Broadcasting change: in empathic dialogue with Duffy and Jennings’s graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

By Heather Thaxter.

This academic article explores Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower and its 2020 graphic novel adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. It analyzes the medium-specificity of the adaptation by applying a combined theoretical approach that incorporates cognitive narratology and narrative empathy. A discursive dialogue between the two media facilitates a critical evaluation of the potential for Parable to evoke character empathy leading to prosocial action. The prescient themes in Parable, and the timing of the adaptation’s publication facilitates informed ongoing dialogue around change. 



“This book lives. It breathes, moves, feels, clamors for your attention, insists on bearing witness, insists on being heard,” declares Nalo Hopkinson in her introduction to Duffy and Jennings’s (2020) graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. After decades hovering conspicuously on the periphery of literary acceptance, science fiction and graphic novels refute their much-maligned reputations, and produce an alternative canon by joining forces. Narratives of space exploration, time travel, aliens, and meta-human superheroes disturb the grand narratives because they employ such tropes to explore the notion of the ‘other.’ Challenging the presumptions of texts that adhere to the model of white Western hierarchy, many contemporary speculative fiction narratives stage encounters between vastly different perspectives and cultures, and give agency to the ‘other.’

An early and powerful influence on Afrofuturism, award-winning author Octavia E. Butler (Womack 2013, 109) proposes a more diverse future through her palimpsestic style of rewriting narratives of race, gender, and disability, thereby challenging the status quo and repositioning previously sidelined characters center-stage. By defamiliarizing human experience, by blurring the lines of ideological expectation, and by broadcasting survival strategies that necessitate major, almost impossible change, Butler complicates the concept of ‘othering’ whilst evoking feelings of empathy for her characters. Suzanne Keen’s (2015) theoretical model of authorial strategic empathy, particularly “broadcast strategic empathy,” is the touchstone for demonstrating how Butler evokes empathic responses in her readers. Since reading is a cognitive action, I combine elements of David Herman’s inquiry into cognitive narratology and Suzanne Keen’s research into narrative empathy to shine light on Butler’s work and its enduring relevance. The remediation of this speculative fiction text into the graphic novel medium, with its metamorphic affordances, facilitates more explicit readings of the tropes of change in Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and opens up empathic dialogue about the medium-specificity of re-reading such a powerful narrative. 

Continue reading “Broadcasting change: in empathic dialogue with Duffy and Jennings’s graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

Reciprocal babymaking is the future: a review of Full Surrogacy Now

Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now (Verso, 2019) is, like all good science fiction, “a book about an impossibility.”[1] In this provocative and carefully-argued work, Lewis clearly demonstrates that the boundaries of possibility not only can, but must, be contested. Lewis moves from a consideration of the impossible, yet actually existing, working conditions of professional surrogates — those who carry and give birth to ‘someone else’s’ infant — to the similarly impossible premise under which all gestational labour is undertaken. In Lewis’ analysis, the reason that “bearing an infant ‘for someone else’ is always a fantasy, a shaky construction” is not because of the uniquely fantastic conditions of commercial surrogacy. Rather, it is attributable to the fact that “infants don’t belong to anyone, ever” (19).

Full Surrogacy Now includes astute readings of prominent science-fictional texts, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). However, Lewis’ work also provides a striking example of the power of science-fictional thought in its own right. Here the strangeness of cyborgs and surrogates is explored, not to establish surrogacy as an embattled, economically-compromised alternative to ‘normal’ pregnancy, but rather as a way of reflecting on the compromising, violent realities of gestation as such. Full Surrogacy Now extends us a science-fictional invitation to understand deeply familiar words — nature, work, mother, create — in radically new and unfamiliar ways. By asking over and over again—“why accept Nature as natural[?]” (7)—Full Surrogacy Now proves itself the “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter” (27) of Donna Haraway’s classic ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), and of the tradition of feminist science fiction from which that seminal text was—and continues to be—partially, laboriously, and reciprocally birthed.

To begin with, we must remember that pregnancy is work, and it is often difficult and dangerous work. It is also often work in which the body is “working very, very hard at having the appearance of not working at all” (59). However, Lewis reminds us that the working conditions of gestational labourers vary hugely:

Pregnancy has long been substantially techno-fixed already, when it comes to those whose lives really ‘matter.’ Under capitalism and imperialism, safer (or, at least, medically supported) gestation has typically been the privilege of the upper classes. And the high-end care historically afforded to the rich when they gestate their own young has lately been supplemented by a ‘technology’ that absorbs 100 percent of the damage from the consumer’s point of view: the human labor of a ‘gestational surrogate.’

(3)

Since its publication, Full Surrogacy Now has drawn fierce attacks from ‘readers’ who — having read the title, but not the book itself — assume that Lewis is arguing that such commercial gestational surrogacy is utterly unproblematic, and that we should welcome the expansion of the commercial surrogacy industry. This, of course, is to entirely miss the point. Lewis carefully outlines the exploitative realities of commercial gestational surrogacy, a booming business that is rife with wage theft, deception, brutally inadequate health-care, a lack of informed consent, and extreme power imbalances. She also carefully picks apart the neoliberal, faux-feminist rhetoric used to justify such practices. Instead, Lewis places the lives and voices of actual surrogates, particularly those from the Global South, at the heart of her analysis.

Nevertheless, within commercial gestational surrogacy, Lewis also discovers the traces of a wider revolutionary agenda. Thinking about the experience of gestational workers becomes a way of thinking more generally about pregnancy, child-care, the organisation of our society, and the labour we undertake to reproduce society from one day to the next. Lewis writes, “We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy” (19-20). Ultimately, for Lewis, “surrogacy politics aren’t just a concern for an infinitesimal, niche sliver of the proletariat” (56), any more than the anarchism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Anarres, or the lesbian feminism of Joanna Russ’ Whileaway is ‘just’ a concern for the inhabitants of those imagined regions.[2]

Lewis draws upon a long history of socialist feminist thought—Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974) is a particular influence—to reframe the discourse around pregnancy. By using surrogacy as her lens, she can reveal the inconsistencies in what passes for ‘common sense’ about pregnancy. “Pregnancy is not something society as a whole tends to question. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is hotly contested. Yet we can readily perceive that all that really separates the two is the possibility of a wage” (44). Refusing to position gestational work as a sacred maternal sphere, determined by a naturalised biology, Lewis instead asks: “What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors[?]” (129).

In this way, Full Surrogacy Now is part of a larger, pressing, political project. This is the project that challenges the white, liberal, trans-exclusionary, whorephobic, ‘feminist’ discourse which is currently dominating conversations around sex work and gestational labour. Just as infants do not belong to their parents as property, workers do not belong to their clients or employers. In advocating for the rights of workers whose labour is so often delegitimised, exploited, and criminalised, Full Surrogacy Now joins texts as Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018). Here, Lewis argues for the recognition of surrogacy as work, while simultaneously taking up a fundamentally anti-work position. For Lewis, gestational labour’s “articulation as work in the first instance will be key to abolishing [it] (as work) in the long run” (42).

Although Full Surrogacy Now always keeps these wider goals in sight, a substantial part of Lewis’ writing takes the form of an analysis of the material conditions of gestational workers currently labouring within the commercial surrogacy industry. The study which Lewis provides of the Akanksha Hospital, and in particular of the charismatic representative of neoliberalism Dr. Nayana Patel, is detailed, wide-ranging and politically and theoretically rigorous. Lewis notes that

[…] most prominent white feminists, no matter how queer they are at home, no matter how critical of the family as the primary site of patriarchal and queerphobic abuse, are remarkably prone to forgetting this antipathy when it comes to legislating lives in sufficiently “other” (proletarian) neighborhoods.

(41)

In contrast, Lewis’s approach provides a welcome alternative to this ideologically-driven amnesia. Even for those for whom commercial surrogacy is not (yet) a particular area of interest, Lewis’s determined focus on the material conditions of these particular labourers should be noted.

The emphasis on the working conditions of surrogates is also of particular relevance to those SF critics who study so-called “pregnancy dystopias” (10), given that, as Lewis argues, “in order to paint the neat picture of surrogacy-as-dystopia that First World feminists so often seem to want to paint, actually existing gestational workers have to be ignored almost by definition” (16). Lewis reintroduces the voices of those workers who are actively seeking out these supposedly-dystopic surrogate pregnancies into the conversation around dystopian pregnancy narratives. In this way, she demonstrates that a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist critique of an industry in which “living humans have become the sexless ‘technology’ component of the euphemism Assisted Reproductive Technology” (24) need not take a Eurocentric perspective which erases the agency and desires of those same “living humans.”

One prime example of a ‘pregnancy dystopia’ is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Lewis joins scholars such as Kate Meakin in critiquing “Atwood’s sterility apocalypse” (11) for its deification of white motherhood, its race-blindness, and the “stylized pleasure” it takes in its “chastity cos-play” (13): something which has become increasingly prominent in the recent HBO adaptation of Atwood’s writing.

Borrowing the historical experience of forced surrogacy from the American plantation, Atwood had […] clearly adapted its emotiveness for the purposes of a color-blind — white — feminism. […] At least the original novel had referred to Gilead’s eugenic purging of the tacitly African ‘Children of Ham,’ thereby demonstrating some recognition of the racial character of reproductive stratification as elaborated through the Middle Passage [slave ships crossing from Africa to the Americas]. In 2017, Hulu series director Bruce Miller took blithe erasure of black women’s historic connection with surrogacy to the next level. Announcing that he had ‘simplified’ the story, Miller presented an image of a society with no race, class, or history: a society in which ‘fertility trumps all.’

Lewis further argues: “the pleasures of an extremist misogyny, defined as womb-farming, risks concealing from us what are simply slower and less photogenic forms of violence, such as race, class, and binary gender itself” (14). She is certainly not dismissive of those for whom, as she puts it, “a personal encounter with this particular text has been the moment of feminist coming-to-consciousness” (14). But nor does she accept that the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale in feminist circles ought to absolve it of all its many failings. In this she provides a model for those feminist SF critics who are hesitant about demanding a rigorously intersectional, trans-inclusive feminism from texts which are often hailed as feminist masterpieces simply because they champion the rights of (cis, straight, white) women.

Lewis also offers readings of Butler’s and Piercy’s writing: framing their surrogate-focused works as texts which either engage in surrogacy as terrifying and alien (Butler) or as a utopian alternative to the ‘problem’ of human gestation (Piercy). By returning frequently to these texts as part of her wider theorisation of surrogacy, Lewis joins the great tradition of feminist writers such as Haraway, Susan Stryker, and adrienne maree brown, who weave science fiction into their theoretical analyses—once again challenging the boundaries of possibility. From a SF studies perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ coverage of these texts is relatively brief, and highly focused. I feel that there is more room here for SF scholars to explore the implications of what Lewis calls “full surrogacy” (20) within feminist SF. Feminist SF is a field which is deeply invested in the ethics of reproductive technology, and thus in the fact that, as Lewis puts it, “we are the makers of one another” (19). In Piercy’s lactating fathers and Butler’s multi-generational, multi-species communities where — just as in the contemporary commercial surrogacy industry — gestational labour is coercively but consensually entered into, I see more than the oscillation between “the alienated misery of the status quo” and “the silver absolutism of their techno-fix” (28). I see a gesture towards the “horizon of gestational communism” (21) that Lewis locates in the science-fictional sculptures of artist Patricia Piccinini. Lewis argues that the question to be gleaned from Piccinini’s sculptures is “not whether surrogates will intimately produce us one day,” but “rather, how we should respond to them and hold them—since they’re already here” (158).

It is this utopian turn in her writing which, I argue, transforms Lewis’ work from insightful critique into transformative critical apparatus. This is not a book which is merely about impossibility; rather, it demands impossibility.[3] The fact that we cannot necessarily explain every detail of what Lewis calls the “gestational commune” (29) must not prevent us from desiring it, nor from creating it. Moreover, this is not an impossibility which lies in a distant future, beyond the utopian horizon. As Lewis rightly notes: “Despite capitalism’s worldwide hegemony, many people on earth are putting something like ‘full surrogacy’ into practice every day, cultivating non-oedipal kinship and sharing reciprocal mothering labors between many individuals and generations” (147). Reciprocal baby-making is the stuff of impossibility. It is also happening right now. We can only hope that, as Sun Ra might put it, “when you’ve achieved one impossible the others / Come together to be with their brother” … or, in this case, with their multiply-parented surro-sibling.[4]

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Surrogate’

Katie Stone is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis explores childhood and utopianism as imagined in science fiction. Katie is co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community and co-founder of the research network ‘Utopian Acts’. She recently co-edited a special issue of Studies in Arts and Humanities Journal and she has written for Foundation, Fantastika and SFRA Review. She is on Twitter @cyborg_feminist.

[1] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (New York, NY: Verson, 2019) p. 19. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given within the text.

[2] See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (London: Gollancz, 2002; first published 1974) and Joanna Russ, The Female Man (London: Gollancz, 2010; first published 1975).

[3] See Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (York: Methuen, 1986)

[4] Sun Ra, ‘Reality has touched against myth’, Esquire (July, 1969) 53-141.

N.B. This review was slightly updated in September 2019.

From our archive: An interview with Saul Williams by Richard Howard

slamSaul Williams is a poet, hip-hop M.C., producer and actor who first came to prominence through his victory at the poetry Grand Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1996. This event kick-started an acting career for Williams with the lead role in the feature film Slam in 1998, and a music career in which Williams began to blend his poetry with his love of hip-hop. What makes Williams’ work interesting from a science fiction standpoint is the obvious affinity he has with the genre, evident in his lyrics and the soundscapes that he chooses to rhyme over. From the outset, Williams wrote and produced with a speculative bent. In the song ‘Ohm’ from 1998’s Lyricist Lounge compilation, Williams announced ‘I am no Earthling, I drink moonshine on Mars/And mistake meteors for stars ‘cause I can’t hold my liquor/But I can hold my breath and ascend like wind to the black hole/And play galaxaphones on the fire escapes of your soul’. The glimmering production on ‘Ohm’ is no less science fictional, especially as it accelerates at around the three-minute mark.

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From Our Archive: Nisi Shawl

This article first appeared in Vector 247.

Colourful Stories

Fantastic Fiction by African Descended Authors, by Nisi Shawl

Everfair coverSo rich a sea, so broad the currents … in exploring fantastic literature by African-descended authors, where do we start?

“Begin at the beginning” is standard advice for writers. “Begin where you are” is more my style. Where I am at the moment, where I’ve been most of my life, is North America. Though I know there are many other schools of African-descended writers out there, myriad fabulists swimming in gorgeous array, I’m at my best talking about those with whom I’ve had the most contact, those about whom I have something substantial to say: those who inhabit the Western Hemisphere. In the course of this essay, then, I’ll focus on “New World” writers of fantastic fiction whose ancestors came from Africa. I’ll talk about specific works by them and also touch a bit on what I see as a commonly shared theme.
Just as important as my location in the three dimensions of physical space is my location in a fourth, time. When I am is one week out from learning of the death of my friend Octavia Estelle Butler. So despite the fact that her fiction’s far better known than that of some of her colleagues, it’s to her work I’ll turn first.

Octavia, as almost anyone who knew her will tell you, was not quite a recluse, but fledglingsomeone who valued her loneliness very highly. Yet a major concern of the heroine of Fledgling, her last complete book, is building a community. Shori belongs to a sentient species known as the ‘Ina’, and must consume human blood to live. In other words, she’s a vampire–but a scientifically plausible one. At its best, the Ina/human relationship is symbiotic, and Shori, survivor of a vicious, lethal attack on her original family, instinctively seeks to reconstruct what she has lost: a feminist-oriented blending of species and sexual preferences that might be the envy of a Utopianist visionary.

Shori’s other quest, of course, is to bring to justice those who murdered her mother, her sisters, and the humans they had gathered into their extended family. The killings may have been “racially” motivated; that is, though Shori’s not human, she has been genetically altered so that her skin is as dark as most blacks, and the tactics her enemies use are those of the Klan and other racist lynchers.

While it’s these last points that will probably impress most readers as drawing on African American culture, the book’s concern with social and familial structure shares the same roots, I would argue. Historically, most New World descendents of Africans came to this hemisphere as victims of the slave trade. This means that a large percentage of the cultural artifacts that survived that trauma are non-material. And even these were difficult to retain, subject to enormous stresses under the system of chattel slavery. Language, genealogy, occupational associations: all vanished or were transformed beyond easy recognition. It seems to me that a longing for these lost inheritances underpins the frequent tendency of New World African descendents to write what’s known as “third order” stories.
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