When I pick up a book by a new author I rarely spend any time looking into the author’s experience or history—other than if I recognize the name—before I begin reading the book so that I can really appreciate the story on its own merits without having the author’s personal demons or the axes they had to grind casting shadows over the work. There is time for that after I read the work. That’s just the way I roll.
Lilith’s Brood is actually a collection of Octavia Butler’s first three books in her Xenogenesis series, and while having the books bound together does make for a long read, in many ways it is beneficial for the reader mainly because it enables the reader to keep engaged in Butler’s world from one novel to the next. Beyond the obvious convenience of it, it aids in the transition to the next novel; as each book is told from a different character’s perspective. And for a reason I have yet to discover, in book three Butler decided to shift from third person perspective to that of a first person narrative. Although she executed the POV technically correct, I did find it distracting to shift character viewpoint two-thirds of the way though this combined novel. Having said all of that, I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit.
What’s the book about already?! Good question. I think it is safe to say that it is a book that clearly will mean different things to different people depending on their personal viewpoints and biases. So, whether that makes Lilith’s Brood a work of art, like an impressionist painting, or a novel that refuses to commit in obviousness, I’ll leave to you to decide for yourself. However, I would argue for the former and I would even state that it was on par with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. While Butler takes more of a frontal assault on the underlying aspects of the human condition in comparison to Heinlein, and at times tends to beat that respective drum heavily and often, this is not necessarily a bad thing as some of us need the repeated reminder.
Book one of Lilith’s Brood begins with a woman, Lilith Iyapo, who awakes in an isolation chamber of sorts. The first few chapters are a well-written account of her bouts of consciousness between repeated lapses of sleep and her interaction with her captors despite the fact that they are unseen and non-verbal. With time it is revealed that they are an alien species called the Oankali, who arrived at Earth as the environment was collapsing after a great nuclear war. The Oankali scoured the planet to find all living humans—healthy, sick, or nearly dead—and placed them in suspended animation so that they had time to learn about this new species and determine how to best heal them and their ailing world. The Oankali have their own interesting physical manifestation oddities and characteristics that I won’t spoil for you, and they are quite bizarre in some ways which made it difficult for me to truly understand and visualize them until well into book two. However, considering when these books were written, Butler’s knowledge of biology and how the aliens would merge, interact, and respond to the human body is amazing. It was unclear to me if she could have had a better accounting of the biological actives between the humans and the aliens had she been a biologist herself.
The Oankali’s primary point of existence and driving motivation is to find new life forms with which to combine and enrich their respective DNAs, an activity that they refer to as a “trade”. And from their perspective—since it is such an integral part of their being—they feel that all parties are the better for it and it would seem that it is almost outside their ability to comprehend that perhaps the other species might not have the same opinion. The fact that they will no longer be the same as a species is perfectly acceptable and it is largely beyond their comprehension how life could be in any way different.
I found the way that Butler represented the Oankali and their motivations was profoundly insightful. She was adept at showing how the actions of the Oankali came across to the humans as devious and manipulative. By the end of book three, the reader, with an open mind to entertaining other viewpoints, is able to see that the Oankali really had no ill will or malice toward humans and actually had the best of intentions for all. And in doing so, she was able to hold us up to a mirror to show a little more of whom we are as a species. Butler goes a step deeper with the motivations of the Oankali by showing us that they are not just a wandering species haphazardly causing world-wide genetic disruption across thousands of worlds, but a species that understands that they bring change to these worlds and in their hearts truly believe that both are the better for it. This merging of life forms to them is as natural and as foregone a conclusion as the sun rising each morning is for you and me. To them it is not something that is an option and their existence depends on it; it is just part of what they are.
By giving this level of depth to the aliens, how they are a product of their biology, and laying clear that the Oankali had given up any false pretenses of importance to anything other than what they are as a biological organism, Butler asserts that if we do the same for ourselves we would understand that much of what we are is directly tied to our primal instincts. On the opposite side of the coin, Butler repeatedly and effectively shows the ugly side of what it means to be human. By placing humans in very believable, stressful situations, where rarely are rational decisions made and most resort to violence, Butler reveals an unattractive part of who we are. She reminds us how thin the veneer of society and civility can be, how fast it can all fall away, and how quick we can be to judge that which we cannot understand.
Major themes through the books are that of mating, joining, sex, and the recombination of DNA. To some it might seem over the top, but in the end I think that Butler did an amazing job of dragging the reader through the mire of what really drives us as humans to make the point that we are, at our most fundamental level, sexual creatures whose primary goal in life is to reproduce and ensure the success of the next generation. We tend to want to ignore this fact and pretentiously relegate that aspect of our humanity to a technicality or act of entertainment only. But in the world created by Butler, everything was taken away from humanity and all that remained was coming to terms with joining genetically and sexually with the Oankali, which have three genders as part of their biological framework, or living with an extended longevity and a sterile life trying in vain to find meaning. Butler adds another layer of complexity and moral questioning by forcing the reader to live a life through a few of the human’s eyes where they had to confront their own sexuality in very real terms and make life-altering decisions on such. It is only after one of Lilith’s hybrid children, Akin, who was kidnapped by the sterile human resistors and forced to live with those who refused to take part in what they considered unholy and unnatural, do the humans begin to have the Oankali hear and understand their cause. Through learning about the human part of itself, Akin made it a personal mission to convince the Oankali that the humans deserved the choice to live genetically un-joined with them if they so chose and in a place that would not be destroyed when the Oankali left. In the end, Akin left Earth to set up a colony on Mars with the commitment from the Oankali to provide what was necessary for the human’s survival; it would be a very hard life, but it would be a life free from the Oankali.
After two generations of Lilith’s Oankali-human, hybridized progeny, Jodahs, genderless and a first of its kind, when going thought its final maturation cycle had left to set up a new town that would one day grow into a colonizing ship, and would one day venture out into the stars to repeat the life cycle on another world. This new town would be the first group of truly hybridized Oankali-human unions with each generation of children becoming more different from their parents and a completely new species unto themselves.
Butler tackled other conditions of humanity and other readers have defined underlying meaning mirroring the plight of African Americans, slavery, and biblical mappings. While such themes were not readily evident to me, I will leave those interpretations for the reader to decide and draw meaning from. Butler is by all measure a unique woman in the science fiction genre with her gender, race, and cultural background. All of this unique diversity manifested in a truly unique world that still stands to teach us a little bit about ourselves.
Terry R. Hill – 2013