Lilith's Brood by Butler, Octavia, 2000


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Have you ever read a book that was so good that you just knew you would love the author's entire body of work? I have. And as pathetic a thing as that is to say for someone who holds himself out as an objective book reviewer, I have to say that my first impression of Octavia Butler was dead on; I have loved every one of her stories that I have read so far. That is not to say that I have read all of her works yet. There is a book of short stories out there, and a critically praised mainstream novel with passable genre elements, and a few other SF books that I have not gotten to yet. But I will soon. I honestly cannot get enough of her work, and it saddens me to know that there will be no more, as she has passed on. Many would agree with me too that she was a bright light in the SF community. Maybe the brightest in some time. I have found legions of fellow fans online, though I am a little perturbed that there is not much more legitimate scholarly criticism about her. Take a look here and here to see how I have tried to change that, just a little bit. Anyway, the literary minds of this genre seem to be pretty slow when it comes to Octavia Butler, as nobody has yet bothered doing an in depth study of her work. You would think that because of the consistently high quality stories she delivered that they would have jumped all over her and included more of her stuff in their genre analysis. To me she was the literary equivalent of Salvador Dali: She was loved in life and death too. In her lifetime Butler was awarded not only the Hugo and the Nebula, among others, but she was also the recipient of a MacArthur Award, or the so-called "Genius Grant". In the world of SF authors she is unique not only for that, but for being a black woman as well. She also suffered, I think, two long bouts of writer's block, the second one ending just a short time before her death, preceding the completion of the draft of her final novel, Fledgling, reviewed elsewhere on these pages. There are some striking thematic similarities between that book and this one, the Lilith's Brood Trilogy. Note that this book is an omnibus of three the three books in what was previously called the Xenogenesis trilogy, made up of Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago. All four are still available from Warner Aspect.

In one sense you always know what you are going to get in an Octavia Butler novel, because she definitely did have some pet themes that she loved to work with. But even so, every work easily stood on its own two legs. At the heart of many of her stories are the themes of slavery, racism and love. Even though I have not read her entire oeuvre I'm going to go out on a limb and say those notions turned up in every book she wrote. I'll let you know later if I'm wrong. Lilith's Brood is a very unusual alien contact novel that some have called an invasion book. It is a post nuclear war novel too, but those motifs really mean nothing to the telling of this story. In book one, Dawn, a migratory race of beings called the Oankali arrive at Earth about 30 or so years after the war. Very few humans have survived in the more remote parts of the globe. The Oankali find all the survivors they are able to locate and bring them aboard their generational starship. The Oankali are an advanced race of healers, and even the mortal wounds of humanity present them with no problems.

The Oankali motives are not purely altruistic. After they collected the near-dead humans, the Oankali fixed them and put them into suspended animation, reviving them only occasionally for tests and training. For 200 years all of the humans on the Oankali ship slept while the Oankali set about healing the planet Earth as well. Once the radioactivity of Earth has been lowered and all the wrecked cities were scraped off the surface the Oankali revived a few humans to tell them what would happen next. Lilith Iyapo, a Los Angelino who was soul-searching in a remote part of South America when the war started was one of the first humans to be permanently awakened. She was told by the Oankali that humanity would become a partner race in interspecies breeding with the Oankali, who "Trade," or mate with other races whenever possible. It is the only way they are capable of mating; the Oankali must find an alien species to procreate with, or they will be unable to have children. Lilith's job was to accept training to survive on a lush, feral Earth (reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, an image that was especially striking since the book essentially details the creation of a species), then to help the Oankali acclimatize a larger group of humans who will go down and form families with select Oankali crew.

The second book, Adulthood Rites, told the story of Akin who was a "composite" child who had as parents Lilith, her murdered human lover (killed by human survivalists who opposed the dictates of the Oankali rule), an Oankali male and female dyad, and Nikanj, an sexless Oankali called an ooloi whose job it was to accept genetic material from each of the four contributing parents, add its own genetic material, and impregnate one of the two females. Akin was a male born of Lilith. As a result of the child's tendency to be more similar to its birth parent Akin appeared human, but has some very different characteristics and abilities. As Akin matured into an adult he strove to understand and provide for a group of human resisters. The Oankali were not cruel masters, and tried to let human beings make up their minds about how they wanted to live their lives. But their plan was to eventually abandon the Earth and resume wandering from star to star. When that occurred the Oankali were going to strip the crust off of the Earth and add it to their ship; that is just what they had to do to survive in space for so long. But that mean that nothing would survive on the Earth. The Oankali knew that they had centuries before they would be moving on and hoped in that amount of time to bring the rogue humans into their fold. But they also knew that they could not allow them to procreate on their own because if they did they would never chose to join the Oankali. Since the humans knew nothing of these plans, many of them left to form villages in the jungle away from the Oankali in the vain hope that something would come along and fix their problems. None of them could have children, and because of that and the fact that they had no technology, they lived pretty miserable lives. Akin dedicated his life to reaching out to these people, and in the end did something to help them live their lives on their own terms.

The conclusion of the trilogy, Imago, explores potential of a human ooloi. The ooloi are incredibly powerful geneticists with an inbred ability to manipulate DNA; they were essentially walking genetics laboratories. The ooloi in the story is another child born of Lilith, named Jodahs, who unexpectedly metamorphasized into an ooloi instead of the male he was supposed to become. Jodahs and his family went into the jungle in self exile because his innate abilities to manipulate the genetics of those around him ran amok (for example, a touch from Jodahs could change a butterfly, giving it a deadly contact poison, so that everything it lighted on would die), and his family feared what the Oankali will do once they learn an unscheduled ooloi has appeared. Jodahs and his kin ventured into the wilderness and found a village of resisters who at first captured and imprisoned them, then out of desperation, accepted Jodahs as a savior. Jodahs bridged the gaps between the two cultures, healing long existent wounds, and in fact was a Jesus-figure to these people.

I often debate with myself which of these three books is the best. As much as I loved the first, I think the third might be one of Butler's crowning achievements. Where Dawn is the genesis of Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood trilogy, and Adulthood Rites is the antithesis, Imago must certainly be the synthesis that brings the divided together in harmony. Without knowing anything personal about the late Butler at all, I suspect that this is what she had in mind when drafting this final installment of the Xenogenesis Trilogy. The thing that I love about this book is that it stands as much more than a conclusion to a very fine trilogy. It does do that, and it wraps up the story quite well and at a pace in accord with the pace of the first two novels. But more than that it is a true synthesis; a true depiction of synergy between the human and Oankali races that does not defile any of its deeply complex literary premises. As much as Dawn is the story of the mating from a human perspective, and Adulthood Rites is told from the perspective of a construct male, Imago wraps things up from the perspective of a construct ooloi while bringing in the Oankali perspective as well. The creation of the construct ooloi brings a strength and vigor to the new race that not even the Oankali were able to foresee. Jodahs is everything that Oankali are and much more. He is capable of virtually any act of healing that is asked of him, and he is capable of manipulating his own genes and body structures at will. But he is also human enough to begin to bring resisters into the fold is a way that Akin missed. Where Akin strove to identify with his human heritage and executed a plan to terraform Mars for humans only, Jodahs was able to truly show resisters that not only would their humanity and their genes go forward, but that their lives would be richer, fuller and happier by staying with the Dinso Oankali. And in that sense this book is transformational in a way that the other two books are not.

Butler did tend to put a lot of effort into developing the negative themes in her works, but she always tempered them with two things: A clearly defined difference in perspective between protagonists, and love. In this trilogy of books she also adds healing motifs. Love in this story (I'll call it a story from here on out because the word "trilogy" just doesn't roll off the tongue so easily) is a very complex emotion for the humans who were physically repulsed by the visage of the Oankali. Despite appearances though (another common Butler approach is to point out stark differences between physical appearance, ability and worth), the Oankali have a lot to offer. Oankali bonding and mating traditionally produced very stable families whose members easily resisted the tendency to philander. It wasn't even an issue for them. I suspect that this is because the ooloi were capable of virtually any genetic combination imaginable, so individual members of the family had no drive or need to spread their seed far and wide. In other words, genetic diversity was available at home. When humans came into the extended Oankali families they became deeply bonded chemically with their own ooloi mate. The bonding was so intense that the mere thought of mating with others sickened them. In fact the death of an ooloi generally meant death for the entire family from a form of withdrawal. Viewed possibly as a form of slavery, the bonding process was actually a survival mechanism for the Oankali. In the story it was the ooloi who were the great seducers, even though at first the thought of mating with an alien was anathema to most races that the Oankali had encountered, humans included. If the ooloi were not capable of drawing potential mates the race would die out, so instead of a slavery tool, the ooloi had a tool of seduction. To do this the ooloi had incredibly effective pheromones, and specialized digits that allowed them direct access to their mate's central nervous systems. In fact that method of pleasure was so effective that traditional physical love almost disappeared completely for humans. There was still penetration, but it was done by the ooloi who penetrated the skins of its mates with very thin tendrils so as to provide direct stimulation, and to extract genetic material as needed.

Since reproduction was as important to the Oankali as it was to humans (to what believable race is it not?) this set of facts created an incredibly complex story line. The humans were essentially the bound concubines of the Oankali. If a human wanted to have children, they had to accept that it would be with an Oankali family. Even though the choice was hard, the Oankali were as gentle as possible. They gave individual humans free choice to either mate with them, or permitted them to escape into the jungle to make their own lives, though without the ability to procreate. Humans at first viewed themselves as slaves with no control over their own destiny and no opportunity to create pure human children. But the Oankali, wise enough to recognize that they had created a great controversy, saw things very differently. Because of an odd, uncorrectable trait in humans, ultra high intelligence and a hierarchical outlook, the Oankali believed that humanity was absolutely doomed to kill itself. A hierarchical society seeks to segregate itself and weaken or destroy others. An intelligent one can think of numerous ways to do so. We had done just that when the Oankali found us and nursed us back to health. The Oankali offered us a trade of sorts: In exchange for access to our genome, they would breed this destructive quality out of us forever. The Oankali saw the Trade as something that would not only serve their own biological imperative to mate, but would save human DNA from dying out all together. To the Oankali this was not a rape. It was a seduction, and it had a worthy goal. To us it was consumption. We were going to be swallowed up. And in this context did Butler shine her brightest. In Butler's story the Oankali stimulate pleasure very deeply in human beings, despite the fact that humans are at first physically repulsed by them and do not wish contact, much less to mate with them. But consider for a moment the dynamics of a rape, violent or otherwise. Often after the fact the victim goes through a second kind of horror. That is to say, after a rape has occurred and the victim has had time to think about what has happened to them he or she may become confused over the dichotomy of feelings of violation and feelings of pleasure. Not to say that a penetrative rape is pleasurable in the Epicurean sense, but it is a stimulation of genitals which taken in the abstract can create pleasurable sensation in the victim's brain.

And that is what is happening to the human survivors. They were given only one option to have off-spring. At first that option is so alien and perverse that drove some to turn their backs on society altogether. But for those who consented, they began to feel pleasure more deeply than ever before, and ultimately came to enjoy their places in their new families, even though their fate had not changed and they were still entirely denied the right to procreate on their own. Still though, the dichotomy exists. To an outsider the mere fact that over time they agreed to the penetration really is not objective proof that it is consensual; it's just indicative of a new form of slavery or rape. This is an incredibly comples question, especially since the books are also about love and coming of age. Butler's masterful exploration of the concepts really, truly makes these books shine.

I have frequently debated in my own head whether or not Octavia Butler is a feminist or not. I certainly do not mean that term pejoratively but sometimes I think that she is and other times, well, not so much. Feminist writings for me come in a few, indistinct flavors, but what is generally required is prose that encompasses feminine values, applied in a way that reflects the feminine outlook (if there is such a thing). Sound confusing? I still don't quite have my head around it, but suffice it to say it involves the deconstruction of the feminine experience, and an inculcation of feminine outlook to issues and happenings in the body of a story. As a man I can guess at what some of those are, and I generally can write an informed and well rationalized piece as to why one particular book or writer has adopted a feminist style. The sad fact is that most of the time I have to admit to myself that I really don't know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it. Nine times out of ten if I call a book or a writer feminist in these pages then you are just getting my best guess, even if I do sound like I know what I am talking about. It's just the best that I can do.

However, Octavia Butler presents some different problems for me. That is because I find that many of the ideas that she incorporated into her novels (and the short stories) could come from either a male or a female character. Much of the time I consider her writing somewhat gender-blind, or maybe better put, gender neutral. The confusing part is that even when she is writing something that could come either from a male or female mind, she writes in what I perceive to be the soothing and accepting voice of a woman. Survivor was one book where that was not the case. That character sounded like a man to me, even though she was not, and I wonder if that is one of the reasons she eventually disavowed the book. I know that the reason that she gave was that in hindsight she thought it was a bit stupid to have humans jetting off to the stars and mating with aliens without changing anything about either species first so that mating would be possible. This was something that she changed here, but that's all beside the point here. I think that Butler avoided the feminist label by concentrating not so much on the feminine experience, but instead on elements of life that were important to her female characters that just so happened to be important to men too. Consider this: Rather than discuss her feminine character's opinion of the physical chores that she had to complete in Parable of the Sower, Butler delved into all aspects of communal life, and how it worked to keep the family together. Instead of describing the pain\pleasure dichotomy of rape by vaginal penetration in Dawn, Butler instead spoke of the more universal concepts of corporal violation and neurological fiddling that caused pain and pleasure, which were characteristics of the Ooloi breeding process. In that novel men and women were "penetrated" in exactly the same way, for the same purpose; the harvesting of genetic material to be cultured in the sex organs of the Ooloi. As odd as it sounds, that concept put men and women together on a level in a way that I have rarely seen before. You tell me which approach is most effective! But, I suppose that is the problem with a lot of feminist literature. It is either too passive, in an amplification of a stereotypical feminine "value" that is supposed to be reminiscent of the woman's acceptance of the male sex organs, or it is just the opposite and divisive. Butler usually walked a pretty fine line, but by the time she wrote these books, she no loner needed a steadying bar.

The conflict was defined near the end of the first book. Book two was about how a human born construct, or blend of human and Oankali genes reached out to human resisters. Akin was kidnapped by humans and learned ultimately to love them, as the Oankali loved everything. He convinced his elders to allow him to create a new nation for humans free from Oankali interference on Mars, and gave those humans who migrated to it a chance for freedom, self determination and the right to mate as they saw fit. His brother did the same in the third book, but instead of sending the humans away, drew them into the construct fold to make new families and strengthen the new race. Present in minor form throughout the entire series, it is when this goal is realized that the most important theme is realized, that of transformation, one of the most important themes in SF literature. More than transformation, the new ooloi race are a true synergy, or a total that is greater than the sum of the parts not only in the abilities of the new race, but in the fact that dreams are finally realized and one way or the other children will come for all.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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