Review: Science Fiction

Book Review: Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Also known as the Xenogenesis trilogy, Lilith’s Brood comprises the books Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago. It is a science fiction novel set in the future after humanity has been mostly wiped out by nuclear war and an inhospitable planet, and the survivors have been taken under the wing of an alien race seeking to save the human race.

The book seeks to be largely a question of humanity, while also raising many interesting aspects of life up for discussion. It was thought-provoking and well written, and a mind-twister. Yet it was so well-executed that as I stuck with it, I grew attuned to the strangeness and felt like I was able to think more like the alien race by the end. More than I enjoyed the story itself, I enjoyed thinking about it and discussing the subject, and it is for this reason that I tend to recommend it.

This review will contain spoilers for Dawn, the first of the three books.

The Oankali are an alien race that find a special kind of value in life. They are a 3-gendered species: male, female and ooloi. The ooloi possess the unique ability to store the memory of any life form into which they come in contact, and if in possession of a suitable cell, can regrow an organism with the genetic modifications it deems necessary. This gives ooloi a myriad of abilities, including the ability to heal another organism and even rewrite their genetics.

It sounds terrifying, and as a human being, my mind immediately swings to all the ways that this could be used as a weapon. But this is a human tendency, and not in the Oankali nature. The Oankali fundamentally cannot understand why humans do each other harm, even wiping their own species out. In fact, they consider this a great error of the human condition. Because of the human penchant for apathy and harmful intent, the Oankali consider it an act of cruelty to simply heal the humans they have rescued and return them to Earth. No, this problem must be eradicated first. But it is not a thing that can be fixed by simply rewriting the genetic code, so instead they have decided that they will cross-breed humans and themselves, creating a new species that will keep humanity alive with a proper respect for life.

Unsurprisingly, most humans are deeply resistant to this idea. Most strikingly, in order to achieve this, humans must mate through Oankali ooloi. In addition to carrying the memory of all organisms, the ability to recreate any life form and the ability to heal any life form, the ooloi are also central in the act of mating, interfacing directly to the brain of the male and female to create pleasure while mixing their reproductive cells as it sees fit to create a child whose every detail has been perfected and optimized. The ooloi’s tentacles (yes, the Oankali perceive the world through sensory tentacles) wrap around a human’s neck, which is described as extremely uncomfortable and a little painful the first time, but the pleasure afterwards unparalleled.

There is a great deal to discuss on the matter of gender, as well as the issue of consent. Because the Oankali do not usually communicate verbally, but instead conveying thoughts and impressions through their sensory tentacles, while also being able to perceive everything about the other organism from arousal and pheromones to illness. Thus, if a human says they do not want something (and this is not limited to sexual contact), if the Oankali sense that the human does want that thing but is only resistant, they will proceed with it anyway. This is uncomfortable at first, until one realizes that this is a human perspective: because we can perceive none of these biological signals, we must rely on words. In the same way, the Oankali only know a world where they have the senses to perceive all of these signals, so the humans’ ensuing anger and frustration is mystifying to all but the most sensitive of them.

Unfortunately, the book does not have the opportunity to delve into the matter of homosexuality. Because the nature of the story is about producing children to create a new species, the pleasure of sex takes a back seat to the practical matters of reproduction, though all parties ensure that those who come together are compatible. In fact, after mating with an ooloi, all subsequent sexual pleasure must come through the ooloi, as males and females lose interest in one another. It is mentioned in the last book that this is not the case between the same-sex mates within a family, which seems to imply that homosexuality would be the only alternative after mating with an ooloi. It was only briefly touched upon, and I would have been interested to see this expanded upon.

The first book is largely exposition, explaining about the Oankali and the ooloi for perhaps half or two-thirds of the book before finally delving into the plot. Thus I felt disconnected from all the characters throughout the first book, only drawn in by my fascination with this world and this species, and even by the way that many of the descriptions were disturbing to me. It is in books two and three that we at last get stories that are character-driven, letting the expansion of the world fall into the background as the characters and their stories rise into the foreground. It was in these last two books that I became utterly enraptured, growing to understand the Oankali and no longer feeling the disturbed pangs of my own xenophobia.

The progression of main characters are a brilliantly deliberate series that permits the reader to relate better to the aliens step by step. Each of the books has a different protagonist. The first is a human woman named Lilith; the second is a human-Oankali construct boy; the third is a human-Oankali construct ooloi. It drives home how different this new construct species is from humans, but at the same time, the constructs give us insights into the Oankali that make us realize that they are equally alien to the Oankali: truly a new species, half way between both but not truly either.

It was a fascinating read and a thought-provoking idea.

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