Dawn: Archetype of a Villain

We do need you. A partner must be biologically interesting – attractive – to us, and you are fascinating. You are horror and beauty in rare combination. In a very real way, you’ve captured us.

Nikanj, Oankali Ooloi. Dawn, Part III, Chapter 6

We will add your distinctiveness to our own.

Borg, Star Trek, The Next Generation

Let me open with Star Trek The Next Generation (TNG)’s Borg Collective. If nothing else, they are forthright about their goals – assimilate everyone and everything to be a part of themselves. Their method? Big, ugly metal implants, and a whole lot of brute force. 

I am Locutus of Borg. If I were actually as eloquent as Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek TNG might have taken a very different turn at the beginning of Season 4.

Now imagine if they understood soft power. That is, the ability to co-opt their victims to achieve control rather than using outright coercion. Imagine if they used sophisticated genetic engineering to prepare their would-be partners instead of crude metal implants. Imagine if, instead of barking “resistance is futile” and firing lasers they patiently explained why assimilation is the right choice for humanity. This is what the Oankali do.

You are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem but took pride in it or did not notice it at all… that was like ignoring cancer.

Jdahya, Oankali Male. Dawn, Part I, Chapter 5

You’ll live much longer than a hundred and thirteen years. And for most of your life, you’ll be biologically quite young. Your children will live longer still.

Jdahya, Oankali Male. Dawn, Part I, Chapter 3

I offer a oneness that your people strive for, dream of, but can’t truly attain alone.

Nikanj, Oankali Ooloi, Dawn, Part III, Chapter 12

So, a correction for the woes of human nature, eternal youth, and superhuman personal connection. Why are we fighting this again? Especially given that the Borg encounter an interstellar humanity at the height of its power and the Oankali find them struggling to survive the aftermath of WWIII, it’s easy to see why the former has more trouble making its case than the latter. That said, I want to offer a different reason for the Borg’s less erudite approach to conquest – they’re a villain in an episodic TV show.

This ties in nicely with my complaint about Thanos, the purple space giant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) obsessed with “balancing” the universe by killing half of everyone. His arguments are full of gravitas, but absent of actual weight. Like all mass market action movie villains, his goal has to be obviously evil to all viewers. 

Reasonable thought: Excess population growth can strain resources
Ludicrous conclusion: Let’s kill half of everybody

Why is that? In the MCU, the universe cannot change. All the lasers, gods, and witchcraft must take place against the backdrop of our world. Since serious change can never happen and the hero must win, a hero in a Marvel movie can never be an agent of change, only of maintaining the status quo*. Therefore, if Thanos makes a good argument, like “let’s fix some flaws with human nature, make everyone live youthful and energetic lives for 200 years, and enable personal connection well beyond current human limits,” the audience may split or even turn against the purported heroes, who by the very nature of the format are locked into opposing him. Sorry, Trekkies, same goes for the Federation. You can’t have a late eighties, early nineties serialized TV show completely change its premise in a climax in Season 3.

This is one of many reasons that we must read fiction, not just watch it on screens. If you haven’t read the book, I can’t justify this in a short-form blog entry, but the Oankali do a pretty good job of convincing many readers that they’re in the right. Personally, I suspect that Octavia Butler conceived this story as the Oankali tell it – a story of aliens rescuing humanity from itself. By thinking deeply about what it would actually look like for aliens to come and “fix” the problems she saw with basic human nature, Butler took it from trite wish fulfillment to literary classic.

Without the pressures of mass-market commercial appeal, a standardized continuous universe, a strict time limit, or an action movie format necessitating large amounts of redemptive violence, Octavia Butler had the room to write a story where it’s not clear whether we should root for the Oankali agents of change or the reactionary humans. She had the freedom to depict our world changing into one so radically different that we are forced to consider the nature of humanity. She dares us to ask the question “how much should we sacrifice to protect the status quo?”

* Exceptions to this, such as when Thor intentionally destroys his homeland to protect it from a greater villain in Thor Ragnarok only work because Asgaard is a fictional place. We never have to see it again. You will never see an MCU movie where a Tony Stark character destroys an evacuated New York City to protect it from some greater force because then the other movies have to deal with a smoking hole where NYC used to be.

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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