Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler
Published: Earlier Published as ‘Xenogenesis’ by Doubleday Books(1989), ‘Lilith’s Brood’ published by Grand Central Publishing (2000)

The Book:

“Lilith’s Brood contains three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The trilogy follows the story of humanity’s fate after the entire species is nearly destroyed, along with the planet, in a nuclear war. A relatively small group of survivors are rescued by a powerful alien race called the Oankali.  Masters of the manipulation of life, the Oankali travel through the stars in organic ships, ‘trading’ genetic information with the species they meet.  They’ve determined that the human race will be their next trading partner.

While the human survivors are kept in suspended animation, the Oankali spend centuries painstakingly healing the dying Earth.  It is there that they intend to merge with what remains of humanity, creating a new hybrid species. They awaken Lilith Iyapo to act as teacher and guide to the rest of the recovered humans, and to become one of the first humans to enter the trade--by mating with an Oankali family.  For the trade progress successfully, Humans and Oankali must learn to understand one another. The decisions they make will determine the fate of the Oankali, Humanity, and the new species that they will create together…”  ~Allie

I was originally reading Lilith’s Brood for the June selection of the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club.  When I heard Dreams & Speculations, the hosting blog, was going inactive, I set it aside for a week or two to focus on other books. I will not give away any major plot points, but be aware that I will give away a lot of information on the nature of the Oankali relationship with humanity. 

My Thoughts:

The three novels that make up Lilith’s Brood each follow a character that is the first of its kind in some way.  Despite the odd choice of cover art, this is not actually a romance. I don’t even remember any explicit sexual content, though it does often refer to sex.  A lot of the story concerns  ‘mating’ relationships, but it is typically in terms of societal structure and emotional/chemical relationship bonds. While the trilogy was quite long, Butler’s writing style is easy and accessible.  The best way I can think of to review this massive book is by going through each section (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) and discussing what stood out to me of each one as I go.

The first story, Dawn, follows Lilith Iyapo, a human woman who is awakened by the Oankali, centuries after the war that destroyed human civilization.  The Oankali intend to have Lilith teach the other surviving humans and encourage them to embrace coexistence and interbreeding with the Oankali.  She is also tasked with helping them accept the fact that they are intended to be the last generation of pure humanity.  Lilith must find a way to cope with her unwanted role as the mother of a new species and the betrayer of her own. I really enjoyed learning about the Oankali, and seeing how different people responded and related to them. Achieving a peaceful coexistence does not seem like an easy task, even with all the power the Oankali have at their disposal.

The dynamic between the two species makes Lilith’s Brood one of the most interesting alien contact stories I’ve read.  The Oankali are a little too certain about their understanding of humanity and its needs, and that certainty leads to some situations that are very uncomfortable to read. They are very fond of humanity, and they want to help and care for us. They understand the biology of humanity incredibly well, but they can’t really understand our psychology.  As a result, many of their efforts at guidance end up causing great, sometimes irreversible, harm.  Despite their failures, they remain smugly confident that they know what is best for humanity.  I liked how neither humanity nor the aliens were set up as a villain. They are simply two very different species with two very different ways of looking at the world. They both want, essentially, the same thing—to save humanity.  The clash arises from their definition of what that rescue would entail and what means should be used to achieve it.

Adulthood Rites follows Akin, Lilith’s hybrid Oankali-Human son.  He’s the first male hybrid (or ‘construct’) to be born to a human woman.  He spends his childhood struggling to reconcile his Oankali and Human heritage and find his place in the world.  Akin is a hyper-intelligent child, a character type that can often be grating.  In this case, it didn’t bother me very much, possibly due to the fact that Akin was not actually a human child.  I thought he offered an interesting new perspective on Oankali/human relations. 

However, I was a little irritated by the stereotypes surrounding Akin’s story.  The Oankali are wary of Akin, since they are convinced that male humans are particularly dangerous.  I could accept that the Oankali would be more prone to stereotyping than humans, since their species is more homogenized within each social niche.  All of the Oankali (and their human mates) follow very strict biologically defined roles, and they are shaped to these roles through various chemical interactions. While I accept that certain tendencies may be determined by biology in humans, I’ve never been convinced that any particular tendency is universally linked to one gender or the other. Therefore, the Oankali’s generalization that human men tended towards violence and conflict annoyed me.  The generalization did not ruin the story for me, though, as the story itself contained plenty of perfectly decent men, and some dangerous women.

The final story, Imago, features Lilith’s child Jodahs, the first hybrid Human-Oankali ooloi.  Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi.  The male and female are roughly equivalent to the human genders, but they require an ooloi for mating.  The ooloi mixes the genetic contributions of both male and female parents and designs the child.  The ooloi, with their special organs that allow them to manipulate living tissue and genetic information, are the least familiar to humans.  The Oankali do not know what to expect from Jodahs, and he has to find a way to prove to them he is stable, in control, and not a danger to others.  I thought Jodahs story was the most removed from humanity of the three, and I enjoyed seeing the world from his point of view.  I liked how the three novels progressed, with the viewpoint transitioning from completely human in Dawn to almost completely alien in Imago.

My Rating: 4/5

Lilith’s Brood is a broad, ambitious story that follows humanity’s near-death, and their uncertain future with the powerful, well meaning, and manipulative Oankali.  It follows both Lilith Iyapo, a surviving human, and several of her children, Akin and Jodahs, who are prototypes in the creation of a new species.  I loved how creatively alien the Oankali were, and how the misunderstandings and differences between the two species drove a lot of the conflict of the story.  I was a little bothered by the adherence to gender stereotypes and biological determinism.  There are many other topics I did not address, such as my disbelief of what the Oankali call the ‘human contradiction’. Even though I sometimes disagreed with attitudes or beliefs I encountered in Lilith’s Brood, I still found it to be an incredibly interesting story of alien-human contact and coexistence.

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