From Contamination to Community: Octavia Butler's Clay's Ark

Neeraja Sundaram


This paper examines the trope of the virus in Octavia Butler’s 1984 science fiction novel Clay’s Ark, where an alien virus manifests as a border organism that produces new forms of the human. I argue that the trope of the viral agent in Butler’s Clay’s Ark reconfigures the ‘self’ (the human) and the ‘other’ (the virus) at the level of the material and the discursive, leading to a reconceptualisation of the epistemological and ontological basis for the definition of and distinction between, the two. Secondly, the diseased, contagious self in Clay’s Ark, is subject to neither ‘containment’ nor quarantine, but instead is the basis for the formation of a new social contract in a world that is soon to be ravaged by an extraterrestrial epidemic. The paper demonstrates the pervasive influence of the epistemic and discursive formulations of the “human” in a social order transformed by viral invasion.

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