Octavia E. Butler is an award-winning Black female author, a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant.” Her work always ends up on Recommended reading lists, usually in the category of Science Fiction, or Female Science Fiction Writers, or Black Writers, or Black Female Must Reads, or Black Female Sci Fi Authors. So of course, I have several of her works in the queue, because Black, Female, Science Fiction. Any of those categories would be calling my name.
Butler is known for blending science fiction with African-American spiritualism. Her works are concerned with issues facing humanity.
In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race. To insure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy.
Ok so now that we know the series, collected under the title Lilith’s Brood, is all about moralizing, we can get on with describing the aliens, because it is all about aliens. ALIENS, people! ALIENS!
The US has experienced a nuclear war between the two great powers, which destroys almost everything on earth, leaving a few non-human live forms and a handful of humans. The Oankali have been watching the process, tsk-tsking all the while, like someone’s maiden aunt, and after everything is gone, kaput, done and dusted, they swoop in and save what remnants they can of the world, and put the humans into deep sleep, waking them up a few hundred years later, when the earth has healed itself and once again become habitable.
They are self-described traders, something for something. They want something in exchange from the humans, knowledge and a different way of seeing things. But there is only one way of seeing the aliens…. as truly uggs. Like Ugg Boots, only uglier. They are bodies with a whole lot of tentacles, and it takes the humans a while to adjust to them. I guess so. If I came face to face with a creature like this:
I would be a little freaked, too.
The story opens in Dawn, with the title character Lilith (a black human female) awakening centuries later from stasis on an Oankali ship. She meets her saviors/captors and is repulsed by their alienness. The Oankali don’t have eyes, or ears, or noses, but sensory tentacles over their entire bodies with which they can perceive the world much better than a human can. Stranger still, the Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and Ooloi. All Oankali have the ability to perceive biochemistry down to a genetic level, but the Ooloi have the ability to directly manipulate genetic material. Ooloi can mutate and “evolve” any living thing they touch and build offspring gene by gene using the genetic material from their male and female mates. Despite their differences the Ooloi Oankali are strangely alluring, sexually arousing even while being visually repulsive. The Oankali have made earth habitable and want Lilith’s help in training humans to survive on earth without human technology. In exchange the Oankali want to interbreed with the humans to create a new human-Oankali hybrid race. They are particularly enthusiastic about the human “talent” for cancer, which they find beautiful. This book focuses on the conflict between Lilith’s desire to stay human and her loyalty to her species and her desire to survive at any cost.
She is given a group of awakened humans to train to live as primitives on a primitive earth. They are just what you would expect. A bunch of ingrates and paranoids, still with all their cruelty and egocentric personalities in tact. The trade that must be accepted to live on earth is that the humans must interbreed with the Aliens, because human babies will not survive, and the human species will go extinct. But the addition or exchange of the Alien genetic material will keep them functional. They will look like humans until puberty when they will undergo a change becoming more like their Alien progenitors. Eeeuuu. Imagine …. teenagers with tentacles. Now THERE’S a visual for you.
So the second book, Adulthood Rites, takes place years after the end of Dawn. Humans and Oankali live together on earth though everything is not peaceful. Some humans have accepted the bargain and live with the Oankali and give birth to hybrid children called ‘constructs.’ Others, however, have refused the bargain and live in separate, all human, Resister villages. The Ooloi have made all humans infertile so the only children born are the ones made with Ooloi intervention. This creates a great deal of tension and strain as the humans see their lives as meaningless without children, as well as seeing themselves being outbred by the Oankali-human constructs. Desperate humans often steal human looking construct children to raise as their own. The main character of the second book, Akin, is the first male construct born to a human mother (Lilith). Akin has more human in him than any construct before him. This book focuses on Akin’s struggle with his human and his Oankali natures. Eventually, Humans will be given Mars, modified sufficiently to (barely) support human existence, despite the Oankali certainty that the Mars colony will destroy itself eventually. Akin returns to tell the resisters and begin gathering them up to have their fertility restored before transport to their new world.
The final book of the trilogy, Imago, is the shortest. Imago shows the reader what has been hinted at for the last two books, the full potential of the new human-Oankali hybrid species. The story is told from the prospective of Jodahs, the first Ooloi construct. Through its unique heritage it has unlocked latent genetic potential of humans and Oankali. This book brings a sense of completeness to the story by allowing the reader to understand the Oankali better by understanding Jodahs.
Bottom line, humans still need a god of some kind, and it looks like the Oankali serve as that in the meta view. The series is all about genetic engineering, race, species, the innate drive of survival. It is very readable, but for me, the issues of who is better and more worthy that thread their way through it all got to be a smidge irritating. OK, a LOT irritating. I think it is my age; I already did all that hand-wringing over the moral issues. Now I just want to eat pizza, and have some chocolate and read a story that is not preaching at me too much.