Seminar in Composition
29 October 2014
Challenging Death to Survive
As children grow up in our society, they learn the significance and acceptance of death. Whether by attending funerals, watching grandparents grow old, or witnessing any number of tragedies, this part of the human life cycle is, as we learn, inevitable. While the human race has merely come to terms with the idea of mortality, the Oankali challenge such limits. Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood uses the Oankali, an alien species far more developed than the human race, to challenge the idea of death.
Upon meeting Jdhaya, Lilith questions the scar on her abdomen, discovering that the Oankali had removed a malignant, cancerous growth. She explains that her relatives had also been diagnosed with cancer. Like Lilith, many families are plagued by the reckless course cancer has taken on millions of victims. Without a cure, it is one of the primary issues that modern medicine faces. Yet it comes to light that the Oankali “are intensely interested in it” because “it suggests abilities we have never been able to trade for successfully before” (Butler 40). Many people associate cancer with death and defeat, unable to do anything but submit to a timely death. The Oankali, however, have turned this omen of death around, seeing “great potential in it” (Butler 40). These developed creatures have taken the bane of human existence and suggest that it is actually useful. They challenge age-old advice against cheating death and seem to refuse the acknowledgement that death has a divine element that conquers the human will.
Whether very religious or not, it is often human nature to find comfort in one’s faith at a time of death. While this is a part of the human psyche, it is a practice that has been learned from generations before and continues out of comfort and familiarity. Although the Oankali have no reason for such an emotional connection to the remaining humans they find on earth, they speak of their deaths in a very scientific manner. For example, when Jdhaya explains, “we began putting two or more together, and many injured or killed one another” (Butler 18), a detached tone indicates their interpretation of death as a sort of experiment.
At the end of the chapter “Dawn,” Jdhaya offers to sting Lilith to death as “a gift he was offering” and “not a threat” (Butler 43). While suicide happens sometimes in human society, factors such as religion and social stigmas discourage people from ending their own lives. In the world of the Oankali, death seems to be in a much more scientific context and something they can control. It is interesting how, in today’s world, people cope with death by saying that everything happens for a reason. Phrases like “it was his time” place the burden of death on another party, making tragedy seem more bearable. The Oankali reverse these traditions by taking on a more scientific and confident approach.
This ability of the Oankali to make use of something as toxic as cancer is definitely something for the human race to aspire to. While Butler’s novel is fictional and the knowledge of the Oankali is far more superior to our scientific knowledge, such an attitude, or reversal of traditional thinking, might be just what the human race needs. Jdhaya explains, “We do it naturally. We must do it. It renews us, enables us to survive as an evolving species instead of specializing ourselves into extinction or stagnation.” (Butler 40). This recognition of the importance in not being stuck in time, or as Jdhaya puts it, “stagnation,” in itself is something humans can strive for.
In many ways, the Oankali take traditionally human views of death and reverse them, showing that alternative methods are the way of the future. Specifically, the Oankali’s use of cancer shows their motivation not to get stuck in a scientific rut, recognizing the importance of such forward thinking. Although this is a fictional novel, I think there are many things that can be learned from the seemingly backwards and culturally different ways of the Oankali.