Octavia E. Butler, at the time of her emergence as a major voice in science fiction, was a rarity because she was a woman and she was African-American. In neither area was she unique, but the combination was. Lilith’s Brood, also known as Xenogenesis, has been called Butler at her best and for that reason alone would deserve a close look. There are, however, many reasons to look at these books closely, because they raise so many issues and operate on so many levels.
The overarching story is fairly simple: humanity has finally come within an inch or so of destroying itself, and is only saved by the advent of a species of star-faring aliens, the Oankali, who are able to rescue the few pitiful survivors, heal them, and train them to survive on the remains of their home planet — for a time. The Oankali call themselves “traders,” but their meaning is nowhere near what a human would mean: the Oankali are biologically driven to trade their genetic material with other species, and work with DNA and living matter as we deal with metal and wood. This “trading” also forms a major component of their perception of the universe around them and their learning. They remember everything they have sensed, and everything they have “learned” from others. They also have three sexes, and conception is impossible without the participation of the ooloi, the third sex, who are also the healers and most important teachers.
Lilith Iyapo is, like the other survivors, altered — incipient cancer is cured, the aging process is slowed dramatically, her physical strength and reactions are brought up to optimum: all genetic “defects” that are corrected by the Oankali. Unlike most of the others, Lilith is also tapped to become a trainer for the other humans, teaching them first how to negotiate those portions of the Oankali ship — also a living creature — that are their quarters, and then how to live on the rescued earth. The Oankali also alter human breeding so that, like themselves, humans can only conceive through the intervention of an ooloi. The story then follows the history of Lilith and two of her children as they adapt to the new world and their new definition of “humanity.”
The blatant message here is that humanity is intrinsically self-destructive. I say blatant because it is repeated in so many words about every ten pages. Butler claimed that she approached Xenogenesis from the standpoint of a race that was “xenophilic” instead of the “xenophobia” that she found in humanity, which is something that she focuses on heavily. Only the genetically modified humans — those who can no longer breed without Oankali help and whose children will not be entirely human — stand a chance of transcending these basic flaws in the human character, while the “resisters” — those humans who withdrew from the Oankali and refuse to join in the “trade towns” — are, until the end of the last book, consistently depicted as violent and irrational.
The Oankali have their own faults, which Butler tends to downplay: to put it in the vernacular, despite their protestations that the humans have free choice, the Oankali have some control issues. This sets them up for another kind satire of a classically Swiftian sort: they very easily become a highly unflattering representation of do-gooders and self-appointed messiahs of every stripe. Whether this was intentional or not I can’t begin to guess, but let the politically correct beware.
The real core of this series, as in Butler’s other work and, for that matter, in science fiction as a whole, is the “Other.” It is, after all, a basic human concern, and one that is entirely dependent on our own definitions — we not only define Other by whatever criteria we need, but by defining Other we define ourselves. This concept permeates the book, from the characterizations of the Oankali by humans as “devils,” “animals,” “monsters” and their insistence on keeping their “humanness” to the biology of the Oankali, which dictates that the “other” must be absorbed to be understood, when, of course, a major characteristic of Other is that it cannot be fully understood — that is part of its purpose.
This also ties into how we know things and the ways we are trapped by that knowledge. The Oankali “know” that humans are going to destroy themselves if given the chance to develop in their own way, but that knowledge is based on what they have learned to date. They display a remarkable inability to project meaningfully into the future except as a straight extrapolation of what they know now (which, after all is said and done, makes them nearly human after all.) They lack the capacity to admit that there is a side to humanity — rationality, good will, compassion, foresight — that might be strong enough to negate what they “know.” Butler deals with these issues through her portrayal of how relationships are developed and maintained, which again points to a negative picture of humanity that also manages to put the Oankali in a not completely positive light: humans can no longer mate without an ooloi, and their need for their mates — human and Oankali — is just that: a biologically determined need. It’s an excellent example of scientific materialism as literature.
The grand irony in this, and one that is illustrative, I think, of the satire on all its levels, is that ultimately the Oankali are no better and no worse than humanity: they make mistakes and they act on insufficient understanding. Then someone else — in this case the Human-Oankali descendants — has to come along and fix it.
The temptation to draw comparisons with Samuel R. Delany, the only other writer of color active in science fiction at the time, is irresistible. Although the two vary widely in approach and the kinds of stories they tell, both are heavily concerned with the same ideas: the other, the outsider, and, to use Butler’s terminology, xenophobia. Butler’s artistry is transparent, her narratives fulfilling our ideas of “fiction” as normally practiced. Delany’s work is the result of a much more self-aware and openly displayed technique; he is somewhat of an experimenter (and in fact confesses quite readily to a fondness for experimental writing), and so the various levels in his writing are more readily apparent.
This comparison is telling in another way. Butler is a strong writer, but this trilogy almost collapsed under its own weight. It is “serious” fiction, and among the most remorselessly humorless I have ever encountered. This work was easier to read than The Parable of the Sower, but not until about halfway through the second book. The only conclusion I can draw that makes sense to me is that Butler had no distance from her subject, or at least left the reader none — it was too “Important” with a capital “I” to be taken with less than immense gravity. Delany’s narratives, while markedly more “literary” than Butler’s, also occupy a space that is outside their subject. That very literariness is a mechanism that imposes distance, and I think it works to Delany’s advantage. In my own opinion, the closeness of Butler’s narrative is no advantage at all when it comes to actually reading the books, particularly when coupled with what I can only call a hopeless point of view — there is resolution of the issues raised in the first two volumes, of a sort, but the main feeling is simply survival, of one kind or another. It calls to mind my reaction to the proponents of various health-food fads with their bright assurances that “You’ll live much longer”: “Yeah, if you want to call that living.”
So, are they worth reading? Yes, although I’m not going to claim they are any less than heavy going. They are, indeed, incisive, challenging and many-layered, and the last book, Imago, would be a terrific stand-alone — it’s still pretty humorless, but the tone is markedly lighter. Are they going on my “reread list”? No.
(Aspect/Warner Books, 2000)