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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Alien Invasions, Vulnerable Bodies: Science Fiction and the Biopolitics of Embodiment from H. G. Wells to Octavia Butler

  • Author(s): Diaz, Rosalind
  • Advisor(s): Snyder, Katherine V
  • et al.

This dissertation turns to alien invasion narratives to elucidate the social, ethical and political consequences associated with the modern body as an entity with clearly defined borders. The imperatives of liberalism and neoliberalism constitute the modern body as a white, male, heteronormative body, navigating appropriate relationships to production and consumption. How does the human body emerge as a bounded entity in science and science fiction from the nineteenth century onward? Alien invasion narratives offer a fruitful way to trace this concept and its development over time. These narratives model proper ways of attending to one’s body as well as proper ways of defending oneself—and, by extension, the planet—from alien invasion. The present inquiry focuses on three different alien invasion narratives, beginning with H. G. Wells’s influential The War of the Worlds (1897), before moving to consider a pair of twentieth-century American texts: Philip Kaufman’s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling (2005).

This project connects these fictional narratives to biological understandings of the body and to the biopolitical formations that govern embodiment. Each of the three chapters foregrounds a different biopolitical apparatus: immunity, quarantine, and addiction, respectively. These three concepts all focus on the body’s relationship to a “foreign” entity or substance. Immunity defines the body’s natural ability to fend off germs, while quarantine attempts to protect the body from germs and other harmful encounters; addiction represents the body’s failure to keep out the category of substances known as drugs. Each of these concepts further entails a theory of how interior and exterior relate to each other, which is at once biological and biopolitical. Each is invested in monitoring the boundary between interior and exterior of the body. The event of alien invasion illuminates the deployment of these concepts in order to re-constitute humanity as whiteness, police the borders of the bounded body, and fend off the incursions of non-normative modes of embodiment.

The War of the Worlds and subsequent alien invasion narratives such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers deploy biological discourse in order to address the question: who can claim membership in the supposedly universal category of “the human”? Fledgling’s intervention into this tradition points toward the queer utopian possibilities of disrupting the category of the human. Rather than asking who rightfully belongs to the category of the human and who has earned the right to participate in the continuation of the human race, Fledgling asks, who is protected by invoking such a category? What if the category of the human did not need to have rigidly defined boundaries? What if interdependency and fluidity were not understood to be fatal flaws in the body? Fledgling reveals that doing away with the premise that the body must remain bounded does indeed disrupt white hegemony and heteronormativity, along with the normative construction of “health.” However, the novel figures this disruption not as a catastrophe, but as a necessary step towards queer utopia.

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