Now I know my answer to that old saw about who which dead author I’d have dinner with because I’d dearly like to have a chat with Octavia Butler about Lilith’s brood. Usually I have a fine time deciphering authorial intent, or at least I think I do. I’m having a little more difficulty here, because as Dr. Who would say, there are some cowboys in here, and by cowboys I mean consent issues.
A little spoiler-free background first. I will have to more explicitly engage in the plot to discuss my issues, but I’ll provide a warning upon entering more dangerous territory. Lilith’s brood is a trilogy in which humanity, upon the brink of self-annihilation upon nuclear war, is whisked away by aliens known as the Oankali. They mean to save the remaining humans and engage in a “gene trade”. They will produce human-Oankali hybrids. The price is that the remaining humans will be the last pure humans. The Oankali have three sexes- a rough male and female equivalent, and a third sex, the ooloi, who are neither male nor female but who take the male and female genetic material and mix it into a genetically viable child. The ooloi are capable of healing genetic flaws, which means the remaining humans won’t suffer from disease and will live for centuries, depending on how old they were when salvaged by the Oankali. Lilith is a human awakened by the Oankali and is trained to awaken other humans and prepare them for life in a regenerated earth among the Oankali.
This book is obviously science fiction but not even slightly hard science fiction, which for me is a pity because I like the nitty gritty. It would have been great for me to read more accurate and specific exposition of what kind of genetic manipulations the ooloi are doing, and why exactly cancer is so interesting for them. I’m sure that the time it was written in (1989) limits what might have been possible to explore, but also Butler’s interest is obviously not in the science. It’s more of a meditation on humanity’s self-destructive nature and the usual fun that comes from world-building an alien culture. It also features humans of color from around the world, which not only adds to the realism but is also a relief from the towering inferno of Western and White that sci-fi can sometimes be. It is an enjoyable, compulsive read.
The Oankali are some manipulative motherfuckers. They don’t lie, but they withhold information and are so good at reading humans that it’s easy to get them to do what they want (relatively). In some places, it is clear that Butler doesn’t condone this– in the last book, an ooloi hybrid, or construct, finds a pair of humans to mate with– and to be fair it’s a matter of life and death that this ooloi mate– and asks them to stay with it through its metamorphosis. They are conflicted about being its mates, but if they stay through the metamorphosis, they will be biochemically yoked to the ooloi for life. The ooloi neglects to tell them this. This characterization is fine with me– the Oankali are not Ghandi aliens. But early on I read the following passage of an ooloi seduction:
“You said I could choose! I’ve made my choice!”
“You have, yes.” It opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. “You see. Your body has made a different choice.”
Ewww, Octavia! Humanity gets saved by date rapists? And humans that are treated like this accept this and have families with their date rapists. This might be acceptable for me if I thought it continued the gray morality of the book. But I question how gray it is exactly that those who stay with the Oankali are consistently portrayed as far more peaceful and reasonable than those who resist. Those who resist making families with the Oankali Iare allowed to live on Earth, but barren. They form villages that are portrayed as xenophobic, violent, and rapey. There are some good people in these villages, sure, but their resistance often seems to be driven by a wish to be pure human than to be a wish to avoid having, you know, free will. They reject healing from the Oankali even when it comes without a price, seem incapable of realizing that Oankali never lie, and kill each other for stupid reason after stupid reason. I’m sure restarting humanity in the jungle after a war wouldn’t be a picnic, but Butler seems more interested in underlining how hopeless and self-destructive humanity is than in exploring the complexities of the resister mentality or the value of humanity. That being said, I’m not sure that’s what she MEANT to do. Hence my new answer to that old saw. I’d love to have a chat with her about these issues.
As much as the above bothers me, I do think the good outweighs the bad. The writing is clear and propulsive, and Lilith and the Oankali are fascinating. I will probably pick up Kindred. But I do wonder how Butler herself thought of the Oankali’s action– whether it was forgivable. And I wonder if the fact that I would recommend this to non-rape victims has more to do with how used to seeing rape in literature I am, and how thirsty I am for characters of color.