Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) is one of the best known African American writers of science fiction. Her series, Lilith’s Brood, also known as the ‘Xenogenesis Trilogy’, contains three short novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago.
Earth has been all but destroyed by nuclear war. A passing alien race in need of an infusion of new genetic material rescue the few surviving humans, put them in stasis, and set about restoring the planet. These aliens, specialists in genetic manipulation, decide that humanity is doomed by a hereditary conflict between intelligence and hierarchical impulses, a conflict which will inevitably propel the species towards self-destruction. Coming to the conclusion that allowing human beings to continue as they are unaltered would be tantamount to murdering them, the aliens decide to put an end this conflict When the humans are revived many years later they find that a terrible bargain has been struck without their consent and are confronted with a choice of two horrific options: breed with the aliens to create a new race of beings, or be sterilised and live out long, childless lives.
Having read Butler’s collection of short stories, Bloodchild, and her novel Kindred, I was expecting something challenging and disturbing from Lillith’s Brood and I wasn’t disappointed. Butler is a totally uncompromising writer who makes no concessions whatsoever to the reader’s feelings. A lot of people seem to find Lilith’s Brood an uncomfortable read and I think it’s supposed to be precisely that. Butler is primarily a science fiction writer, but much of her work can also be placed in the horror genre, as she forces us into direct confrontation with social taboos and highly disturbing power dynamics. She pushes her ideas to their logical conclusion and you get the feeling that she doesn’t give a shit about whether her writing is upsetting you or not; her job is to tell the story she set out to tell. This is one of the reasons why she’s a great writer.
I’ve noticed in other works that Butler seems particularly interested in exploring how people might respond to being caught in situations they can’t escape from – what kind of compromises might they make? In the first book, Dawn, a young woman named Lilith Iapo is awoken by the aliens only to be given the job of awakening other humans and preparing them for their fate. Lilith is utterly trapped – if she refuses, someone else will be chosen; if she agrees, she betrays her own people. She collaborates in the hopes that some of the people she awakes will resist and that she’ll have a better chance than others would of teaching them how to survive. The price is that she becomes a scapegoat and is forever viewed with suspicion and loathing by other humans.
A lesser writer than Butler would have focussed on the story of the human resisters who refuse to collaborate with the aliens, because that would have been a much easier story to tell, but Butler is not interested in easy. By telling the story mainly from the point of view of Lilith and her half-alien children (or “constructs”), she does something much more challenging. She makes us empathise with those who are, for whatever reasons, unable to resist. We all like to think we would be the rebels don’t we? But would we, really? She doesn’t allow us the relief of identification with the resisters and makes no effort to romanticise them. Their grievance is acknowledged as justified, but most of them quickly confirm the aliens worst suspicions, descending into murder, rape, theft and the kidnap of the half-alien children. Perhaps these behaviours are due to their being oppressed by the aliens, but Butler seems to be asking whether these behaviours are inherent to humans. Nor does she allow us the comfort of reading about aliens who are physically attractive or “like us”. The Oankali are grotesque, grey-skinned, tentacled beings. Their species has three sexes: male, female and Ooloi, and every marriage (or, as they would call it, “mating”) involves at least five people. They are utterly unable to understand the pain they are inflicting on the humans – it just doesn’t make sense to them because they believe that they are being benevolent. However, Butler doesn’t represent the Oankali as evil, or allow us simply to hate them – some of them are the most interesting characters in the book, especially Nikanj the Ooloi with whom Lilith has an ambivalent, symbiotic relationship.
The second and third books, Adulthood Rites and Imago continue to work out these themes through the stories of Lilith’s children; first Akin, who with some success attempts to champion the cause of the resisters, and then Jodahs who metamorphoses into the first human/Oankali construct Ooloi.
Lilith’s Brood could be interpreted on several levels. It could be an allegory about slavery and colonialism, although saying this would probably have annoyed Butler. It may be mainly about her interest in the possibilities of genetics. There’s clearly a lot going on with gender, since we have an alien race with three sexes. However you read it, it’s very much a product of the mid 1980s, a period during which people really thought nuclear war was imminent and the future of human race seemed highly uncertain. Butler uses the alien Oankali to ask the then pertinent question of what the hell to do with a species that seems bent on destroying itself?
A classic of science fiction.