“‘We used to treat animals that way’”: How James Vandermeer and Octavia Butler Transform their Human Protagonists into an “It” through New Materialism

In her article “The Force of Things: Steps towards an Ecology of Matter,” Jane Bennett coins a term known as thing-power materialism, a literary viewpoint which suggests things have an innate agency to move humans similarly to how humans manipulate things in their environment. Bennet asserts how thing-power materialism provides an “account of how it is that things have the power to move humans…it does not deny that there are differences between human and nonhuman, though it strives to describe them without succumbing to the temptation to place humans at the ontological center” (359). This movement of viewing things as agents in their own rights shifts away from human exceptionalism, the idea that humans define the world as if the world revolves around them. Therefore, this current geological age known as the Anthropocene allows new opportunities to study the interactions between humans and the environment. For scholars such as Melinda Benson, it is incorrect to separate humans from the material world and instead persists that while humans do impact their surroundings, the surrounding objects also impact humans through their own agency. This view of the material world’s agency is new materialism, a literary lens which shifts from human exceptionalism and focuses on the object power. With this idea of objects holding power, Serpil Oppermann further suggests that the environment is a storyteller narrating a complex plot with never-ending entangled interrelationships between humans and nonhuman matter. Oppermann categorizes these relationships as eco-criticism, a theoretical framework which suggests how all material has narrative agency through both verbal and non-verbal performances. Because not all individuals verbally express their narratives, more compounded individuals, such as humans, have the capacity to interpret their stories based on their behaviors and appearances. In this sense, humans have the duty to interpret and narrate ecology. While ecology can hold different meanings to each individual, scholar Teemu Paavolainen defines ecology as the interaction between an individual and its environment, and therefore ecological affordances examines what the environment offers to human actors. Therefore, the Anthropocene becomes a way to study not how the humans impact the ecology but rather how these ecological things influence and manipulate humans through their own agency.

While the field of new materialism emerged relatively recently, this notion of viewing the world through nonhuman agency dates to the Eighteenth century with the rise of the novel (at least for novels written in English). Evolving from the frivolous and repetitious plotlines of romances and factual travel guides, novels shifted the literary form to something more realistic yet still in the realm of fantasy. Even though scholars debate when the actual form of the novel became definite, one of the earliest subgenres of the novel is now known as it-narratives, a literary work which tells its tale from a nonhuman protagonist. One benefit of a nonhuman narrator is how they enable authors to both examine and critique human nature in a different way in comparison to humans passing judgement unto other humans. In her article, Crystal Lake suggests how authors are unable to fully express human senses because of authorial biases. An object narrator, however, has a better capability to express sentimental feelings about the actions of humans since they are separate from humanity. For Lake, it-narrators express emotions and actions freely whereas human narrators try to find motives of these sensations and actions. In a similar line of reasoning, Christina Lupton also examines how objects do think; they just think differently from humans because self-awareness does not hinder their perception. This absence of self-awareness thus makes objects perfect narrators to describe how humans interact with not just other people but also with their environment as a third-party observer. One of the most notable examples of a nonhuman protagonist is Francis Coventry’s novel The History of Pompey the Little: or The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog (1751). As the title suggests, Coventry writes the novel from the perspective of a dog who is “owned” by several humans ranging from different social classes. While Coventry depicts several instances where humans treat Pompey as an object when they mindlessly trade him as a commodity, Coventry also includes instances where Pompey decides to leave his owners by choice rather than through circumstances instigated by humans. Because Pompey acts as an “it,” an object to contrast the human characters, Pompey has the innate ability to float, or rather transcend, through the social classes whereas humans could not so easily overcome these boundaries. Pompey, therefore, becomes one of the original examples of how objects affect humans. For example, Pompey running away at the park in the beginning of the novel causes his owner, Lady Tempest, to spend the rest of the novel trying to find her lost dog as the reader discovers at the end of the narrative when Pompey runs into Lady Tempest once again. In this sense, Coventry exploits how a dog has the agency to change the life of a human, which in this case is Lady Tempest. Just like how Coventry demonstrates this vulnerable human relationship to their surroundings, more modern writers also reveal how human-material world relationships are indeed not one-sided. As examples, both Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation and Octavia Butler’s Dawn both investigate how the environment around their human characters manipulate these characters through their own agency instead of humans controlling their surroundings. Both these authors strip humans from any inherit power and place their human protagonist at the mercy of their environment in order to convert humans into manipulated objects. In other words, the environment in these two novels objectify the humans in order to place significance on the nonhuman aspects of the novel to transform humans into an “it.”

For Vandermeer, his novel depicts humans as mere puppets constantly manipulated not only by a greater human collective but also by the environment. In order to do this, Vandermeer strips his human characters of their names and instead identifies them by their occupation such as: the biologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and psychologist. Vandermeer’s decision to negate personal names is not only similar to how scientists classify animals and plants based on function and purpose, but it also removes a human connection from each other as if not knowing each other’s name creates a distance between the characters. For example, when the surveyor aims to kill the biologist after returning to the camp site from the lighthouse, the surveyor demands, “‘Tell me your name! Tell me your goddamn fucking name!’” (Vandermeer 146). The biologist then retorts how knowing her name would make no difference in this situation. Therefore, for the surveyor, calling the biologist by her name would humanize her and essentially less like the brightness which embodies the biologist at this point. Through the absence of names, Vandermeer already starts to dehumanize his characters. Yet once the humans enter Area X, the environment starts to overcome their remaining humanity.

Similarly to how the biologist comes closer connected to the area, there is another person Area X allows to “live”-the lighthouse keeper who gets transformed into the Crawler. While the novel slowly tracks the biologist’s dehumanization process, Vandermeer introduces the lighthouse keeper already completely manipulated by Area X. One significant feature of the Crawler is how it still has a brain. From the one Crawler example the biologist can examine, the sample turns out to be a piece of human brain tissue. With the Crawler having remaining human biological components, Vandermeer associates the Crawler with not just Area X but also back to humanity. In other words, this brain tissue allows the Crawler to have the possibility of being a human. Vandermeer’s choice to use a piece of brain to connect the Crawler back to humanity is particularly significant with the theme of brain washing and manipulation by the psychologist. While Area X controls the lighthouse keeper’s body by physically embodying it, the psychologist controls the other three group members through their brain. The psychologist manipulates her fellow group members through hypnotism in order to study the tower and the human-hybrid known as the Crawler. In this sense, the mysterious nature of Area X compels the humans to keep going on these expeditious in order to unreal its mysteries, forcing them to manipulate each other in order to find answers. The psychologist, therefore, is the prime example to examine human-human manipulation in the name of discovery. For example, she compels the anthropologist to go down the tower in order to get close to the Crawler and then later proceeds to send both the biologist and the surveyor down there as well as a way to kill them. Towards the end of her life, the psychologist continues to try to control the biologist through her kill command of “annihilation,” yet her hypnotic suggestion ceased working once the biologist inhaled the spores early in the novel. These spores, therefore, frees the biologist from human manipulation. It is through this spore inhalation which the biologist starts to lose her humanity-or perhaps she rather gains the enlightenment from Area X-a perfect example of an ecological affordance. Not only does Vandermeer morph the biologist as part of Area X through the brightness, but the fact that the Crawler does not kill her like it did the anthropologist suggests how the biologist becomes a similar species as the Crawler. The biologist reveals towards the ends after her final encounter with the Crawler, “Apparently, I was recognizable to the Crawler now. Apparently, I was words it could understand, unlike the anthropologist. I wondered if my cells would long be able to hide their transformation from me” (182). Therefore, for Vandermeer, the environment of Area X manipulates the humans not just physically as they continue to explore the area in search of areas, but the environment also genetically modifies the biologist to make her closer to nature.

While Vandermeer writes about human genetic manipulation through the natural environment, Butler instead narrates the notion of human genetic manipulation through an alien force. Instead of the physical surrounding manipulating the humans, Butler uses an alien lifeform to possess and control humans. In Dawn, Butler states how humans destroyed the Earth and now Lilith, and the other survivors, are aboard a living alien ship. The alien lifeform classified as the Oankali first salvage the survivors and then proceed to induce them in an involuntary slumber. While the Oankali attempt to assimilate the humans into their environment, attempt to make the alien ship less alien, they continuously use the humans as mere tools for a genetic upgrade. Some examples of how the Oankali manipulate the survivors are as follows: the ooloi physically alters the human body such as the emotions during sex, they make the ship’s walls respond to Lilith’s touch through genetic manipulation, they make Lilith pregnant without her knowledge, and they repeatedly put the survivors to sleep as an act of control. In this sense, the Oankali treat the human survivors as humans do animals. There are several animal references in the novel. Early in the novel after Jdahya tells Lilith they had strengthened her immune system, she retorts back at him, “‘We used to treat animals that way…we did things to them-inoculations, surgery, isolation-all for their own good. We wanted them healthy and protected-sometimes so we could eat them’” (Butler 31). In his article, Chris Danta also suggests how humans and their environment and animals should not anthropomorphized. He argues how this line of thinking undermines the significance human agency has over human-animal relationships. Danta defines anthropomorphism as an action human stake to specifically separate their identity as a human to that identity of an animal. He finds the leading cause of this action stems from industrialization, how this human manipulation of the environment acted to further isolate the human identity from animals. Danta takes a particular look at the relationship between pets and their owners. He argues how pets become anthropomorphized from their owners, how pets represent and identify as part of their human's lifestyle. He also looks at the molecular gaze, which he defines as an “anthropomorphize agency” on how “action becomes the action of the human upon life, not the action of life upon the human” (77). Through this lens, the Oankali treat the humans as their pets, a subspecies which should be trained in order to benefit the master.

By transforming their human protagonists into an “it,” an object for their surroundings to use and manipulate, both Vandermeer and Butler wrote a modern-day it-narrative by questioning what it means to be human. On one hand, Vandermeer made his human characters driven by Area X, having the environment the sole purpose for the expeditions, and even having humans use each other as nameless tools in order to dissect Area X such as the environment uses the lighthouse keeper’s body for its own purpose in the tower. On the other hand, Butler juggles the question of humanity through an alien, nonhuman lifeform. While a traditional it-narrative would have an alien viewpoint, Butler’s choice to have the human used by the alien demonstrates how the humans have no agency in this new environment. Much like how the psychologist manipulates both the anthropologist and surveyor, the Oankali also use the humans without their consent. This concept of consent, the very act of manipulation, relates to how humans use objects without them expressing any consent either. This is how Vandermeer and Butler write a modern it-narrative. These two authors not only wrote their stories with human protagonists with no agency of their own, but they also write the objects, what humans traditionally define as an “it,” as the ones with agency, the puppeteer for the narrative. Therefore, by using new materialism and the idea of objects having their own agency, we can see how humans are not in the center of the world and are not the only ones capable of manipulation.

                                                                                                         Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347-72.

Benson, Melinda H. “New Materialism.” Natural Resources Journal, vol. 59, no. 2, 2019, pp. 251-80.

Butler, Octavia. Dawn. Warner Books, 1987.

Coventry, Francis. The History of Pompey the Little. Broadview, 2008.

Danta, Chris. “The New Solitude: Melancholy Anthropomorphism and the Molecular Gaze.” ESC, vol. 39, no. 1, 2013, pp. 71- 


Lake, Crystal B. “Feeling Things: The Novel Objectives of Sentimental Objects.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 54, no. 2, 2013,

     pp. 183-93.

Lupton, Christina. “The Knowing Book: Authors, It-Narratives, and Objectification in the Eighteenth Century.” NOVEL: A

     Forum on Fiction, vol. 39, no. 39, 2006, pp. 402-20. 

Oppermann, Serpil. “Nature's Narrative Agencies as Compound Individuals.” Neohelicon, vol. 44, no. 2, 2017, pp. 283-95.

Paavolainen, Teemu. “From Props to Affordances: An Ecological Approach to Theatrical Objects.” Theatre Symposium: A

     Jounal of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, no. 18, 2010, pp. 116-34.

Vandermeer, Jeff. Annihilation. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.