Here at The Completist I like to highlight books that may have been sitting for a while on the bookshelves; to ensure good books from a few years ago (and more) aren’t lost in the shuffle of everybody trying to read the HOT! NEW! RELEASES! all the cool kids are reading. (Not that good books aren’t being published now, mind.) It’s been quite a while since I read these books, but they remain important and are absolutely essential reading for so many reasons.
Most people who have been reading Science Fiction and Fantasy for a significant amount of time know of Octavia E. Butler and what is perhaps her most famous series, which has gone by a couple of different names: Xenogenesis or Lilith’s Brood. Butler is one of the most recognized writers in the genre, and probably the most recognizable black woman to write in the genre. She was championed by Harlan Ellison, she won both the Hugo and Nebula Award and in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship. This series is a landmark in the alien first contact story and provides a very plausible biological thrust in the human/alien commingling.
The first installment of the series, Dawn (1987, Questar) posits a future earth devastated by nuclear war. Civilization is nearly destroyed, the earth a wasteland that cannot support life, and our salvation comes from the stars in the form of the Oankali. The Oankali find surviving humans and bring them aboard their living ship (not Moya, FarScape fans) and keep them in a form of stasis for many years. The first person they waken is a woman named Lilith and it is her task to negotiate with the Oankali, for these aliens could best be considered genetic traders. Lilith is shocked by their appearance; the Oankali don’t have standard sensory organs (eyes, mouth, ears) but rather tentacles they use to understand their environment. The Oankali race is divided across three genders: male, female, and ooloi. The ooloi are different in appearance from their male and female counterparts and are also the genetic engineers of the race, possessing the ability to manipulate a creature’s genes. Over many, many years the Oankali have assimilated other races/aliens into their genetic make-up in order to preserve those races. With the decimation of the earth, they have found their latest clients/partners. The Oankali have cured the earth and are willing to give it back to humanity, but at the cost of intermingling with humanity’s DNA and essentially creating a new race. Dawn illustrates Lilith’s inner conflict with this notion while also giving a snapshot of the alien life.
The second novel Adulthood Rites (1988), jumps the story a few decades after Lilith’s “accepts” the Oankali’s offer. Featuring Lilith’s son, Akin, he is the first “construct” to be born: the combination of human and alien DNA. Lilith is not Akin’s only parent, he has five after all: Lilith, his human father, plus a parent for each of the three Oankali genders. The state of Earth at the time of the novel, thirty years after the events of Dawn, is divided to say the least. While the Oankali/human settlements cover many of the civilized sections of the globe, there are still human-only settlements which scorn and hate the alien overlords they see as their enemy. Akin, in his curiosity, wanders from his village and is kidnapped by people from Phoenix, one of the human-only settlements. Akin’s imprisonment with the humans parallels his mother’s experience as a “guest” with the Oankali in Dawn. While thematically, the scenario may be structured similarly, it allows Butler to further flesh out the idea of accepting the Other and that idea which is always core to great science fiction: What it means to be human.
The final novel in the sequence, Imago, takes place about a century after the events in Dawn and is told from the point of view of the first ooloi construct named Jodahs. Jodahs is one of Lilith’s children and when he goes through a metamorphosis, his sex as an ooloi is determined, and he becomes the first ooloi with both human and Oankali genes. What also comes to light in Imago is that not all of humanity is infertile as the Oankali planned. A human village Jodahs encounters has fertile — if inbred and somewhat unclean — people. More conflict ensues between the humans and human/Oankali hybrids with Jodahs attempting to mediate between the two groups.
A big theme here, obviously, is that we need to look outside of ourselves to survive. Related to that, is the theme of The Other: coming to accept the Other and the consequences of rejecting the Other. There is also an implied resonance with Lilith’s initial situation and slavery; she has no choice in being taken from her land. In being the mother to her “owner’s” children, she gains a family and secures safety for that family. This conflicts with her feelings for the remainder of humanity on the space vessel as she tries to help some of them escape. The race conflict, is of course, writ large on the conflict between humans and Oankali.
Butler plays with symbolism in the names, too. Lilith, of course has many ancient and biblical connotations. Dawn, as the title of the first novel in the series, hints at things anew on the horizon, Adulthood Rites to the maturation cycle, and Imago is the final stage of an insect’s metamorphosis which is appropriate for the title for the final novel in the series.
I’ve only just barely touched on the surface of the many things Butler does in these books, and does so well in terms of the most important aspect when constructing a novel: telling a damned good story. These books are part of the modern canon of SF for many reasons, and stand out because there is relatively little SF from women, and women of color, that people know about. Butler’s novels, specifically Dawn, are studied in universities*.
Open Road Media has just published the individual novels as well as the omnibus in e-format. Grand Central (an imprint of Hachette, which purchased the original publisher Warner/Questar/Popular Library) publishes the dead tree omnibus edition.
When I first joined the Science Fiction Book Club a decade and a half ago, I purchased the Xenogenesis omnibus edition they offered with the “lovely” cover shown here. Also shown is the cover to the mass market paperback version of the book I first read.
* I know this for a fact because Dawn was on my course syllabus for my Science Fiction Literature class at Rutgers University where I met my wife. So, in addition to these books helping to shape how I view the genre, they have a special place in my heart.