Lilith’s Brood / Octavia E. Butler

One of the reasons why I blog about my reading is that the writing forces me to think about my reading in further depth than I otherwise would. However, for the last month I apparently haven’t been wanting to think about my reading in any kind of depth, and so I haven’t been writing. At least that’s the conclusion I am coming to, because every time I sit down to write I just haven’t felt like it.

Nevertheless, tonight is my monthly Feminist Science Fiction Book Club meeting, and I volunteered to bring some discussion questions. So it’s time to bite the bullet and write.

Cover of Lilith's Brood

The reading this month is the three books that makes up Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The series was also published in a single volume as Lilith’s Brood (the edition which I read). The storyline is much more straightforward than some of our previous readings, meaning I could follow along much better. Hence, why I volunteered to bring the discussion questions.

Humanity nearly kills itself off in a nuclear war, the details of which are left mostly unstated. Out in the solar system a generation ship of extra-galactic Oankali has been watching us for some time. They take the opportunity to save the remaining humans by sweeping them all up and putting them in a sort of stasis. Their ultimate purpose is to interbreed and establish a hybrid race. The Oankali history is filled with these encounters. They no longer resemble their original species. They grow and thrive by finding new and valuable traits and becoming something new with each merger.

The Oankali plan is to release a number of humans back to earth along with some of their own species. The people who agree to breed with Oankali get all the advantages of Oankali technology. Those who do not become resisters and must scavenge a life of their own without help, and without fertility. Only the new Oankali-human hybrid construct species will ultimately continue. Lilith Iyapo is the first human mother of the colony, and the only one to be described or really to even matter. Hence, the new species is Lilith’s Brood.

Much of the story is an elaborate analogy/metaphor/allegory for colonization and its effect on both the colonizers and the colonized. I don’t know what Ms. Butler’s specific intentions were along those lines. Perhaps it started with the idea that colonization would make a great framework for a science fiction story. Or perhaps she set out to say something about colonization and worked backward from there.

I wonder about the direction her story idea flowed because it’s an extremely complex analogy to fit everything, and some parts of it I don’t understand in the colonization context. I get the good intentions of the colonizers combined with their lack of understanding about the colonized despite lots of book knowledge. I get the formation of new cultures how the indigenous culture has neither a choice, nor the ability to remain separate. I get the rape analogy, which was designed to make me (as the reader, not me specifically) uncomfortable, and by analogy upset with the forcible nature of colonization.

But some things I didn’t get. In particular, Ms. Butler’s Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi. They then interact sexually with the two human sexes to produced the construct children. I barely understood the stuff on the surface with respect to sexual reproduction, and could not fit the complex process into the colonization metaphor. One of the things that occurred to me is that the author used that part to comment on something else, and I’m putting a square peg in a round hole by even trying to fit it into the analogy. (This is the first discussion question I’m bringing! Hopefully the fact that we have multiple minds in the group, and that most of them are smarter than me, will enlighten me.)

Another discussion topic: the second book the Oankali allow humans to create an uncolonized human culture in a Mars colony. However, by that point it’s too late to create an untouched human culture. In the context of the analogy, how should the Oankali have approached their merger with humans such that humans had autonomy. Given that humanity faced certain death without the assistance, there’s a lot of pressure both on individuals and the culture to give it up. If the only thing the less powerful culture has that is worthwhile to the more powerful culture requires the loss of authonomy, what’s the responsibility for the Oankali to help? This is one point where the analogy failed for me. Civilized cultures don’t have such clean opportunities to interact as in this story. The exchange is rarely as stark as saving the about to be colonized culture from themselves in return for colonization.

Another moral discussion that Ms. Butler included in the story is that of human nature. This was not entirely related to colonization, though it was used by the Oankali as reasoning for choosing the way they did. The story posits that humans have two characteristics: we are intelligent, and we are hierarchical. By the latter, the author means that we strive to assert authority over and dominate each other. Our wars are mostly driven by the need to control others. The Oankali also think that the two characteristics mean that humans are destined to kill themselves off. Discussion questions are: are these really intrinsic? are they really fatal in combination? and were the Oankali as described really non-hierarchical as they claimed? As described, I say no. They certainly asserted their dominance over humans.

As you can see, there’s lots of meaty stuff in there. Way more than I’m writing about (which is intended as a way for me to formulate my discussion topics). As a story, I thought it was pretty interesting, but way too complex and too long. Whenever the narrative moved into discussions of Oankali sexual behavior my eyes started to glaze, for instance. A lot of the sex and rape was uncomfortable when it wasn’t boring. In addition, other than Lilith’s gardening (which gets almost no ink), none of the characters have any lives or thoughts outside their relationship with the aliens. Because of that, they are all really flat. So unless a person gets into thinking about the political implications of the story, I wouldn’t recommend it to them. Rather, as I would push them toward Parable of the Sower.

As noted, this post’s purpose was mostly for me to think about some discussion questions for tonight. Feel free to add your own, though it’ll likely be too late for my group. Also, as I am not very smart, this is a good place to point out where I missed the boat big time if you care.

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