attach themselves to cells” and “combine with them”,[7] granting the humans that they “infect” enhanced sensorial perception, speed and strength as well as an increased survival drive, healing power and resistance to disease. In return, infected humans develop an increased sexual drive and a compulsion to infect other humans and reproduce with them, assuring the spread of the alien organism on Earth. In Dawn, the first of Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy,[8] the alien Oankali, who have just rescued the few surviving humans after a nuclear catastrophe and taken them to their ship, do so out of a natural compulsion to mix their genes with other species, which “renews [them], enables [them] to survive as an evolving species instead of specializing [them]selves into extinction or stagnation”.[9] In particular, the Oankali are after human cancer cells, which will allow them to regenerate limbs and reshape their bodies. In return, they have restored planet Earth for humans to repopulate, they heal human genetic flaws, increase human resistance to disease, ‘improve’ their health, longevity, cognitive abilities, etc. Fledging also deals with “mutualistic symbiosis”[10] between human and nonhuman beings – this time a vampire species called Ina. The Ina need humans for their blood and, in return, they inject a substance when they bite humans that heals them, extends their lives, stops aging and improves their cognitive skills. A similar approach to human/nonhuman symbiotic relations can be found in some of Butler’s short fiction, most remarkably in “Bloodchild”, which Butler has defined as “a story about paying the rent”.[11]

Butler’s symbionts represent the interrelationality and co-evolution of all beings – human and nonhuman – and the environment, as envisioned by a number of posthumanist and new materialist critics such as Rosi Braidotti and Stacy Alaimo, among others.[12] Yet, Butler’s treatment of this theme is not free of ambivalence: these characters also bring to the fore issues of hegemony and power, as it is often nonhuman beings that have the upper hand, thereby reversing dominant human-nonhuman interaction in our world. What is more, symbiosis often turns into vampirism in her work. Even though it took Butler almost thirty years to write a vampire story, vampirism as a posthuman relation and motif is already a key concern in her earliest work in the Patternist Series. Doro, in Wild Seed, is a bodiless immortal being who occupies human bodies, killing their consciousness and ‘wearing’ them for a short while, until he uses up a body and takes another one. At one point across the millennia, he discovers that some bodies “taste” better than others, which leads him to start a breeding project to create special (super)humans for consumption.  Similarly, Doro’s superhuman descendants in Mind of my Mind, his telepaths, have the ability to “latch” onto other, less powerful, telepaths and kill them out of hunger. Vampirism as an ambiguous extension of symbiosis also hides in plain sight in the Xenogenesis Trilogy. Jodahs, the human-Oankali-construct protagonist of Imago, plants a seed of Chkahichdah – a “neotenic larva”, an Oankali construct[13] – on Earth. It will eventually mature into a ship for the descendants of humans and Oankali to travel on through space, leaving behind a “small, cold” planet “as lifeless as the moon”.[14] Also, while the gene tampering that the Oankali perform is mostly presented in the trilogy as beneficial for humans, the last book reveals, for instance, that they actually consume human cells, often taking nutrients from them with their sensory arms, a process referred to as “tasting”.

Symbiosis/vampirism is usually presented as an initial step in a process of miscegenation as a particular form of hybridization of the human. This is undoubtedly the case in the Xenogenesis Trilogy. Horrified by what they call “the human contradiction” – the irreconcilable tension within human nature between hierarchical behaviour and intelligence that has led humanity and the planet to the brink of full destruction[15] – they offer the surviving humans three choices: genetically-engineered cross-breeding with the Oankali, leading to the birth of construct children; independent life on Earth without the capacity to breed more fully human children; and the opportunity to start from scratch in Mars with their fertility restored. For Lilith, the protagonist of Dawn, inter-species breeding with the Oankali means “finish[ing] what the war began”,[16] as humans will no longer exist as such after one generation. Indeed, when she discovers that she has been made pregnant with a baby that will have four biological parents – two human, two Oankali – Lilith reacts with horror at the prospect that “it won’t be human […]. It will be a thing. A monster”.[17] For the Oankali, however, miscegenation offers hope to both species: “Our children will be better than either of us […]. We will moderate your hierarchical problems and you will lessen our physical limitations. Our children won’t destroy themselves in a war, and if they need to regrow a limb or to change themselves in some other way they’ll be able to do it”, to which Lilith replies: “But they won’t be human […]. That’s what matters”.[18] The next two books of the trilogy, Adulthood Rites and Imago, are narrated from the perspectives of two of Lilith’s construct children, allowing readers to get a glimpse of the benefits as well as the darker implications of the new evolutionary regime.

Posthuman hybridity often results in Butler’s works from genetic mutations. This is the case of Doro’s children in Wild Seed. Being himself the result of some sort of spontaneous mutation, the immortal Doro engages in a breeding project, building “seed villages”[19] and forcing his people to bear child after child in hopes of creating a race of superhumans with telepathic, healing, telekinetic and related skills. Most of these children have terrible lives, many dying as teenagers when they “transition” – after which they become capable of controlling their special skills by becoming “actives” – while those who remain “latents” – those who never manage to transition – end up being killed by Doro after bearing him more potential super(post-)humans. In Mind of my Mind, the second book of the series, Doro’s project becomes more ambitious – “to build a people, a race”, “an empire” – which eventually leads to the rise of the “Patternist society” and to his own death.[20] Clay’s Ark, the third book in the series, introduces us to another hybrid species that has resulted from “a disease-induced mutation”:[21] the Clayarks – sphynx-like children born of humans who have been infected by the alien clayark organism – who have a conventional human mind and cognitive skills but that run on all fours, are always hungry and are dominated by a need to breed. A genetic mutation is also at the core of Butler’s short story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”. In it, children of parents who have been treated with a drug for cancer suffer a genetic mutation called “Duryea-Gode Disease” (DGD), a hereditary condition that slowly destroys their humanity. Thus, through her wide array of hybrid characters, Butler’s fiction may be said to explore the limits of the human, which is tightly connected to the ethical and political implications of her work. As can be expected of a writer characterised by ambiguity and tension in her approach to these themes, the posthuman is sometimes presented in Butler’s fiction as having a positive valence, as something to be embraced; at other times it provokes fear and rejection, while it is often a measure of both.

As shown, another key concern that emerges in Butler’s fiction involves human enhancement and its connection to the less-than-human. On the one hand, Butler’s symbionts, constructs and mutants appear to embody extreme transhumanist dreams, as they realise an enhancement project that seeks “the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology”.[22] However, these beings’ hybridity often raises questions about dehumanization or animalization. This is undoubtedly a key concern in the Patternist series. Wild Seed and Mind of my Mind reveal that telepaths tend to be cruel, vicious and abusive towards ordinary people – “mutes” – and toward one another. In Clay’s Ark, the humans infected with the clayark organism struggle to resist or at least keep in check the urge to infect every single human, to reproduce, to even commit incest: in short, not to “give the organism another fragment of [their] humanity”, not to “let [it] make animals of [them]”.[23] Their efforts to preserve humanity are revealed to have been in vain in Patternmaster, as their descendants – the cat-like Clayarks – are always hungry, prone to overbreeding and helplessly driven by their ‘animal’ instincts. Butler’s mutants are also animalised in her short fiction, particularly in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” and in “Speech Sounds”. In these stories, the humans who suffer DGD and who have lost the ability to speak and to read and write are shown reverting to a state of animal wildness. In “Speech Sounds”, this means increased aggressiveness and predisposition for confrontation, polygamy, irrational behaviour, etc.

It is worth mentioning here that these characters’ apparent animalization reveals an ambiguous attitude towards nonhuman animals on Butler’s part. On the one hand, as we have seen, these beings are articulated as less-than-human by ascribing to them (negative) ‘animal’ features or behaviour. However, there are frequent references throughout that suggest a critical stance towards what human beings do to nonhuman animals in the real world: caging them in zoos (Dawn), breeding them to later kill them as food (Wild Seed), experimenting with them (“Amnesty”), etc. What is more, a central plot moment of Wild Seed centres around Anyanwu – a woman with shapeshifting abilities – becoming a dolphin and joining a school for a while, an experience that makes it “harder to think of [these creatures] as animals”.[24] At this moment, she realises that “only in her true woman-shape could she remember being seriously hurt by males”.[25] In addition, some of Butler’s works engage with issues of ecology and sustainability, as in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, as well as, less centrally, the Xenogenesis Trilogy. While these are not in themselves uniquely critical posthumanist concerns, they are ideologically aligned with them and “a powerful source of inspiration for contemporary re-configurations of critical posthumanism”.[26]

This ambiguity notwithstanding, a crucial point about Butler’s engagement with the (post)human is that her ‘conventional’ humans are at every opportunity shown to be potentially just as cruel, flawed or dehumanised – as the references to slavery in Wild Seed, the hierarchical drive of the “resistant” humans in the Xenogenesis Trilogy, and the violations to which Noah is submitted by the Government in “Amnesty”, for instance, suggest. As she puts it, “[…] the so-called human beings knew when they were hurting me”.[27] Ultimately, Butler’s conventional humans and her hybrid, enhanced or mutated humans draw attention to the critical posthumanist notion that “we are already posthumans living in a posthuman world”,[28] that the trace of the Other is always already within the (human) self, “as part of us, of us”.[29] In other words, for Butler, ‘we’ (post)humans are never really who we have long believed ourselves to be. Her posthuman beings suggest that “we are perhaps more like the ‘others’ than like ourselves, unavoidably contaminated by hybridity and leaky boundaries”.[30]

In conclusion, for Butler the human is a category that needs to be contested. Her fiction reveals an ongoing preoccupation with the human and its indistinct limits. It fantasises a new, hybrid posthuman subjectivity, theorises otherness and celebrates difference, while exploring the fears and pleasures that emerge from the dissolution of the boundaries that have long defined western thought. Hers is ultimately a concern with porosity, with mutability, with change. As the first of Lauren Olamina’s Earthseed tenets in Parable of the Sower states,

All that you touch

You Change.

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.[31]


— University of Zaragoza (Spain), May 2022


[1] Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, ‘Introduction: Postmodernism’s SF/SF’s Postmodernism’, Science Fiction and Postmodernism, special issue of Science Fiction Studies, 18.3 (1991), 305-8 (p. 308).

[2] De Witt Douglas Kilgore and Ranu Samantrai, ‘A Memorial to Octavia Butler’, Science Fiction Studies, 37.3 (2010), 353-61 (p. 357).

[3] Stephen W. Potts, ‘“We Keep Playing the Same Record”: A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler’, Science Fiction Studies, 23.3 (1996), 331-8 (p. 331).

[4] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-81 (p. 173).

[5] Haraway, p. 226.

[6] Elaine Graham, Representations of the Post/human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 12.

[7] Octavia E. Butler, Clay’s Ark (London: Headline, 2020), pp. 40, 41.

[8] Originally published as the Xenogenesis Trilogy, and then as Lilith’s Brood since 2000.

[9] Octavia E. Butler, Lilith’s Brood (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007), p. 40.

[10] Octavia E. Butler, Fledging (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007), p. 63.

[11] Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), p. 31

[12] In this sense, as Bruce Clarke demonstrates, Butler foreshadows the kind of “new biology” and endosymbiotic theory proposed in the work of microbiologist Lynn Margulis. See Clarke, Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

[13] Butler, Lilith’s Brood, p. 283.

[14] Butler, Lilith’s Brood, p. 365.

[15] Butler, Lilith’s Brood, pp. 38-9.

[16] Butler, Lilith’s Brood, p. 42.

[17] Butler, Lilith’s Brood, p. 247.

[18] Butler, Lilith’s Brood, pp. 247-8.

[19] Octavia E. Butler, Wild Seed (London: Headline, 2020), p. 3.

[20] Butler, Mind of my Mind, pp. 135, 94, 164.

[21] Butler, Clay’s Ark, p. 72.

[22] Max More, ‘The Philosophy of Transhumanism’, in The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future, ed. by Max More and Natasha Vita-More (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 3-17 (p. 3).

[23] Butler, Clay’s Ark, pp. 98, 149.

[24] Butler, Wild Seed, p. 90.

[25] Butler, Wild Seed, p. 90.

[26] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p. 47.

[27] Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories, p. 170.

[28] Peter Mahon, Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 18.

[29] Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 17.

[30] Graham, p. 36.

[31] Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (London: Headline, 2019), p. 3.