The Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia Butler – Many Thoughts

In May, I’ll be attending WisCon. One of the panels I’ll be participating in is a discussion of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy. Rather than delve into the depths of my collection to unearth my original mass market paperbacks, I purchased a Kindle version that compiled all three books: Lilith’s Brood: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The electronic edition meant it was much easier for me to highlight quotes I thought might be relevant to the discussion. I didn’t realize I would end up with approximately 8,500 words of quotes.

I also made quite a few notes of potential discussion topics. In the hope of getting some feedback before the convention, I am posting them here, so please feel free to comment!

First, a quick summary: the trilogy opens after humanity has destroyed itself in a war. The first point of view character, Lilith, survived the destruction and is now held captive on a spaceship full of aliens, the Oankali, who want to save humanity, but on their terms. The terms are not revealed immediately, but eventually we learn the aliens wish to trade genetic material with the humans, to create a new, hybrid species that will someday venture back into space and find their own new “trade” partners. The humans will not be allowed to breed on their own; there will be no more pure humans born, because pure humans, by combining intelligence with hierarchical social structures, are doomed. A few unchanged Oankali will go back into space; however, the ones who stay on Earth will only survive through the genetic Constructs who result from tailored mating with humans. The blending of species is made possible by a third oankali sex, the ooloi.

There are a lot of intersections in these books. Humans/aliens are the major one, but human gender is explored as well as alien gender, with a lot of male/female human conflict and some exploration of race, mostly through the lens of Difference between humans, aliens, and human/alien constructs. It’s reiterated a number of times that the alien beings called ooloi are neither male, female, or both male and female; they are a third sex. There’s exploration of complex power relationships between the humans and the aliens. Slavery/freedom is addressed from a number of angles, both in the relations between the humans and the aliens and among the humans alone.

However, there’s a lot of gender essentialism – where are the gay humans? If they’re there, they’re not shown; thinking along that path, there’s the possibility that the Oankali chose not to revive any because gay people might not go along with the mating plan, though they were probably harvested for genetic material, since there are so few surviving humans. I can believe the Oankali might have set gender after adulthood because they likely chose that system, being focused on reproduction; they have the ooloi to back it up in the womb and even afterwards since they can control your hormones, your sexual pleasure, etc.. Gay people are a glaring absence in the whole trilogy. I would have expected at least a mention of the topic, unless Butler deliberately avoided it. In Imago there’s a single hint of non-heterosexuality: one of the Oankali adults asks if the human Francisco has a “female mate,” which suggests that the possibility of a “male mate” is on the table, with humans.

The five-person mating groups that make human/alien genetic blending possible are a way of exploring alternate sexualities, but the focus does not seem to be on polyamory as a choice. Reproductive needs make these groups more of a mandate. The human pair who have sex through an ooloi feel repelled when they physically touch each other, so despite the great pleasure they receive through the ooloi, they have lost something they previously had. The oankali partners have sex through the ooloi as well, but one human and one oankali do not ever seem to have sex with an ooloi, and the human and oankali partners do not seem to practice sexual touching without an ooloi partner. The humans in a mating group do not seem to go outside of it for sex at any time, nor do the Oankali; biological markers seem to make this repellant to all concerned.

To the oankali, parenting a same-sex child seems to be a special and necessary bond.

“You want to be what you are. That’s healthy and right for you.” (Nikanj to Jodahs, Imago) – that quote covers a lot of ground. The constructs in future generations, as more physical changes happen, might have more variation. The goal is more variation, using the abilities the oankali gained from examining and understanding human cancers. My theory is that even the oankali take time to adapt to change, even change which they have initiated.

The gender essentialism exception in the first two books is always the pre-metamorphosis children – it’s reiterated that they are truly neutral, but the human-born constructs at least seem to be referred to as “daughters” and “sons” before metamorphosis – in fact Nikanj tells Lilith in Dawn that she is pregant with a daughter, and later on Jodahs says that the human-born rarely change from such a designation (Jodahs, however, becomes ooloi). However, Akin’s “sister” becomes male after their early separation. So there’s some complexity going on there. Biological influences are shown to be stronger than anything else, presumably because the Oankali in particular exist to reproduce and change and spread. Their whole society’s purpose is negated if they don’t reproduce. There are hints that Oankali without mates are very sad and desperate beings who might even die from sexual hunger (in Imago), but there are no hints that alternative methods of mating are possible, though it ought to be; why can’t the ooloi make reproduction work differently, at need?

Everything gets more complicated in Imago. Jodahs is called “male” as a child, but becomes ooloi. Butler made a wise choice in having the ooloi narrator be first person; it’s thus much easier for the reader to immerse in the character and its differences from baseline humans. The oankali are also shown to have difficulties with Jodahs’ differences from oankali ooloi.

Manipulation is also a large issue in the books. The ooloi have a whole range of ways to manipulate through chemicals and physical changes in others, but they also are shown to have a strict moral code achieved in large part by consensus with all oankali. However, the ooloi seem to have more societal power than males and females, so their opinions/decisions seem to have/would likely have more weight…I’m not sure if this is borne out by the text, or if my human hierarchical tendencies are influencing my opinion!

It’s unclear if the ooloi in Adulthood Rites wanted Akin to remain with the resistors, for example, though the consensus among all oankali was otherwise; it seems unlikely, given how worried the ooloi were about creating a human-born male construct in the first place, that they would want to risk him.

The Oankali always believe their decisions are best because the humans are flawed (intelligence plus hierarchical behavior) and doomed because of it. It’s not until Akin brings his point of view that humans are allowed fertility and autonomy on Mars, but despite the oankali consensus to allow this, they still believe that humanity is ultimately doomed. While believing in the doom, they nevertheless improve the health of the Mars humans as far as possible to aid in their survival. The continuation of life is the oankali’s ultimate moral as well as physical drive. The oankali feel this gives them the right to sometimes, as Lilith puts in, treat the humans like animals by improving their health without prior consent. Lilith and the resisters are the voice against that. Lilith remains torn between the desire to survive and the desire for autonomy through the entire trilogy.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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