Lilith’s Brood is Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy comprising the three titles Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The books were published in 1987, 88, and 89, with the first compilation of the three as a unit – which is how I have read them. Given what I know about the speed (or lack thereof) of the publishing industry, I suspect that when she sold this trilogy originally, all three stories were already complete. In a way, I’d love to review the books as such, but given their density, it’s going to have to be one at a time.
These books are complicated. These will not be short reviews.
At the time of the writing of these books, leading to their publication in 1987, the Cold War was in full swing and nobody, certainly not the CIA, had any inkling that Ronald Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy toward the U.S.S.R. was helping that nation to spend itself out of existence*. This is mostly relevant because in the 1980s, with thousands of nuclear ICBM’s between them pointed at one another, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. genuinely created the context for a nuclear war – now, in 2012, we’ve got different security concerns. Point being, it was a different world then, and Butler begins with that different world, pushed forward two hundred and fifty years.
In other words, in the future, we have already blown the earth to radioactive hell.
Under the circumstances, you might expect the rational title of this first book in the series to be titled Twilight (it wasn’t even taken then!), except there is hope for humanity – as embodied in our main character, Lilith Iyapo.
Lilith wakes up (“Awakes”) in an enclosed room. Food appears sometimes. At one point, for a short period of time, there’s a boy named Sharad with her, who doesn’t speak English, but some other language. Then he’s gone. The next person she meets isn’t a person at all, but an alien – Jdahya – who is bipedal, but otherwise wholly unfamiliar, gray, and covered with short tentacles on parts of his body. When, after no small time, she gets used to him, he introduces her to the rest of his family, Tediin and Kahguyaht. And that’s when the world starts getting really complicated.
The fact that they’re on a living ship? That the aliens, called Oankali, manipulate DNA the way we might tinker with a picture in Photoshop (except without the machines – they just physically connect and can do it)? That is merely the superficial stuff of world-building. In its own way it’s no different from saying that Sebaceans don’t like heat, Scarrans do, and wormhole technology is the ultimate in weapons-of-mass-destruction. Does your world have flying horses and magic, or ray guns and tricorders?
Butler’s exploration is culture**. The Oankali are a three-gendered species: male (Jdahya, in the first family Lilith meets); female (Tediin, his cousin); and ooloi (neuter, Kahguyaht). They call themselves traders, as they have dispersed themselves as a species across the cosmos, and it has been so many generations gone that they no longer know where they came from. Nor do they care, because they are moving forward, not back.
They trade genetics. Their ship is a species that they adapted to carry them across the stars. Their furniture dollies are animals that they adapted to carry things around. Their shuttles require no fuel in the way that, say, the U.S.S. Enterprise requires dilithium crystals (did I spell that right?). On the other hand, when the shuttle sets down on the ruins of an old city, it eats. Because, go figure, it just flew down from space. He/She/It was bound to be hungry.
And lookit! Here’s a planet full of critters (that’d be us humans) who are in the process of killing themselves! Awesome. We’ll save them, trade with them, everybody wins. Hilarity might ensue, except that it’s not really that kind of book.
The Oankali aren’t stupid, but as much as humans are, they are victims of their own ethnocentricity. On one level, Butler’s book is an exploration of what happens when a consensus-driven culture (feminist oriented by our standards) encounters a hierarchical one (that would be us). And in this case, the balance of power is completely out of scale.
With an axe (provided by the Oankali) and a lucky hit, a human can take out an ooloi. Assuming that he or she doesn’t get stung and drugged by one of the Oankali’s tentacles first. One on one, we’re simply no match. Technologically, it’s pre-industrial. Everyone Awoken has late 20th century sensibilities, but if you take your average New York actor and put him in a rain forest, well, who wants to place a bet on how well he’s going to do?
Butler divides Dawn into four sections: Womb, Family, Nursery, and Training Floor.
Womb follows Lilith as she comes to terms with being alone, being interrogated, meeting Jdahya, and realizing that she’s not in Kansas any more.
In Family, she meets Tediin and Kahguyaht, the latter of which takes over most of her training, much to her dismay. She is allowed to travel to different parts of the ship and explore. She meets another human, a man who has bonded with an Oankali family and has been Awake for thirty or forty years. He has never had sex. Guess what he tries to do? It doesn’t go well. Lilith bonds with the family’s ooloi child, Nikanj, and accompanies him to his new mates, the brother-sister pairing of Ahajas and Dichaan. (No, there’s no incest – the ooloi prevents it, even while it enables propogation).
Lilith is told to Awaken forty new humans in Nursery, after having been souped up a bit by Nikanj. He hasn’t added anything to her body, but he’s given her the best version of herself possible, which means that she’s stronger and faster than any of the men that she wakes up, and she heals very, very fast. Most of them don’t believe her that they’re on an alien ship and they view her as, at best, an enabling jailer as opposed to a fellow prisoner. To a degree, they’re correct: she’s bought into the new system. The fact that she’s working with the Oankali plagues Lilith. She has made her choices as best as she can – even knowing that the reason they Awoke her and chose her to do this new leading and teaching is because she is one of the humans they found who is most like them – a pragmatic consensus seeker. It’s no longer a trait she finds comfort in.
This section is where the character list really expands. One ooloi comes into work with each paired human couple (nearly all the humans hook up as a matter of course), and pretty soon, with the aid of the ooloi’s biological drugs, they are bonding. But when they start loosening the drugs, most of the men find it… difficult to come to terms with the fact that the ostensibly neuter ooloi are acting so sexually masculine – which means that all the dudes’ masculinity isn’t only threatened – they act like they themselves have been raped. Apparently, the ooloi have never heard of roofies. No one denies that the experience is pleasurable. The ooloi stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. It has to be pleasurable. Furthermore, they listen to human bodies more than they listen to human mouths, which brings a whole new level to “You said no but you meant yes.”
Training Floor is the Oankali’s preparation for humans in anticipation of returning them to earth, where, the Oankali hope, they will be able to continue their genetic training. People get tools. The rebellion that follows shocks the Oankali but not Lilith, whom they have not listened to. It is a disaster from which the aliens assert they will learn and move forward, more or less saying, “We had to screw up the first time by doing it our way. Now we’ll tinker and do it again.”
Aaaaand I find myself asking basic book questions. Like – what’s the inciting incident? Lilith is the main character, clearly, but she’s a very passive one (again: which is why they chose her). She adapts. She is our window explaining why someone would make these decisions. Every other character is an alternative argument why someone would choose to resist. Many of these arguments are, we know as readers, founded in delusion (ranging from a reasonable misinterpretation to outright lying to oneself). We have the benefit of knowing that Lilith is right, but we must acknowledge the weight, the preponderance of arguments given to the other side, why they consider her a sell-out.
Ultimately, slowly, I’m coming to the following conclusion: Lilith is the main character, but she is not the protagonist. Dawn is about first contact. Our protagonists are humans (as viewed through Lilith). Our antagonists are the well-meaning Oankali, who genuinely don’t understand what the problem is. You were all dying. We saved you. Isn’t that a good thing?
Butler traces the interplay of the two species on a small scale. This explains the lack of overall conflict and stakes for Lilith, for example, who is long-suffering but, she is constantly assured, never in any physical danger. Given her character make-up, she’s not in exorbitant psychological danger either. Butler draws a strong character in Lilith Iyapo, which makes for a lot of resilience, which doesn’t make for a lot of drama. On the other hand, the question of how Humans and Oankali will coordinate is an open question.
All of which is to say, Dawn is more of a fascinating anthropological and existential read than a dramatic page-turner. I have to add that I mean that statement as an observation rather than a criticism. It’s amazing to read this kind of writing – clearly skilled, clearly ambitious, not in the mainstream. It’s the kind of thing a debut author could never get away with, but someone with an established audience (say… Iain Banks) could. Xenogenesis on the whole and Dawn in particular are hard to categorize – can I say it’s great without it being compelling? No one would “miss their subway stop” reading this book. But still.
The ramifications and consequences of the society of the Oankali are so thoroughly imagined, with, in my note-taking on a second pass through Dawn, minimal things out of place – and those I could probably rationalize if pushed. And because I know that Lilith is right about her decisions (if regretful), I keep wanting people to come to her side. Butler doesn’t let them. She plays human loyalties out where they would almost certainly stay – with other humans, engaged in sincere but futile symbolic gestures.
* * *
* That is a disfiguringly foreshortened view of all that happened and is, for that matter, contested on its own merits. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, Poland’s Solidarity movement, all of these things and many, many more helped contribute.
**C.J. Cherryh is my other go-to author for building really foreign aliens, not just humans with alien trappings and better technology.