Adulthood Rites by Butler, Octavia, 1988

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Here is a link to a review of the entire Lilith's Brood trilogy.

Adulthood Rites is the second novel in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which is also known collectively as Lilith's Brood. The story in this book follows by 30 or so years the tale told in Dawn, and is about the life of one of Lilith's human-Oankali construct children named Akin. Four out of five stars.

Where Dawn stands as one of the most complex alien invasion novels I have ever read, Adulthood Rites goes almost in an opposite direction. The story is about the early live of one of Lilith's children named Akin. Akin is one of the very few human birthed construct males, and thus has a very unique outlook on the human/Oankali conflict. Males were rare because children that were carried by human females had to be closer genetically to human that Oankali, even though they were a complete mix of the two species. The reason for this was that if Oankali genetics dominated in the womb, the human female may have had an allergic reaction to the fetus and aborted. Because of this Akin tended to display more human male behavior, which the Oankali fear because of what human males did to the Earth before they came along.

But the fear runs much deeper for the Oankali than this. In Dawn the Oankali revealed themselves to be incredibly adept geneticists. The Ooloi gender, the neuters that take genetic material from all four of the other contributing parents and mix it inside their bodies and then impregnate either the human or the Oankali females, are so adept that they literally see the world through the visage of genetic material. After the very first "taste" of human DNA, the Oankali realized that humanity suffers from a terminally fatal genetic defect called "The Contradiction." We were one of the most intelligent races that they had ever come across, but we were also hierarchical. Hierarchical societies ultimately destroy their world in an attempt to dominate others. The Oankali realized that this trait could not be bred out of us: Hierarchical genes select hierarchical genes to go forward, so they elected early to completely sublimate the human genome in their constructs. Akin, who was born more human than not comes to sympathize with the resistors (those who escaped the Oankali villages on Earth to make their own way in the Amazon rain forest they have been transplanted to) early in his life after being kidnapped and raised by them for a few years. And as Akin matures, he realizes that there is a fundamental unfairness being perpetrated on humanity, and sets his mind to do something about it.

Here is the true strength of Bulter's second novel: She reconciles vastly disparate points of view in a very humane and wise manner. The Oankali came to Earth divided into three groups, the Toalt, the Dinso and the Akjai. The Akjai stayed on the ship and did not merge with humans. The Toalt also were ship bound, but did merge with humans. Dinso were on Earth, and was meant to merge completely with humans and create a new race. The purpose for these divisions were because the merging could fail, and if the new race failed, all its members were doomed to death. This way the Oankali race would survive no matter what happened to the construct race. Akin, after pondering the condition of resister humans who were not only segregated as outsiders but were denied the fundamental right to reproduce, decided to petition the Oankali to terraform Mars and allow them to become a human Akjai. At first the Oankali resisted. They saw humans through the veil of human DNA, and as such saw our race as an absolute, categorical, undeniable dead end. The Contradiction would basically require us to one way or another destroy ourselves, and it could not be fixed. The Oankali were sympathetic, but likened the request to making a baby that would die early from an incurable disease. In the end they consented to the request, but only so that Akin and other construct children could identify and understand better one of the two races that birthed them.

Butler also made great strides over Dawn describing the Oankali technology, culture and reproductive cycle. One of the more amazing aspects of Oankali technology is the ship that they came on. It is a singular living being that is intelligent, but lives to serve the Oankali. All the transport shuttles and in fact all the villages on Earth, including the village of Lo where Akin was born, are in fact living beings. The villages will one day mature into ships, and when that happens they will lift off from the Earth and leave it a moon-like dead husk. This, of course, is never revealed to the resisters, but does set up a big conflict for the third novel, Imago.

Butler also remains in the thematic framework established by Dawn. Her important themes of bondage, racism, biological determinism, and synergy all survive for further examination here. Most interesting is the reversal through which slavery and bondage are examined. Instead of the Oankali waking up humans and "gently forcing" them to reproduce with Oankali, the resisters in Adulthood Rites kidnap Akin. Resister villages will do anything to get children, including kidnap Oankali youths. Akin has the added bonus of appearing human until his metamorphosis to an Oankali male late in the novel.

This is not to say that this novel does not have its problems. In my opinion Butler has failed to create a hierarchy-free race in the Oankali, as evidenced first by their division into three different groups, and second by the favor given by all Oankali to the Ooloi, who seem to make most of the decisions. There are differences between the Oankali and human hierarchy, though. Human hierarchical categorization usually involved different races and nationalities and was geared towards feelings of superiority. Oankali hierarchical behavior seems to be more in the interests of efficiency and biological diversity, but the similarity was not lost on me. Butler also tended to get bogged down in Oankali terminology too much. Individual names, titles and terms are a mouthful of consonants, and interrupted the flow of the novel quite a bit. Finally, Butler really kind of lost me in a section of the book where Akin goes to the ship to finish his youthful years and to learn about Oankali culture. I think that this section must have bored Butler too, because it is only 40 or so pages, where as the section of the book describing his life on Earth learning about humans is hundreds of pages, and is written much better.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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