This is part of a roundtable on the work of Octavia Butler. The index to the roundtable is here.
adulthood-ritesIn order to keep relevant, the contemporary film adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy would update its nuclear holocaust to apocalyptic climate change. With a few exceptions, most of the end-of-times imagery can remain unchanged. Mass rioting and civil wars erupt over deadened landscapes and disintegrating cities. All seems lost. Then: an alien race, the Oankali, swoops in from space, scooping up the last surviving species, humankind in particular.

The Oankali also restore Earth to pristine, pre-Industrial health, yet Butler treats this like a neutral fact, important to the world building, (literally,) and not singled out for the miracle that it is. This would change in the modern movie remake. In the book, the humans seem barely appreciative, and quickly move onto other concerns. They take the healed planet for granted, but as victims of an atomic war, they were never responsible for its loss. Everyone blames the few military plutocrats who pushed the button. The Oankali try to prevent the redevelopment of technology, which irks a great many survivors. How could innocent people not wish to restore everything that was stolen from them—houses and streets and mines and guns and all?

In the hypothetical film update, the world is destroyed by the narrowness of the human race, albeit orchestrated by these same military plutocrats. No one prized the environment above all, and everyone lived unsustainably. The blame becomes collective. The equators flood, and food and water run out. The humans are widely aware of their hopelessness as they approach the end of the world. Then: almost divine intervention. Redemption. The audience watches the human survivors emotionally leveled, toppled by grace and humility, rapture and grief. Cue swelling strings, a long pan over waterfalls, or intact glaciers. Hands sifting the soil. They could easily reapply the John H Williams score from Jurassic park—the part when the jeeps pull up into a field of Brachiosauri.

In this version, it’s also easier to imagine humanity consenting to what the Oankali require in return—to interbreed with them completely, leaving no further generation of purely human beings.

Would humanity still value Earth, if humankind had to take the fall, and extinguish itself instead? The reverse narrative is far more dominant—humans racing out in spaceships for a replacement planet. Interestingly, the Oankali believe that letting the human species continue as is constitutes mass-suicide. ‘The Human Contradiction,’ the mixture of intelligence and hierarchical behavior, will always guide humankind to utter destruction of themselves and the Earth. The Oankali believe they are offering a way out—humans may not survive, but their genes can.

It is eventually revealed that the Oankali plan a parallel fate for Earth. They had to save the environment to have something to feed their animalesque spaceships. Once these ships reduce Earth to a desolate core, the half-Human, half-Oankali people will take off in search of more intelligent life to augment. Sadly, this development comes too soon in the books, nullifying what had been a beautiful, difficult paradox. Why not resist, if they’re destroying the Earth as well? So what if the solar system will be eaten by the sun, or a passing black hole, in the matter of aeons? Perhaps humans will outrun it. That’s what the Oankali are doing. The movie version breaks down in development hell.

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