October 12 – Xenos

//October 12 – Xenos
October 12 – Xenos 2018-01-07T15:01:49-04:00


Butler, Octavia. 1995. Bloodchild. Bloodchild. New York: Tor. (the PDF is on our NYU Classes site and was also emailed to you)

Tarkovsky, A. (1972). Solaris. New York, NY: Janus Films. (Available through NYU Libraries here or on Youtube: Part 1, Part 2; make sure to turn on Closed Captioning for subtitles)

“Zygon Invasion.” Season 9, Episode 7. Doctor Who. BBC. Available in on Amazon and iTunes. If you have time, I highly recommend the next episode, “Zygon Inversion” as well.

Background/Definitions: Doctor Who (Peter Capaldi) is a Time Lord: an alien species that can move through time and space, in his spaceship, “The Tardis.” Clara (Jenna Coleman) is his human companion, a sort of assistant and friend that travels with him. Zygons are aliens that can take on shapes of other life forms, including humans. In previous Dr. Who episodes, the Zygon home planet is destroyed and they are given refuge on Earth, on the condition that they take on human forms. The Zygon resettlement is overseen by the Osgoods: two “twin” women, one of whom is originally Zygon, the other human. No one knows which is which. The Osgoods work with UNIT, a fictional branch of the UN that investigates and combats paranormal and extraterrestrial threats to Earth. In this episode, we learn that one of the Osgoods has died, but we don’t know why. There are references to other episodes, but they are not important to the central themes that I’d like us to focus on in class: appearances, otherness, rights of other species, and revolution.

Oesterheld, H. G., Francisco Solano López, and Erica Mena. eternaut. N.p.: n.p., 1959. Print.

Theory and Commentary

Dick, Steven J. 2006. Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Anthropology Today 22(2): 3-7.

Kirksey, S. Eben & Stephan Helmreich. 2010. The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 25(4): 545-76.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1974. The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics. From Fellowship of the Stars, Terry Carr, ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.


  1. Sigrid von Wendel October 6, 2016 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    For searching purposes: it seems that the Le Guin essay is also available in her collection of short stories, “Compass Rose.”

  2. Johnathan McCauley October 11, 2016 at 11:55 am - Reply

    For the Solaris video, if you’re having trouble finding a steady video, you can sign up for a free 7-day Hulu trial then cancel. It’s on there and it was pretty high quality / resolution.

  3. Sigrid von Wendel October 11, 2016 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    The Kirksey and Helmreich article (which I REALLY liked) and The Dr. Who episode discuss multispecies identities, which are also discussed in the book I read for Essay 2, Carmen Dog, in which female animals start turning into female humans and vice versa. Each work challenges binary identities: animal and human, Zygon and human, or as Kirksey and Helmreich describe “humans are consortium of sorts, a medley of microbial becomings” and have “‘never been human,’ or at least never only” (555) (565). These texts show species categorization to be inadequate in appreciating the diversity of life, in the same way that we’ve discussed how genre distinctions can fall short. Referring to the “tendencies” (Freedman) or “impressions” (Kirksey and Helmreich 564) of a being or a text seems more accurate and useful. Binaries are maybe still needed in comparing “is it more like this, or more like that,” but not as a means of classification. Can we just throw out all means of classifying beings (including race, gender, ethnicity)? And instead put everything on a spectrum (maybe even a non-binary one)? That world is exciting to me, and has interesting social and political implications.

    Bloodchild was really disturbing to me…Even though I know I can hold many different bacteria and living species within me as well. At some point, maybe, I will have a human alien baby thing growing inside me, that will be eating from me from within. It will even look like a worm. Butler describes how she wrote Bloodchild to help her deal with the existence of flesh eating bugs. Can it also be read as a means of dealing with (or maybe choosing not to deal with) pregnancy? I also don’t know that I buy her pitch of it as a love story. There are touching moments of compassion and affection, but I think those can also be read just as captive-captor survival/Stockholm syndrome. Does love just make dependence or captivity more palatable?

    Dick argues that cultural evolution is inevitable, but is that true? I don’t know a lot about evolution theory, but my vague understanding is that evolution is spurred by some sort of disruption that beings then respond to by adapting. Can we imagine an alien world in which conditions were more stable, and life evolved to a certain point and then just stopped, with no reason to go further?

  4. Johnathan McCauley October 12, 2016 at 11:22 am - Reply

    Solaris. Holy cow. What a movie.

    The idea of other beings being similar to us in every way except their molecular makeup and immortality (which strangely, seemed an erroneous claim when the encephalograms were vaporized by light) has implications for how we treat other species and how we treat each other. A kind of spooky idea that came up in my mind and that I believe the movie harped on at the end, was that we can’t tell these ‘guests’ from ourselves. How would we know without killing them? Do we need to know? Segway

    The Dr. Who episode. Also super compelling. The notion of a war being started because a species was tired of “being human” was interesting. “Truth or consequences” the Zygon’s claimed as they battered humanity. “We just want to be accepted but you won’t accept us so we’re going to harvest you” is kind of a weak logical line, but this was cleared up when one of the captured Zygon’s said “we want the world”. For some reason, this made me think of the original Star Wars movies where they have the quintessential bar scene with the saxophone players honking away and beings of all appearances mingling with each other over food and drink. Why wasn’t this an option in Dr. Who? Is it because there is a certain lack of diversity of beings? Would it inevitably become dichotomous society?

    Bloodchild. Nuts! It felt so uncomfortable to read for so many reasons! This story totally inverts our preconceived notions of reality. The thought of the larva crawling around in one’s body and the impregnation scene gave me the heeby-jeebies. How are we supposed to interpret Butler’s story? Are our preconceived notions of reality comfortable and familiar simply because they’re preconceived? There seemed to be a division in the human family between the children born in this world and the mother who lived through its change. It doesn’t seem like there was a very good succession plan in place for those in the mother’s place. How is she okay with such a monumental change in lifestyle and for her children?

  5. Sophie October 12, 2016 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    1) Pregnant men. In “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler, men, as well as women’s bodies, become hosts for alien species to grow. What if men were able to give birth and carry a child? How would that impact the structure of society as we know it today?

    2) What can we make of the process of impregnation that occurs to the protagonist in “Bloodchild”? Although he agrees to be a carrier to protect his sister, does the whole sequence seem like a rape? Or, on the contrary, does T’Gatoi appear more vulnerable after having implanted her eggs into her host?

    3) “We demand the right to be ourselves,” say the Zygons in season 9 episode 7 of Doctor Who. They were denied this right and therefore chose a very human option -if you are subjugated, then the only way to be heard is to fight back. Or so it may seem. What other options could the Zygons have to gain autonomy and recognition? Due to their very ‘human’ reaction, could Zygons therefore be a reflection of society, not just physically, but also in terms of their emotional responses? As such, what does that say about humans reaction based off of fear?

  6. Charlie Peterson October 12, 2016 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    1. Early in Bloodchild the concept of prolonged life arises, but one character willfully rejects the eggs that bring life. What is the relationship between technology and length of life? Building off the agency-saftey duality from last week could there be a willful early death? If technology can extended our lives and help remove pain can there be any justification for saying no to this?

    2. Do we need to mingle? Doctor Who, Butler, and now Keirsey all mention interspecies mingling. They bring up interspecies procreation as a means of bridging the self-other gap. Must we necessarily mix to appreciate each other? Can we not appreciate a species without genetically mixing with it?

    3. The experience of revulsion and disgust seems to be a staple of the Xenos theme. In Doctor who, for example, the computer is operated by titillating the fronds of the machine. In Bloodchild the alien creatures literally feed on us. One can imagine love of particular creatures, familiarity, and mere exposure to cognitively lessen the experience of disgust. But can this ever be abridged? Suppose I see the “common humanity” in an octopus, can I ever not feel disgusted by its beak or slime?

  7. Ivan! October 12, 2016 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    Ah! Ursula K. Le Guin, what a masterful writer. Her xenos is none other than our fellow animals. But first, to make them alien, they must be defamiliarized. And how does Le Guin do this? By giving them attributes that we only reserve as proper of our own species. By anthropomorphizing ants and penguins with the introduction of language capabilities we feel invaded in the same space that we have always shared with them!
    It’s interesting because Le Guin used the same mechanism that Stanislaw Lem used to legitimize his xenos. The use of fictitious scholarly papers! (I was stressed about watching Solaris without having read the book so I read the first quarter of it beforehand). Why is it that they both tend towards the same solution? Is it that we can only trust accounts by other “very serious humans”?. Which brings us to SETI.
    If Science Fiction is using this process of legitimization, then surely anthropologists have a great role in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Then why is that the collaboration between the two so sporadic? I think the article touches on two possible answers to this question. 1, there is a stigmatization of academics who chose to contribute to this area of study, and then there’s the issue of the Fermi paradox a.k.a. “Goddamit, where are all the aliens?”; with no aliens to study, anthropologists don’t have that much work to do, and they end up looking at other species on earth.
    Oh, and apparently no-one is liking my comic book, lol. But the interrogative that I meant to bring about with this text is “What is the power of Sci-Fi?”. More on this during the lecture.

    • Ivan! October 12, 2016 at 2:34 pm - Reply


  8. Sam October 12, 2016 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    1. “Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” tied a lot of the media material together. In that essay, Steven Dick discusses how contact with an alien species may be “destabilizing” to both cultures, and how Anthropology’s two roles in SETI would be “the study of human evolution models as analogies to extraterrestrial contact, and the study of the impact of such contact,” (p. 3). The media examples all show different points of contact and their varying impacts. In the Dr. Who episode, we see Zygons living in secrecy and peace, until a child is discovered in his “normalized” form, and an all-out war erupts. In “Bloodchild,” we see a quite literally symbiotic relationship between the Tlic and Terran. In Solaris, we see differing reactions to the alien beings. Kris comes to embrace Hari, while Dr. Sartorius views her and the other “guests” as less human than rabbits. Can we compare these scenarios to real historical points of first contact between peoples? Could the hard-learned lessons of historical conquests and exploration be applied to possible future ET contact? How would an Anthropologist build a guide or framework for such varied possibilities?

    2. The “guests” in Solaris are capable of emotion and eloquent communication; superficially they seem human. But the guests are made of neutrinos (also known as ghost particles, they can pass through anything; see also John Updike’s “Cosmic Gall” https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1995/illpres/cosmic-call.html). The guests also are without a past. They represent real people, but without their memories. As a neutrino is a wisp of a particle, a guest is a wisp of a person. A question the film asks is: whose vision of a person is a guest—the person whose mind they are culled from, or the ocean’s? Is looking at the guests in terms of their human or non-humanness a case of “human exceptionalism,” as described in “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography?” Is there another way to analyze these guests, especially considering that they share their appearance with the humans they mirror? What about the ocean, another living entity? How do we begin to analyze it, as it is so fully unhuman? Is there a way to apply the tools of ethnography and anthropology to something without somehow employing this exceptionalism? Are we capable of describing and analyzing a species without comparing and contrasting it with humanity?

    3. The “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography” and the Le Guin story both speculate about the idea of humans understanding plants and animals more fully, and without exceptionalism. How do we begin to form a “multisensory approach,” (M.E., p. 565) that both texts seem to call for?

  9. jpetinos October 12, 2016 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    1) Solaris presents us with an entity who has feelings, is self aware, and can contemplate her existence. Is Hari any less human than us? How does her immortality challenge or change a possible definition of humanity in which mortality is a requisite?

    2) Bloodchild leaves readers with a scene that I think that can be read as one of trust and vulnerability, conveying a touching picture of intimacy, OR the ultimate resignation of Gan to circumstances totally beyond his control. How does the interbreeding of T’Gatoi, a nonhuman character, and Gan, defamiliarize concepts of love, untangling these concepts from sexual attraction?

    3) In “Zygon Invasion,” we follow Clara on screen for some time before we learn that she is a Zygon. If something looks like us and acts like us, what distinguishes humans from not, and at what point does it cease to matter? How do our feelings about Clara change looking back through the episode? How does this rapid perspective change function on screen, and in science fiction more generally?

  10. Matthew Dischner October 12, 2016 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    1) I’m disappointed by the way SF seems to regularly convey the alien in human forms. Both “Solaris” and the episode of “Doctor Who” deal with shape shift aliens taking human form. “Eternaut” seems to be heading that direction as well. What is it about ourselves that leads to these types of stories appearing constantly in SF?

    2) On Le Guin and the nature of art, is art that doesn’t communicate possible?

    3) “Solaris” ruminates on the nature of love. Who, or what, was Kris in love with? Did he love real Hari and guest Hari differently? Are there different kinds of love present in the film?

  11. jexcell October 12, 2016 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    I was surprised by the afterword to “Bloodchild”. While I hadn’t exactly thought of it as a story of slavery- as Butler categorically denies it to be- she seemed to regard the relationship between the protagonist and his impregnator with much more warmth than I felt reading it. She calls it “a love story between two very different beings” and “a coming-of-age story,” but I read the relationship as a much more sinister power dynamic. How does this story manage to produce a stronger reaction than the author intended, and what does that say about the influence of a reader’s own perceptions of slavery, love, and relationships with an Other?

    In “The Eternaut” I wasn’t sure what to make of the repeated references to Robinson Crusoe. The situations seem very different to me- what bearing does that narrative have on this story?

    Of the theoretical readings for today’s class, I read Le Guin’s “The Author of the Acacia Seeds…” first, and found myself wondering whether it wouldn’t have made more sense in the media section, since it deals with fictional studies and situations. However, after reading “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” I began to change my mind. That article discusses real instances of non-human language and social behavior and emphasizes the importance of studying and understanding our connection to other ways of life in an increasingly anthropocentric world. I think Le Guin’s piece offers us a possible method of placing ourselves outside of human experience through imagination. To me, this seems like a useful way to move beyond our anthropocentrism in order to conduct a genuine scientific study of non-human social and communication networks, but I realize that blending science and fiction with the intention of producing factual results could be very difficult. How could we approach uniting these two seemingly opposed fields to widen our perspective on non-human life?

  12. Stacy Shirk October 13, 2016 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    I must admit I found “Bloodchild” to be incredibly disturbing, perhaps even more so after reading Butler’s Afterword. I thought the story to had an almost Stokholm Syndrome feel to it, and while I did not necessarily view it as a slavery narrative, as she claims so many do, I did not see the love relationship that Butler apparently tried to convey. But then the question is, what exactly is love when you’re dealing with an entirely different being from yourself? This question comes up in “Solaris,” as well, although while watching the film I was reminded of our Human discussion. Is the love (or any of the emotions) Kelvin feels less real because Hari is not a “real” human? Should we feel disturbed by the ways love is presented in these two pieces, or does that show a narrow, “anthropocentric” view?

    I also thought about Butler’s assertion that this is her “pregnant man story.” To me, this was not really a “pregnant man story,” because it wasn’t simply about men getting pregnant, and I didn’t think that was even the most compelling part of “Bloodchild.” How would that sort of story look different if presented in an otherwise ordinary setting? There are, in fact, “men” who have become pregnant because they are transgender. So can we fairly relegate that sort of story to the realm of science fiction? Should we open up our own definitions now that our real world is reflecting things only previously seen in science fiction?

    **Note: Sorry these are delayed – I got caught up in synagogue and didn’t have time to post yesterday. I hope class was stimulating, I can’t wait to hear about what you all discussed!

  13. Arline December 23, 2016 at 11:06 pm - Reply

    1. How can we bring these ideas of “alien” in to our everyday thought processes? I, for one, was shocked to read that Butler thought that “Bloodchild’ was just a different kind of love story. My experience with both “Bloodchild” and Solaris was so alientating that I am not certain I completely understood where they are trying to go. What are our limits in recognition that allow us access or block us out completely?

    2. What would you do to a planet that seemed to be intentionally harming you but you weren’t sure?

    3. One of my first thoughts on the last line of “The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics” was “what on Earth are we going to eat if everything can talk and create poetry?” How can we appreciate and accept our displacement from the center of art and culture but also eat? How do our hiearchies of meaning and conceptions of nature/culture divide (as a history of placing culture above nature) change?

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