In Dawn, the first book of Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy published as one book with the title, Lilith’s Brood, Lilith awakes surprised to find herself alive. The world was ending, dying in the aftermath of nuclear war before she fell asleep and now here she was in a blank room, a cell where she was provided food and clothing, but little else. She slept and woke and slept and woke and eventually was joined by a creature so impossible that it must be alien, even though she rejects the idea. In time, she comes to understand who they are and what they expect of her.
It cannot be coincidence that her name is Lilith, the same as Adam’s first wife who abandoned him to lay with the unclean animals or demons. “Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the Lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.” Lilith is expected to waken and teach the other humans so they can resettle the earth and populate it again, though with xenogeneic offspring of humans and Oankali, the aliens who rescued humans and are rebuilding Earth for them.
But humans contain The Contradiction, the fatal flaw of both intellect and a need for hierarchy, a need to dominate that led to their destruction and, in the view of the Oankali, always will. No matter how many chances they get, human will destroy themselves. The Oankali hope to save them through xenogenesis, eliminating the Contradiction. The importance of the Contradiction and how that effects humanity’s chances to survive as a distinct, non-hybridized species is the central theme of the second book in the series, Adulthood Rites which focuses on Lilith’s son Akin.
Akin is stolen from his family by resisters, humans who refused the hybridized family life of the Oankali and live in isolated settlements. They are sterile and steal the Constructs, the xenogeneic children of humans and Oankali. His time with resisters gives him an understanding of their need to resist, their drive to survive as distinct, and understanding of the horrible pain of having no children. This persuades him that humans deserve another chance to have human children, another chance to survive their Contradiction.
Imago, the final book in the series focuses on two more of Lilith’s children. Oankali come in three genders, male, female and ooloi, the non-gendered generative glue of the five person Oankali/Human family unit. When they mature and go through metamorphosis, they discover who they will be and what gender they will have. Contrasts are always male or female. However, shockingly, Jadohs, the narrator of the third story, becomes ooloi and so does his sibling. Because ooloi can not only read genetic material but also manipulate it, the Oankali think it is too dangerous for Construct ooloi to be on the planet, but they do not want to be exiled to the ship. In this last book, they look for a new way forward for them and for humanity.
Lilith’s Brood is fascinating, one of those books that draw you in so that you resent interruptions like sleeping or eating or anything that interferes with reading. It took me a while to get into it, perhaps because Lilith was learning and so was I and for two long, the book was just about Lilith and the few Oankali who interacted with her, but when more characters were introduced, then it became more interesting and ultimately, captivating.
There are several themes explored in Lilith’s Brood. The central dilemma is the different understanding of survival that the humans and the Oankali have. The Oankali know that the human species will eventually destroy itself in warfare. They won’t learn from destroying themselves already. That they are only surviving because the Oankali saved them and rebuilt their planet will not change their propensity for violence and destruction. To the Oankali, they only way they can survive is through xenogenesis with the Oankali, producing this new hybrid that preserves both human and Oankali genes that will survive forever without that fatal Contradiction. To many humans, that is not survival, that is extinction. Oankali cannot really comprehend this concept. It can be explained, but not internalized emotionally, it makes no sense to the Oankali whose species is driven by the desire to accumulate new genes and change over time.
Gender plays a big role in Lilith’s Brood. That the Oankali have three genders would have been more revolutionary in the 1980s when the trilogy was written, but now college application forms have nine gender options. Of course, today there are still plenty of humans who insist there are only two, but they’re wrong and they’re losing. To me, the discomfort and dismay humans expressed over their emotional attachments seemed overblown. I think if they are mating in threes with a tentacled ooloi as the nexus, I think its neutral gender would be the least shocking thing. Butler also leaves no room for culture in the fostering of violence. Nature rules, sure, but nurture guides and directs. We are not fully products of biological determinism.
Xenophobia is also a central theme of the book, the constant fear of the other. Humans fear the Oankali, are repulsed by them. Yet, even with aliens controlling the planet, some humans still have time for race-based bigotry, an English village chasing a Portuguese man from their village because of his dark skin, for example. Humans really do quickly go back to tribalism and warfare. It’s all a very negative and depressing view of humanity, whose only hope is alien intervention. Given the state of the world, there may be some people who are hoping they will hurry.