Speculative fiction and resistance: stories from Octavia’s brood

Speculative fiction and resistance: stories from Octavia’s brood

Ruth Kelly


Despite their patriarchal, imperialistic and racist histories, women throughout the centuries have turned to speculative/science and utopian fiction to imagine subversive possibilities. Speculative fiction can be a tool for generating strategies and playing out possible responses to current and future catastrophes. Traditional vernacular texts, like folktales, jokes and songs allow oppressed groups to make political statements that would otherwise not be possible. Women in particular have used such genres, and modern, hybrid forms, to articulate subversive possibilities, often by retelling existing tales. Just as folktales have been retold by many storytellers, science fiction includes a rich vein of retold stories, or fan fiction. The anthology Octavia’s Brood (2015) includes speculative fiction written by activists and closely connected to their activist practice. The authors take inspiration from the work of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin to invent characters that take risks, are punished and yet have hope in the face of an uncertain future. I read these stories through the lens of Donna Haraway’s essay ‘A cyborg manifesto’ (1991 [1984]) and Hélène Cixous’ essay ‘The laugh of the medusa’ (1976), exploring how the stories can be seen as part of an aesthetic of resistance and the importance of aesthetic forms – notably origin stories and myths – within the stories themselves.

Speculative fiction and resistance: stories from Octavia’s brood

Science fiction and utopianism are genres with patriarchal, imperialistic and racist histories; they have done much damage, particularly to women and people of colour. Yet women throughout the centuries have turned again and again to such writing (Haraway 1991, 310-315; Johns 2015; Lefanu 1988), ‘seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other’ (Haraway 1991, 311). Audre Lorde is well known for saying that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (1984). But what if such tools, appropriated and transformed, are necessary for our very survival? In response to woman’s experience of being diminished ‘within’ the discourse of man, Hélène Cixous argues that,

it is time for her to dislocate this ‘within,’ to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of … For us the point is not to take possession in order to internalize or manipulate, but rather to dash through and to ‘fly’ (Cixous 1976, 887).

Alessa Johns argues that utopian writing has been crucial for women for three reasons. First, ‘gender equality has never fully existed, so it must be imagined if it is to become.’ Secondly, given women’s limited political, economic and social clout, we have turned to utopian fiction as a cultural mode that allows us to make ‘a different future comprehensible to the largest possible audience.’ Thirdly, utopianism offers a socially viable way of expressing deviance in a form that mirrors the writer’s own situation (Johns 2015, 175).

I would add another criterion to those proposed by Johns: utopian writing, particularly science fiction, is vernacular and accessible. Unlike other writing which might be ‘at once too high, too great for you’ (Cixous 1976, 876), science-fiction is a genre that lends itself to retelling by its readers (James 1994, 137-147), by those who never would have imagined that they could become writers. The classification of speculative fiction as “low” culture and the well-established tradition of fan fiction, gives it particular potential to be used in interesting ways. Digital technology allows fan fiction and other writings to be disseminated quickly and cheaply, partly dodging one obstacle that Cixous identifies to her call to women to inscribe femininity, namely ‘the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the craft, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself’’ (Cixous 1976, 877).

For feminist and subaltern activists whose strategies are ‘constantly thwarted by reactionary political and social forces,’ utopian literature allows them to ‘take time out to dream’; it ‘facilitates the imaginative speculation necessary for generating new liberating strategies in globalized world’ (Johns 2015, 176). Cixous argues that ‘writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures,’ allowing woman at once to ‘unthink’ and to get rid of (dé-pense) ‘the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield’, blending her personal history with all history and the story of all liberations (1976: 879, 882, emphasis in the original). For example, Johns describes how some early examples of proto-feminist utopian writing (Pizan’s medieval Book of the City of the Ladies and Sarah Scott’s eighteenth century political histories) counter historiographical theories that argue that it is great movements, leaders and nations that make history, theorising instead that smaller forces, the cumulative acts of individuals create change of which the conspicuous events are merely the results (2015, 188-189).

If ‘feminist methodologies are forms of intervention, of making a difference’ that allow for, among other things, dissent, dialogue and dissention (‘the internal revolutions or overturnings that might afford us non-entrepreneurial opportunities or spaces for some serious play’ (cf. Haraway 1991, 291)) then, Kember argues, writing is ‘a pre-eminent technology of intervention’ (2012). Writing science fiction certainly offers opportunities for theorising – experimenting, speculating – and for serious play. For those more used to reading books than participating in theatre, such writing may provide opportunities to engage in what Augusto Boal calls ‘rehearsals for revolution’ (1998 [1974], 141). While writing is a less fully embodied practice than acting, and therefore stops short of the ‘concrete experience’ or ‘real act’ that Boal argues is experienced by spectator-actors (1998 [1974], 141), writing offers the opportunity to imagine more complex and systematic alternatives that those that can be explored through theatre games. In her afterword to the 2015 science fiction anthology, Octavia’s Brood, adrienne maree brown argues that writing science fiction (or speculative or visionary fiction) gives activists the space to imagine possibilities, ‘challenging the narratives that uphold current power dynamics and patterns’ (for theorising), as well as facilitating the development of ‘emergent strategy,’ allowing writers to play with different outcomes and strategies before having to deal with real-world costs (for serious play) (brown 2015, 279-280).

The anthology Octavia’s Brood (brown and Imarisha 2015) includes speculative fiction (a genre which includes both science fiction and fantasy) written by activists and closely connected to their activist practice. Octavia’s Brood was born out of what the editors describe as an intensive collaborative process of imagining and writing. adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, supported by seasoned sci-fi editor Sheree Renée Thomas, invited activists, educators and community organisers to take part; for many of them this was their first time writing fiction. brown and Imarisha took their ideas and initial writings and, through many rounds of edits, worked with the writers to help them create compelling and visionary stories (Imarisha 2015, 4). The collection makes space for people whose identities are marginalised in mainstream culture, who know so well that ‘what is possible always changes as we change with the transformations we try to realise’ (Cornell, cited in Johns 2015, 192). Members of communities that have experienced historic trauma, including the editors as Black women whose ancestors were slaves, are ‘science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us’ (Imarisha 2015, 5).

Three of the women whose work is included in the collection describe themselves primarily as activists, working closely with movements to fight for change. (Other contributors are men and transgender folk, and women who are primarily writers, scholars and artists but also engaged in activism.) Autumn Brown lives in Minnesota, supporting and training community organisers and movement organisations; she describes herself as ‘a mother, community organizer, theologian, artist, and facilitator’ (brown and Imarisha 2015, 289). Mia Mingus, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, works for disability justice and prison abolition, a home for all and not just some of us; she describes herself as ‘a queer physically disabled Korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee’ (brown and Imarisha 2015, 292). Morrigan Phillips has been involved in anti-globalisation campaigning and currently works with communities in Boston to combat rising rates of HIV/AIDS infection and has been involved in and trained others in direct action; she describes herself as ‘an organiser, writer, Hufflepuff and social worker’ (brown and Imarisha 2015, 292). In their three stories, discussed below, the authors take inspiration from the work of Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin to invent characters that take risks, are punished and yet have hope in the face of an uncertain future. In the following essay, I read these stories through the lens of Haraway’s cyborg manifesto and Cixous’ essay ‘The laugh of the medusa.’

Autumn Brown’s story ‘Small and Bright’ (2015)[1] is most closely aligned with the work of Octavia Butler, which inspired the anthology, much of which describes adaptations necessary for survival on an irreversibly altered earth. Brown describes a remnant of humanity, surviving underground, thousands of years after the surface of the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable. The community’s women are warriors against underground vermin and, in their ability to have children, against the decline of the population; their withered elders are midwives (SB 86). The protagonist, Orion, has committed the ultimate crime in a small threatened population: the taking of a life, of a man who threatened to kill her (SB 86). In response, the life she created has been separated from her; her breasts are swollen and sore with milk for her recently born child (SB 80-81). But the community, even the elders, are not united in their disapprobation of her crime (SB 82, 86). For many of them, Orion’s punishment is also a quest:

Our community is dying. Children are born, yes, but not enough. We have become too isolated. We must find our brothers. Orion, you must do this for all of us (SB 84).

Mia Mingus’ story ‘Hollow’ (2015)[2] begins with the arrival of a baby in a tiny spacecraft swaddled in blankets, having survived the long journey from Earth. Seva, who carries the baby away in her arms (H 110), had spent her childhood abandoned in a violent institution (H 118-119). Fellow ‘UnPerfects’ helped her to escape and she joined their revolutionary work to free others from such institutions (H 115, 119). At one point ‘they thought they had won and the people finally seized the government, Perfects and UnPerfects working side by side for liberation’ (H 120). But there was a rapid backlash. The New Regime forced them into death camps where ‘UnPerfects’ and the ‘Perfects’ that were their allies and lovers were beaten and raped, shot and injected, burned, tortured, killed; ‘Like we were some kind of garbage, like human waste’ (H 114, 116). Later, perhaps because those in authority couldn’t face the prospect of killing their own ‘cripple’ children, those who were still alive were sent in rockets to the Hollow (H 113-115).

They all remembered the massacres and the camps. They all remembered the Hollow before Southing. … After the initial batch of soldiers had been killed off, it felt like they were finally free from the Perfects. Finally able to live again. (H 118)

By building the city of Southing, the inhabitants transformed the Hollow ‘into places they could inhabit with pride and ease’ (H 118). The necessity of collaboration in the face of a harsh environment – ‘Separate? … That is certain death’ (H 117) – is strongly evocative of Ursula Le Guin’s harsh and barren utopia, Anarres, which is similarly contrasted to a richer and more fertile, but also less equal and more repressive, original planet:

Our society is practical. Maybe too practical, too much concerned with survival only. What is idealistic about social cooperation, mutual aid, when it is the only means of staying alive? (Le Guin 1974, cited in Johns 2015, 192)

In Mingus’ story, the vessel that brought the baby also brought a message: people from Earth were on their way.

Leaving behind the other U.P.s to face the arrivals from Earth, a small group leaves ‘for the other side of the Hollow, towards the edge of the red sky’, where there may not even be vegetation, ‘in hopes of surviving’ and ‘to try and find a way to return’ (H 119-120).

Morrigan Phillips’ story ‘The Long Memory’ (2015)[3] is set on an imaginary Archipelago, echoing Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series which is set on an archipelago where the act of naming and binding perform powerful magic. In the third book of the series, The farthest shore (1972), a sickness spreads inwards from the outer islands of the archipelago: magic loses its power, songs are forgotten and people go mad. Phillip’s story also recalls Le Guin’s later novel, The Telling (2002), which explores the conflict between technological development and ancient tradition which is preserved in hidden libraries and through storytelling. Phillips’ protagonist, Cy, is a savant being trained to access the long Memory: the stories, details and sensations of past lives (TLM 57, 59, 65-66). Many years previously, fearing the loss of history, ‘powerful story makers’ from the north,

used the letters of the making found only on the scroll in the caves of the Coull Mountains to write a story. A story that would bind memory to a line of people. The Memorials. (TLM 62)

The Memorials served as advisors to kings and queens and later to the Council, reviewing legislation and policies in the light of the lessons of history. But a rising merchant class, tempted by profit, seeks to abolish this advisory role (TLM 57-60, 66). One of those merchants, Councilman Holt, has Cy captured and imprisoned in a fortress where, over the centuries, ‘refugees and slaves would be held without recourse, until they withered to dust’ (TLM 62-65).

During brief periods outside her cell, Cy manages to talk with a gardener, who helps her to understand that binding the Memory took something away from those who were not Memorials; they were unable to recall ‘the stories that made us,’ stories of the ‘making of All’ (TLM 67-69). Cy realises that the Memorials are powerless to stop Holt if the people do not support them because they do not remember ‘those things of the past that shape the present’ (TLM 69-71). Cy enlists the help of the gardener and some of the guards to write notes to other prisoners, instigating a hunger strike, and to share information with the outside world (TLM 73-76). After posters appear across the Eastern Isles about the hunger strike, Holt orders the killing of the prisoner who first went on strike. But he is shaken. Holt knows that memory is not irretrievable:

In Coull and other obscure parts of the north, it is also said that these story makers wrote a story of unbinding. … To unbind memory would mean to restore full memory to all the people. It would mark our end. (TLM 62-63)

The people’s response to the letters was threatening Holt’s power.

No future was certain, but that was all right. Cy felt confident that the unbinding was upon the world (TLM 78).

The utopian elements of these stories do not describe a perfect world, but rather a hopeful way of being and doing which may facilitate adaptation to changing circumstances. In this sense, the stories are in the tradition of feminist utopian writing: rather than imagining and describing fully-mapped worlds, feminist and proto-feminist writers through the centuries have tended to imagine utopian processes; pragmatic responses to a changing world oriented around learning, adaptation and shared power (Johns 2015, 177-178). Traditional patriarchal utopias ‘tend to rely on revolutionary substitution, abrupt regime change, for the origin of the society’ (Johns 2015, 186). In contrast:

feminist utopias across the centuries tend to depict shared power and promote gradual reform and ongoing change. They avoid revolutionary shifts, build their societies piecemeal and adjust them little by little …Adaptation to circumstances literally shapes the societies: form follows function (Johns 2015, 186-187).

Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood, which inspired the anthology, also describes a process of adaptation and uncertainty, an attempt to overcome the hierarchical tendencies that are so incompatible with human intelligence, embracing hybridisation (or not) in the hope of survival on an irreversibly changed Earth (Imarisha 2015, 3; Butler 1989). Today, every human on the planet is ever more connected by the nature of global challenges – whether environmental, economic, technological or otherwise – and uncertainty about our collective future. And yet we are ever more isolated by the technology that claims to connect us. In her cyborg manifesto, Haraway argues:

The home, workplace, market, public arena, the body itself – all can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways, with large consequences for women and others – consequences that themselves are very different for different people and which make potent oppositional international movements difficult to imagine and essential for survival. (Haraway 1991, 302)

In response, Erin McKenna argues that we need multiple and continuously evolving visions that ‘take this connectedness into account and prepare people to cope with the multiplicity and complexity of possibilities the future may hold’ (cited in Johns 2015, 192).

We are finite developmental creatures who must grow and adapt to both our changing physical and changing social environments in order to survive. This means there can be no set goals, no predetermined unchanging goods or ends (McKenna, cited in Johns 2015, 192).

Even if they are set in worlds that look very different from our own, process-oriented feminist utopias can help their writers and readers articulate provisional goals derived from a critical understanding of the relationships between humans and with our environment, and from the development of expectations and desires for the future; ‘visions that help to organise and structure present experience and dissatisfaction towards a desirable, workable purpose in the future’ (Johns 2015, 192). Indeed, this is what the editors of Octavia’s Brood hope for:

We hold so many worlds inside us. So many futures. It is our radical responsibility to share these worlds, to plant them in the soil of our society as seeds for the type of justice we want and need. (brown 2015, 279)

Science fiction is a place, perhaps one of the few remaining, where writers can ‘trade in desire when we write feminist theories’ (Kember 2012). According to Haraway, such trading in desire is precisely the kind of theory that is needed to help activists change the rule of the game:

Ambivalence towards the disrupted unities mediated by high-tech culture requires not sorting consciousness into categories of ‘clear-sighted critique grounding a solid political epistemology’ versus ‘manipulated false consciousness,’ but subtle understanding of emerging pleasures, experiences, and powers with serious potential for changing the rules of the game. (1991, 309)

In all three stories, the protagonists rely on stories or myths from the past as well as speculation about the future to inspire them to take a step into the unknown. Of the three activist/writers, Phillips makes the most explicit reference to storytelling and the technology of writing as a theme in her own writing. Libraries are the places of authority, where the Memorials live and work (TLM 58-63). Powerful story makers bind memory to the Memorials by writing a story, to prevent the loss of history (TLM 63), but without access to the memory, to their origin stories, the people have only ‘legends and tales that mostly serve to warn the young not to act rashly, or to scold the unscrupulous trader’ (TLM 68). These stories are prohibitive, policing behaviour; Cixous decries the power of such stories that warn us not to move, not to go into the forest, to be afraid of the dark (Cixous 1976, 878). In Phillips’ story, the people do not have access to stories of how they were made, stories of the making of their world: the Memorials ‘took them all to hold’ (TLM 68, 69). Humans need their origin stories not because they are necessarily emancipatory – Haraway resists those founding myths of original innocence that posit a return to the deathly oneness in the innocent and all-powerful Mother; Eve before she ate the fruit (1991, 292, 312-313) – but because they are ours. But they do not serve unchanged. It is only by retelling such tales, by subverting them, that their tellers can access the tools of parody, irony and blasphemy that are so important in resistance (Scott 1990, 136-182; Haraway 1991, 291):

The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture. We have all been colonised by those origin myths, with their longing for fulfilment in apocalypse. … Feminist cyborg stories have the task of rec[o]ding communication and intelligence to subvert command and control. (Haraway 1991, 311).

Haraway highlights the power of retellings of the story of Malinche for Chicana identity (1991, 312). Angela Carter, through the purple prose of her collection of fairy tales, has been similarly inspiring for women steeped in European fairy tale traditions (1979). While origin tales are held by the Memorials (or by religious leaders or by nationalistic educators) their potential is limited by what Haraway calls a ‘finally privileged reading’ (Haraway 1991, 312); setting them free means that they can be used and abused by the people, as they were meant to be.

In Brown’s story, such origin stories are integrated into the fabric of their society: while Orion’s people had never seen the stars, they continue to sing of them (SB 85), to perform ‘the esoteric art of reading our star maps’ (SB 86) and to name their children after constellations. The surfacing chamber is the expansive and ornate, covered with pictures of living things ‘that crawled or crept or ran or flex on the surface of our dead world’ (SB 85). But here the stories are more strongly linked to the future: there is a belief among members of the community that they will surface one day, by choice, to ‘live again in the sun’ (SB 85). As Orion moves into the unknown she has little knowledge to guide her (SB 83), but she is reminded of the visions a child had had hundreds of years previously about the end of time: while some of these visions were of the period of death and persecution which had driven the community underground more than two millennia before, others were speculative, about a time when the buried people would join with the ‘people of color’ or the ‘people of the plastic’; in their last meeting before her surfacing, Orion’s vaginal parent urges her to try to find them (SB 83-84).

Origin stories, while less prominent, are still present in Mingus’ story, although these are more recognisable as activist stories: the inhabitants of Southing recall their abandonment by their parents because of their disabilities, their collective revolutionary work – mapping strategies and plans together – and their hope when it seemed that they had taken control of the government, before those hopes were dashed and they were rounded up and killed or sent to the Hollow (H 113-115, 119-120). In an echo of the author’s identity as an adopted person, one of the protagonists, Seva, recognises that the babies they receive in Southing have travelled far and will have so many questions and a longing for Earth as they grow up, but also that Southing is a far better place for them than Earth would have been. The origin stories that are part of life in Southing represent shared experience of a close-knit group of activists (H 115); the story later engages with the difficulties of communicating past trauma to new generations: Seva ‘knew the other side, and it was impossible to tell them’ (H 119).

Transgressing the boundaries of the body is a central theme in Haraway’s cyborg manifesto: she describes science fiction writers as ‘theorists for cyborgs’ in so far as they explore ‘what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds’ (1991, 310). In Sarah Kember’s reflection on the cyborg manifesto, she describes storytelling as ‘theory for post-cyborgs’; it helps us to recognise the degree to which theory is (or should be) ‘a form of practice, experimentation, speculation’ (2012). The constraints of different genres and the partiality of storytelling as a mode of discourse may give post-cyborg theorists permission to make use of categories previously rejected as too limited, like ‘subject/object, nature/culture, human/machine’ (Kember 2012).  Haraway argues ‘for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries’ but also for ‘responsibility in their construction … Some differences are playful; some are poles of world domination. Epistemology is about knowing the difference’ (1991, 292, 300, emphasis in the original).

Two of the stories – the Hollow and Small and Bright – collapse the distinction between the body, technology and nature, allowing for adaptations to radically different environments. They imagine worlds not dissimilar to the cyborg world imagined by Haraway, which is ‘about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines’ (Haraway 1991, 295). Such hybridity and adaptation is a core element of Octavia Butler’s work, realised in her Patternist series by generations of selective breeding of humans with telepathic potential, and in Lilith’s Brood (1989) by the interbreeding of humans with an alien species.

In Mingus’ story, among the ‘buried people,’ aural sensitivity is greatly prized as an essential adaptation to their dark underground environment; their bodies have lost their colour (SB 83) and are seen only by firelight and the faint glow of phosphorescent lichen growing on the walls. In the distant past they relied on lichen growing on their bodies – from their ‘cord cut’ – for sustenance. Now it is normally groomed, but Orion has let hers grow ‘wild, wet and fecund, reaching up to my ribs and down to my vulval hair,’ an ‘uncultivated wild space on my body’ which may ‘provide some sustenance on the other side’ (SB 80). Orion cannot hear as well as others, but perhaps ‘what is a deficit to you here is an advantage on the surface’ (SB 84). As she surfaces she is blinded, but manages ‘a flickering of sight’ (SB 87). And her body seems to serve: the story ends with a technician’s log entry tracking the determined progress of a being across the surface. ‘Whatever it is, it is coming for me’ (SB 88).

Brown’s writing is perhaps an example of what Cixous claims (unfairly?) is so rare that she can only think of three examples: ‘writing that inscribes femininity’ (Cixous 1976, 878-879, 885). Haraway claims that French feminists like Irigary (who Cixous is often associated with) know ‘how to write the body; how to weave eroticism, cosmology and politics from imagery of embodiment’ (Haraway 1991, 310). Arguably, Brown does too. Orion’s ill-mannered body, her wild, wet and fecund lichen and swollen breasts, has been kept alive in a womb-like underground world whose elders are withered midwives, witch-like creatures practiced in the esoteric art of reading star maps. There are strong parallels with Cixous’ description of women’s impregnable unconscious that will eventually break loose in their writing:

Now woman return from afar, from always: from ‘without,’ from the heath where witches are kept alive; from below, from beyond ‘culture’; from their childhood which men have been trying desperately to make them forget, condemning it to ‘eternal rest.’ The little girls and their ‘ill-mannered’ bodies … ever seething underneath … Here they are, returning, arriving over and again, because the unconscious is inpregnable (Cixous, 1976, 877).

Orion allows the lichen on her body, usually groomed, to grow wild and wet, even as her identity as a mother and warrior begins to fray. Her surfacing is analogous to the end of the Phallic period that Cixous describes, where women, far from being annihilated, have been ‘borne up to the highest and most violent incandescence’ (Cixous 1967, 886). By transgressing, by ‘seizing the occasion to speak’ with her fragile body as much as with her words, with her act of killing, the nurturing of the lichen that might sustain her, and her physical potential for sight, Orion, like the women writers Cixous describes, makes a ‘shattering entry into history’ (Cixous, 1976: 880-881, 886).

If Brown limits herself to the organic, to organisms, Mingus explicitly embraces ‘the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine’ (Haraway 1991, 310-311). By building the city of Southing, the inhabitants transformed the Hollow ‘into places they could inhabit with pride and ease’ (H 118):

They built new adaptations for their chairs, lifts, canes, crutches, braces, and their Unperfect bodies, without thought to what was allowed or having to rely on the Perfects to do so. They experimented with their wildest dreams and ideas, making pulleys and slides and inventing new tools. (H 118)

Props and technologies, as well as pain and drool, are part of their bodies. After the baby’s arrival, Wild leans on her cane to gather extra blankets from the floor (H 110). In another scene, after working in the garden all day, Ona helps Prolt wipe encrusted dirt and drool from his body and adjusts his dislocated knee and hip (H 110-111) before Prolt ‘expertly’ backs his chair up to hitch to the wagon so that he can pull the harvested food and flowers, and Ona as a passenger, out of the biosphere where they are working (H 111-112). Ona considers asking for a small bench to hold her weight so that the effort of holding herself up by her arms doesn’t cause her so much pain (H 111). Ona later describes,

the magnificence of Rex as she swings and glides, twisting and turning on her crutches with such grace and strength (H 120)

Mingus talks about technology not in terms of all or nothing – as something that either supersedes us or acts as a panacea, as either a friend or an enemy – but rather ‘as a co-constituent of what we call human’ (Kember 2012). Her characters’ ‘UnPerfect’ bodies, their aches and their pain, their drool are an integral part of this feminist technological utopia, but their bodies do not ‘end at the skin’ (Haraway 1991, 314). The Southlings’ skill, for example, the ‘magnificence of Rex as she swings and glides’ (H 120) is a cyborgian adaptation; Haraway argues that such adaptations ‘help[] redefine the pleasures and politics of embodiment’ (Haraway 1991, 314):

Intense pleasure in skills, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment. The machine is not an it to be animated, worshiped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. (Haraway 1991, 315)

These cyborgs define ‘a technological polity based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household’ (Haraway 1991, 293). The baby’s arrival in a spaceship, with its echoes of externalised reproductive technology, estranges it from its biological origins, just as ‘Cyborg replication is uncoupled from organic reproduction’ (Haraway 1991, 292) (there is no sense in the story that babies are born in Southing). The inhabitants of Southing ‘do not dream of community on the model of the organic family,’ nor do they expect their fathers to save them ‘through a restoration of the garden’ (Haraway 1991, 293); instead, their community is based on affinity and they build their own adaptations without having to rely on the ‘Perfects’.

While Phillips does not describe similar bodily adaptations, her description of Cy’s use of the Memory collapses distinctions between individuals by combining memories into a collective consciousness: accessing the collective memory of past experiences meant that Memorials did not simply know that a given fortress had been a prison but ‘smelled death in the air, heard the sound of screams, sensed hope draining from bodies like spilled blood’ (TLM 65-66). At the same time, individuals Cy has faith in the human ability of each person to hold ‘her own memory of what she has lived through and seen’ (TLM 70). This blending of personal history with all history and the story of all liberations is, for Cixous, at the heart of the liberating potential of writing as a feminist practice (1976: 879, 882).

More information about Octavia’s Brood is available here: http://octaviasbrood.com/


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[1] Henceforth ‘SB’

[2] Henceforth ‘H’

[3] Henceforth, TLM


Ruth’s doctoral research (University of York) explores the potential for storytelling to help communities and activists articulate alternative approaches to development. Before starting her PhD, Ruth worked in the international development sector making sense of the technical details of international trade, investment and tax policy and advocating for change.

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