Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Prompt 1 Essay #6

Madison Kraemer
Professor Adam Johns
English Composition 0200
29 October 2014
Oankali’s Beneficial Use of Cancer

“Cancer is a major public health problem in the United States and many other parts of the world. One in 4 deaths in the United States is due to cancer,” (Cancer Statistics 2014). In our world today, people live their lives in fear and dismay because statistics show we are all going to die of this vicious disease. In Lilith’s Brood, Butler uses the Oankali to transform this view we humans acquire, and manipulate it to form a view that cancer can be something savior and useful. (Butler 41). Essentially, Butler wants to express that cancer is not always viewed as something negative, but rather it can be viewed as something valuable and profitable.
In the very beginning, Butler writes how Lilith has a family history of cancer and that she has acquired this type of cancer because in fact, it can be passed down through genetics. Jdahya describes Lilith’s cancer and all types of cancer as “beautiful”  because it helps in the “regeneration of lost limbs, controls malleability, [... and] increases longevity,”  (41).  The use of contrast between positive and negative is present here because instead of pairing cancer with a malicious word, Butler decided to pair it with the word “beautiful” to show the true positive effect cancer has on the Oankali. The Oankali take most of their time to figure out the true meaning and use of cancer due to the fact that they do not have a hierarchical status like us humans. They are able to focus their attention on taking cancer from different humans and place the cancer within themselves so they can determine the possible outcomes and changes it can do to their race. I just find it so fascinating that the Oankali’s have taken something so dangerous and lethal to us humans and altered it so it can be useful to their race and future generations.
Cancer helps increase the way they function during their lifetime due to the fact that cancer changes the appearance of the Oankali’s. Butler says that the Oankali use cancer as a way to “[...] reshape themselves and look more like the partners before trade,” (41). The ooloi are the ones who usually receive the cancer from the “traders” since they can manipulate the gene in a way that can result in the ability to determine the appearance of their next generation. This intrigued me because that means that cancer is essentially the “holy grail” to the Oankali’s. It can dramatically change their appearance by transforming them from this medusa, “snakes for hair [and] nests of night crawlers for eyes and ears,” appearance to more of a Lilith, human like appearance. (43).  It would change them in a way where people would not be so afraid of them, but rather they would appear to look just like the people they are trading from because they would be able to regenerate their limbs and increase longevity. The Oankali are looking into the future and figuring out ways to use something so dangerous to humans and transform it into something that could benefit themselves and the lives of future generations.
To the Oankali’s, cancer is the thing that can aid your way of life and can be very successful and useful, whereas humans view cancer as a disease that only destroys and kills. In a way, I understand why humans view cancer this way because it is what we are told, but instead of just searching for a cause, maybe we could be like the Oankali’s and look at cancer in a different way so we can figure out how cancer could benefit our future lives.

Works Cited
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.

Siegel, Rebecca, Jiemin Ma, and Zhaohui Zou. "Cancer Statistics, 2014." Cancer Statistics, 2014. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014 <>.


  1. Hello! I agree with much of what you say about how the Oankali use cancer for good and how that contrasts our attitudes as humans. However, I am not sure that I follow how you connect this perspective to their lack of hierarchical statuses. If you choose to revise this essay, I think this could be a point of expansion.

    Another area that could use elaboration is your second body paragraph. You talk a lot about how the cancer affects the Oankali but what does this have to do with their ability to innovate? Perhaps looking more attractive or human-like will help them to mate with other species in the future? I think this is what you were getting at but it would be great to see you explain it in your essay.

    I really like how you found specific examples, using the cancer to prove that the Oankali reverse traditional human thinking in order to innovate.

  2. This is an ok beginning, but it would profit from a stronger thesis. You understand how curious the Oankali response to cancer is - but how does that help us understand the novel (or, possibly, our own world?). In the words, do *you* see some hint of the profit in cancer that the Oankali see?

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say about the relationship between the Oankali lack of hierarchy and their fascination with cancer. It might be a great idea - I just don’t quite get it yet.

    The rest of your short essay is dedicated to explaining what value the Oankali see in cancer. Very likely this material would have been necessary even if you’d had a clearer thesis, but you don’t. So at this point you are basically observing the peculiar significance of cancer to the Oankali. But what do we do with that? What is Butler up to, and how do you respond? Is she just going for shock value (in which case there might not be much purpose here)? Or is it deeper - is this a book which is partially about finding the value in the most terrible things?

    In short: the observation is fine, but an observation isn’t an argument. Cancer is portrayed in a strange and interesting way here - but what does that mean, to Butler or to you?


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