Lilith's Brood

December 25, 2012

by Octavia Butler

Dawn, Adulthood Rites & Imago

I think I remember reading part of one of these books when I was very much younger. I don’t remember getting a lot out of it, so I’m very glad that I reread them again now. There’s a lot to think about here.

The first book of the three, Dawn, opens after a global war has killed the majority of humanity. The survivors are rescued by an alien race, the Oankali. The Oankali are genetic engineers who combine themselves with other species, collecting genetic information, ways of living and organisms as they go. The genetic engineering is mostly mediated by the ooloi, a third gender distinct from the Oankali male and female. An Oankali family consists of a male and a female, ideally closely genetically related, plus an unrelated ooloi.

The urge to connect to and combine with other forms of life isn’t something that the Oankali choose to do. It’s an essential biological drive for them. Which leads to a few interesting aspects of the books, because there’s a very real sense in which the Oankali, although they appear altruistic and interested in the wellbeing of humanity, are forcing themselves on the human survivors, both collectively and individually. (There’s also a whole “we’re going to dismantle the earth to make new starships” thing that is hard to understand give the number of other bodies in the Solar System they could use, but I’m happy to give Butler a pass on that!)

One thing that makes this a little less creepy is the Oankali’s clear willingness to change themselves to accommodate the species with which they want to bond. The Oankali that the human survivors meet are alien, but not that alien – they are bipedal, they have senses that correspond at least partially to the human sensorium, they can communicate by speaking. They’re still alien enough to cause deep feelings of repulsion in many humans, but people can learn to overcome that. Before coming to Earth though, the Oankali looked completely different, and many of the individuals on their (living) starship still maintain that earlier body form, which is totally alien and which would have made communicating with humans pretty much impossible. In order to make communication with humans possible, the Oankali decided to change themselves, to breed children conforming to this new bipedal body plan, one that they drew from their libraries of genetic and biological information.

To me, this willingness to mould themselves makes their expectations and their approach to humanity a lot less problematic than it might otherwise be. The Oankali claim to know, from genetic analysis and comparison with other species that they’ve seen, that there is no way that humanity can survive in the long term, avoiding another act of mass suicide, without accepting the modifications and merging that the Oankali offer. Whether you believe them or not, none of their actions contradict that stated belief.

The question of volition on an individual level is also interesting. When they mature, ooloi seek mates. Human-Oankali hybrid ooloi require a male-female Oankali pair and a male-female human pair to form a family unit, from which they “mix” children. The way that these ooloi find human mates initially appears not far from mental rape, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am. The ooloi can, by secreting various pheromones, influence the attitudes and behaviour of individuals around them, and they do this pretty consistently to their mates, as part of the ooloi duties of healing and caring for their family (“duties” is probably the wrong word, since they just can’t avoid doing these things without becoming very sick). One thing they can do is to make their mates fall in love with them, to become physically and emotionally dependent on them.

That sounds really off, and bad news in a respect-for-individual-autonomy kind of way. But then I got to thinking about how love works among humans. In English, we say “to fall in love”, in French it’s “tomber amoureux”. We don’t talk, at least for the initial phase of business, of “building love” or “climbing into love”. There’s a lack of volition, a recognition that we don’t get to choose who we love. It seems weird, but one way of thinking of the ooloi-human interactions is as three people falling in love, one of whom gets to choose. (In fact, the ooloi usually prefer to find an already bonded male-female pair, or a brother and sister, so that there is already a connection.)

Anyway, that may all be way off the mark, but the books are thought-provoking on a lot of levels. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the view of human relations is too heteronormative. The biology of the Oankali doesn’t really leave much space for same-sex sexual couplings, but the Oankali don’t ever seem to consider that humans might be different from that point of view. That made me a little uncomfortable – the Oankali celebrate biological diversity in all the forms that they find it, but their idea of “marriage” is right out of the Red States: “one man, one woman (and their ooloi)”. Oops.