Octavia Butler, 2003

Many of the readings we do in this class make us appreciate just how remarkable it is that we can change other people’s minds with language. To an outsider, someone who had no idea what language was or how humans used it, this might seem almost occult: I make some noises with my mouth and you start behaving differently. Just by talking, Frankenstein’s monster brings his creator from violence to calm. Just by talking, the serpent gets Eve to eat the apple. Some of the stories we read stretch this power beyond what the real world would allow: Just by uttering one word, Millie unleashes a deadly pandemic that destroys everyone she knows.

As I read ‘Amnesty,’ I started to see this power of language from a different angle. I found myself thinking about how – and how often – language fails to change minds or change the world, and how we cope with these failures and manage (or not) to coexist anyway.

Like other sci-fi, ‘Amnesty’ gives us a twist on our real world that allows us to see a familiar phenomenon in a fresh way. The main character Noah is a human translator. Ostensibly her job is to help humans communicate with another intelligent species that has arrived on Earth. Relations between humans and this species are largely hostile, for reasons we learn about in the story. Most humans call the aliens ‘weeds’; Noah, who knows more about them, calls them ‘Communities’ because each individual is actually composed of many individuals, a little bit like a swarm of bees but with no clear leader.

How do you change the mind of something that doesn’t have one mind?

How do you change the mind of someone who finds you utterly incomprehensible and repulsive?

The story consists of three interactions: Noah interacts with a Community subcontractor; Noah interacts with a Community employer; and Noah interacts with a group of scared and angry humans who are job candidates for the Communities.

Each interaction involves a different kind of failure to change minds with language.

Here are some of the things we discussed in our group:

  • more thoughts about the nature of Community ‘minds’ – as part of this, we talked about the novel pronoun itselves, used on p. 600.)
  • the mechanics of the language that has been developed between the two species; what makes it similar to & different from human speech
  • Noah says she wants to ‘tell the truth’ as well as ‘change [people] a little.’ Do we trust her to tell the truth? Does she change anyone she interacts with? Does she change us as readers?
  • How grossed out are we by Noah’s framing of the human-extraterrestrial conflict as ‘a kind of sibling rivalry’ (p. 601)? Can we accept Noah’s framing without abandoning our entire sense of justice and morality?
  • What is amnesty? One of its cognates is amnesia – how are these concepts related? Who grants and who receives amnesty in this story? What is the role of amnesia/amnesty in the act of storytelling, and/or in the experience of being human?
  • Noah in the Bible makes a covenant with God. What is a covenant? Why might this be an important idea for us to have in mind as we read this story?
  • …and lots more that I’m forgetting.

Please comment! You can fill in things I left out about our discussion or about the story itself, argue with my comments above, or add follow-up thoughts and insights.

5 thoughts on “Amnesty

  1. Trinity Saxon

    With “Amnesty”, Butler executes such a successful defamiliarization project. Using an alien invasion, Butler replicates human subordination to seemingly inextinguishable systems. Here, the alien Communities—hive-like units composed of smaller organisms that interact with each other—call to mind the ways of transnational corporations. In fact, the alien Communities even adopt familiar, human modes of oppression and exploitation, utilizing humans for both labor and pleasure. This system’s success requires this permanent underclass. Butler presents this subordination as permanent, existing as long as humans are unable to transcend the limitations of their biological abilities. “Amnesty” reflects a Nietzschean understanding of free will—and the impossibility of its acquisition due to such biological limitations. However, this impossibility is often obscured by flexible and optional social hierarchies. Where biology has previously allowed for humans to overpower other creatures—both by way of domestication and/or displacement—it now has met its limits. Nietzsche defines the desire for free will as a desire for power. This power-seeking endeavor, though, is not to be confined to humans, as it extends itself to the universe’s properties.

    The Communities are external providers of life, much like the technological enhancements (medical implants and nuclear weapons) that have obscured human fallibility. While these external aids act as extensions of the human, they also reveal the boundaries of human ‘power’. When nuclear defense proves to be insufficient, the story’s humans are no longer able to conflate its power with their own, and what is left is the human as dictated by biology—inferior to its new foe (615). That humans must rely on such an exploitative system for survival suggests an odd compatibility between humans and their self-imposed labor systems. I have argued in the past that the neoliberal project of Argentina’s Chicago Boys capitalizes on human nature. However, what I previously mistook for human nature may actually be the inevitable subordination of all existences within our universe to an external and opposite force.

    When the new recruits question Noah about forgiveness, Butler puts human naivety on display (602, 606). In this world, forgiveness is moot. The meaninglessness of human speech acts here represent the dissolution of human social contracts in the face of not another social giant, but rather a biologically stronger foe. This is further evidenced when Noah reveals that anger, hatred, and intent to harm will not render the employees’ contractual obligations null and void (614). As Dr. Pak notes above, language fails to change minds in this story. It seems that Butler misrepresents the issue when she places translators as potential problem solvers. Humans have been able to force animals into subordination not by asking for permission, but rather by physical force. Those that remain undomesticated hold physical advantages. Nietzsche has condemned the intellect by devaluing language, noting that human intellect only masks the physical weaknesses innate to the race. “Amnesty” supports such a belief.

    Ultimately, Noah’s complacency seemingly reflects the capitalistic Stockholm Syndrome that may afflict Butler’s audience. “Amnesty” may read as an indictment. To some, Noah would be wise—to others, a sell-out.

    1. Trinity Saxon

      Amendment to my previous comment: While Argentina too followed a path intertwined with Chile’s, I mean to refer specifically to Chile’s Chicago Boys.

  2. Marjorie Pak

    Your comments made me think of a couple things:
    1. “Linguist as peace-keeping translator” is kind of a trope in sci-fi; we see it with Louise Banks’ character in Arrival (which I think is one of the things that makes the movie adaptation different from the novella, and which I personally didn’t like much), with Avice in Embassytown, with Captain Uhura in Star Trek, with Father Sandoz in The Sparrow (by Maria Doria Russell), and probably lots more. I think you and I are both noticing that while Noah seems to be ‘trying out’ for this peace-keeping translator role, she’s not succeeding. Still, I’m deeply moved when she says, “…but I have to try” (p. 600). She seems to *need* to tell her truth, even if nobody will be convinced, and I find that very relatable.
    2. Some sci-fi imagines a scenario where a stronger, more powerful alien species arrives on Earth and the threat *unites* humans, makes us forget all our differences so that we can fight off this invader. The film ‘Independence Day’ really went all-out with this idea, but we also see a version of it in some Star Trek films (when they talk about how Earth joined the federation, they’ll say humanity united around the idea that ‘we weren’t alone in the universe’)… and again, there are probably other examples that I’m forgetting. But in ‘Amnesty,’ obviously, nothing like this happens – the aliens’ presence seems to bring out the very worst in humankind and causes them to be even more hostile with each other. Is this just Butler being a pessimist? Or is it something about the type of threat these Communities pose – not an acute danger of physical destruction but rather a kind of economic devastation? (Is it harder for humans to unite against such a threat?)
    Have you read Butler’s story ‘Bloodchild’? Lots of parallels; I wonder if you’d react to it in a similar way.

  3. Nico Mestre

    I like to believe every story has one line that sums it up, gets at its heart. Often while reading, I find myself searching for this special line with a pink highlighter. The line leaps out to you, and you keep it in mind until the very end.

    In “Amnesty” by Octavia Spencer, we meet Noah as she exits the embrace of her Community (amorphous alien) contractor. As a translator, she is tasked with teaching Communities about humanity and providing them with the pleasure of enfolding. One line—that special line—appears as Noah leaves the contractor Community and joins her employer Community. Butler writes, “She saw nothing as she was passed from darkness to darkness” (599).

    This line disarms the reader, who at this point in the story must succumb to the strangeness of the conceit: aliens are on Earth, they enfold humans, Noah works for them. Every sci-fi story has this moment that requires the reader to let go. Let go of the real world. Let go of logic. Let go so the real can become a bit more surreal. Let go so you can defamiliarize yourself with humanity, and as you gaze up from the last word, join it once again. But changed. Renewed.

    As soon as Butler sets the scene by world-building, she turns us to a human conversation that is ever so realistic. This whiplash between the real and the surreal is a trademark of her fiction. This move in particular is subtle yet masterful. She lures us in with the surreal just to bring us back to human relationships and their intricacies.

    Whereas the first scene is full of represented thoughts and physical imagery, the second consists primarily of dialogue. Noah discusses her job with a group of potential hirees. In contrast to the ineffable quality of Noah’s embrace with the Community, the humans argue, disagree, and roar with emotions—anger, jealousy, and confusion chief among them. The polyphonic dialogue of the second scene represents the failure of human language to bring several minds into alignment. Unlike the Communities, which Noah explains “each contains several hundred individuals” (604), humans remain dispersed, isolated, islands of the self.

    Only once Noah tells her story in the final scene does the reader digest one consistent, largely uninterrupted story of who the Communities are and why they are on Earth. But even then, should we rush to trust Noah’s narrative? Can we, for that matter, trust any single storyteller, any single perspective?

    At the end, beyond noticing Noah’s bias, we being to interrogate Butler’s storytelling itself. Butler offers us three distinct windows into humans’ relationships with Communities—from within the Community, from a group of humans’ conversations, and from Noah’s perspective. Which do we trust? Can they all coexist at once? Finally, it all goes back to the title: who has been granted “amnesty”—the humans by the Communities, Noah by her counterparts, or Butler by her readers, by us?

    1. Marjorie Pak PhD Post author

      I keep thinking about the line you highlighted: “She saw nothing as she was passed from darkness to darkness.”
      The main impression I took away from that excerpt was that Noah was *enjoying* this sensation – she finds it pleasant to be enfolded. The blindness, the helplessness, the passivity: I guess I can imagine how that would be kind of a relief, even though it’s disturbing to admit to that.
      Now that I’ve read our next story, McCombs’ “Toward a theory of alternative lifestyles,” I’m thinking about how the darkness of being enfolded contrasts with the too-bright, seeing-too-much experience of Collider. I’m also remembering the pervasive darkness in Borges’ “Funes the memorious.” Maybe I’ll have something more coherent to say about this when we meet.


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