Shapeshifting and the Locus of Self

cover-wild-seedOctavia E. Butler was renowned amongst science fiction authors for many reasons, from the literary content of her work to her implicit commentary on society to her stretching the usual tropes to the point of snapping.  She proves that while there may be “no more original stories”, there remain ways to revisit familiar elements with a fresh pair of eyes and give them new life.

An example of this can be found in her novel Wild Seed, the protagonist of which is a shapeshifter – hardly anything new in the realm of fantasy, but perhaps not so common to science fiction.  What Butler does with her shapeshifter – Anyanwu – however, is completely uncommon, in that she deeply considers all of the implications of what it means to even be a shifter, the full parameters of that ability.

The analogue that comes to mind is the wind elemental, who will of course control currents of air, maybe fashion them into slicing wind blades.  But how many will manipulate air to create a vacuum around an opponent to suffocate him, or in combat with a fire elemental, simply withdraw the oxygen from the flames and render him powerless?  Authors tend to delve into only the most superficial aspects of a given phenomenon, which is what makes them worn and trite.

Butler describes Anyanwnu’s abilities thus:

And you have not understood how completely that one body can change. I cannot leave it as you can, but I can make it over. I can make it over so completely in the image of someone else that I am no longer truly related to my parents. It makes me wonder what I am – that I can do this and still know myself, still return to my true shape. [p. 198]

As a shapeshifter, Anyanwu has complete control of her body down to the smallest unit.  We see her perform the expected, such as transforming into other people, or even animals.  But we also come to understand that because aging is entirely a physical process, Anyanwu for her ability to control all such processes, is also in fact, an immortal.  For this, she has lived thousands of years, and countless different lives.  In the particular situation above, Anyanwu is discussing how she transformed from an African woman to a white man.

The setting was the southern United States in 1840, a time when as an African woman, she would have been enslaved.  She invented the identity of a white man and even purchased other enslaved people under the pretense that she would own them herself, only to instead create a sort of egalitarian commune in the midst of a time and place that such a thing should have been impossible.

Furthermore, she was married to a white woman, one who for her own special abilities, became fully aware of who and what Anyanwu really was – that is, a black woman – and loved her just the same.  In the above section, Anyanwu is further clarifying her abilities within the context of an offer she made to her wife, to transform herself so completely into a white man that they may have children.  However, during the time, a white woman who gave birth to black children was looked upon with scorn, “becomes almost an animal in the eyes of other whites”.

Under normal circumstances, Anyanwu only changes her outer appearance, but in this case she was willing – and able – to transform her very DNA, although this term was not yet known, to give her wife white children.  In the end, the wife recognized the implications of such a change for Anyanwu, that she would be asking her to be something completely other than herself, invalidating her worth as a human being.  The compromise was instead, for the two not to have children at all, and instead continue caring for the greater community as their family.

But the above passage also raises an interesting question about the content of  “self”.  If a person were able to transform themselves down to their very DNA, yet still somehow maintain their concept of self, how exactly do we define such a quantity?  It would seem to me that, as Susan Blackmore discusses in her book The Meme Machine, that self is merely a collection of mutually benefitting ideas – memes – which in the spirit of preservation enter into a sort of collaboration, defining “self” within the brain of the human being.

This concept of self as a collection of interchangeable parts is consistent with our existential freedom to “reinvent” ourselves, once we recognize that we have the ability to do so.  We can change how we interface with others, our outward appearance, our language, our gender, even to a point our “race” – at least with respect to our own internal concept of self, apart, if not completely removed from the perceptions of others.

The character with whom Anyanwu is speaking is another immortal, Doro, who although he cannot shapeshift, is a telepath with the ability to transfer himself from one body to another, “overwriting” the “soul” of the person who occupies the body and in effect killing them.  His nature is an anathema to Anyanwu and forms much of the central conflict between them.

Wild Seed, which is part of Butler’s Patternmaster series of novels, does not get around to explaining the nature of Doro’s power, though most – including Anyanwu – believe him to be some sort of devil or spirit.  However, knowing Octavia Butler to be a science-fiction writer, and one who always goes beyond the usual expectations for the genre, I suspect he is something far more complex.

I suspect that Anyanwu’s understanding of her own abilities and the implicit question of self offers some insight into Doro as well.  It is my hypothesis that Doro is actually telepathically imprinting all of his knowledge, memories, and aspects of his personality – that is, the contents of his “self” – into the mind of the new host.  He is, in terms of the body he originally occupied, his DNA, everything physical about him, long dead.  But he manages to preserve himself by proxy, through a transference of “self” as a collection of memes.

If my theory proves to be true – although I actually suspect the above hints may be all Butler is willing to give, leaving readers to extrapolate for ourselves – it is yet another example of how the standard elements of speculative fiction can be infused with new life, so as to seem like entirely new concepts.  In a sense, Butler shows us that whatever “self” defines the genre, is subject to the same existential transformation we see in Anyanwu and Doro.