Book Review: Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler (2000)

May 6th, 2013 12:54 pm by mad mags

I’ll never look at an octopus the same way again.

five out of five stars

Lilith’s Brood is one of those books that’s so amazing and epic that I can’t even. As in, I can’t even form a complete sentence, let alone maintain a coherent flow between paragraphs and ideas. And so this is where I break out the bullet points.

* Warning: major spoilers ahead! Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape and violence. *

  • The books in Lilith’s BroodDawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – were originally published as the Xenogenesis trilogy. Definitely pick up a copy of Lilith’s Brood – it’s easier and less expensive than buying the books individually, and you’ll be hooked after the first installment anyway!
  • The basic premise is this: some time in the unspecified future, earth is decimated by nuclear war. Though it primarily involves northern, industrialized nations, the fallout results in massive casualties and renders the planet uninhabitable. As humanity lingers on the brink of extinction, the few remaining survivors are “rescued” by an alien species. The Oankali transport the human refugees to their ancient ship, where they’re kept in a state of suspended animation as the Oankali work to repair their wounds and rejuvenate earth. A century and a half later, the Oankali begin “awakening” humans so that they can prepare for their homecoming. Among them is Lilith Iyapo, an anthropology student from New Mexico herunterladen. She was in vacationing in the Andes, grieving the loss of her husband and young son to a drunk driver, when the war started. (Many of the survivors are from the southern hemisphere – South America and Africa – resulting in great racial and ethnic diversity among the characters. Lilith, who has dark skin and curly, “cloud-like” black hair, is African American.) Lilith becomes a sort of “pioneer,” choosing, awakening, and teaching survival skills to multiple groups of humans before she’s allowed to return to earth herself.
  • Though vaguely humanoid (at least in their current form), the humans still find the Oankali dreadfully – repulsively – alien. (So much so that they must be acclimated to their rescuers slowly over time, usually with multiple awakenings and the use of drugs to dull the sense of revulsion.) Bipedal with two arms, two legs, a torso and a head, the Oankali are hairless; their earth-toned skin (in colors of gray, brown, and mossy green) is covered in hundreds of slug-like appendages called “sensory tentacles.” Through these, the Oankali are able to communicate with one another on a neurochemical level, sharing thoughts, pictures, feelings, memories, and even genetic information almost instantaneously, and with one or more people simultaneously. While they’re also capable of verbal communication – they can speak, and are proficient in countless human languages – the Oankali prefer to “hook in” to one another’s nervous systems. This is also how they control the ship, a living, organic creature created especially for intergalactic travel by the Oankali.

  • As strange as they are in appearance, the humans find the Oankali’s family structure even harder to accept. Each reproductive/parental unit is comprised of three individuals: a male, a female, and a third, “genderless” gender called an “ooloi.” In addition to sensory tentacles, the ooloi develop a pair of sensory arms during their second metamorphosis. (The first metamorphosis is universal to all Oankali, and it’s during this time that children learn which gender they’ll become. More on that later!) Located under their “regular” arms, the sensory arms house the ooloi’s sexual organs, through which they can access another person’s nervous system at a much deeper level, sharing both pain and pleasure with and through their male and female partners.

    The ooloi also have a special organ called a “yashi,” their “organ of manipulation.” Located in the space between their two hearts, ooloi use the yashi to store and mix genetic material youtube video download op iphone. It’s through the ooloi that reproduction takes place: it (meaning the ooloi; see below) takes a sample of its partners’ DNA and then “creates” a child manually, by manipulating, mixing, and matching their genetic material. The only contribution the ooloi makes to its child’s being is the yashi.

  • Strangely, the ooloi prefer to be referred to as “it,” a pronoun commonly (mistakenly, oppressively) reserved for nonhuman animals and (correctly) inanimate objects. In fact, it’s a source of great offense when humans – usually men – insist on misgendering ooloi as males, as they often do.
  • Sexual dimorphism is reversed in the Oankali, with the females being significantly larger and stronger than the males, in order to protect their offspring. Females carry and give birth to the children, but they’re conceived by the ooloi. As such, the Oankali don’t “have sex,” or at least not in the way humans understand it. Males and females don’t engage in direct physical contact; rather, all contact takes place through the ooloi. Using its sensory arms, the ooloi positions itself between its male and female partners and connects with each person’s nervous system simultaneously, thus sharing sensations between the two. As skilled as it is in manipulating the bodies of Oankali and humans alike, the ooloi is capable of stimulating great pleasure – and is prohibited from consciously causing pain, as the ooloi inevitably shares in whatever its partners are feeling.
  • Children are typically born in groups of three, with each individual’s development occurring relative to that of its siblings. Initially genderless, Oankali children may have a sense of what gender they’ll become – male, female, or ooloi – but don’t know for sure until their metamorphosis. In most cases, each cluster results in a child belonging to each gender. The male and female – called “paired siblings” – usually go on to become mates, while the ooloi will leave its family in search of an unrelated pair of siblings with which to mate herunterladen google.
  • Returning to the human survivors, the Oankali’s motivations in rescuing them aren’t altogether altruistic, as we learn over the course of the trilogy. A self-described “trading” species, the Oankali saved us in order to save our genetic material – both by sampling, storing, and using our DNA on a molecular level and, in the longer term, by mating with us to create a new, more evolved species. Ostensibly given a choice upon their return to earth – mate with the Oankali or join the villages of resisters – the humans’ will is not quite free: in the course of their genetic tinkering, the ooloi sterilized the remaining humans, a process that will only be reversed when a human bonds with an ooloi and accepts its Oankali mates. Thus, life in a resister village is one of stasis, with no new generations to teach, parent, and love. Nor is it easy to resist the ooloi – not only do they give off strong pheromones, but their touch is dangerously seductive – chemically addictive, even. In such encounters the idea of “consent” is dubious at best. (Again, more on this later.)
  • These new, blended family units consist of five individuals: an ooloi and its two sets of male/female human and Oankali mates. The children receive a mix of all five parents’ DNA (minus the ooloi but plus its yashi), and can be either human- or Oankali-born.
  • Interestingly, the subject of homosexuality – if it even exists among the Oankali – never arises, nor does what same-sex human pairs might mean to ooloi reproduction. Perhaps the ooloi have neutralized or altered the combination of genes responsibility homosexuality, believing it counterproductive? That said, human men who mate with the Oankali face blatant homophobia – not just because the ooloi are misgendered as male, but also because they’re said to “treat all mankind as [their] woman.”
  • The titular Lilith is one of the first newly awakened humans to enter into such a relationship with the Oankali. Aboard the ship, she’s introduced to Nikanj, an “adolescent” ooloi who’s about to undergo its second metamorphosis, and its mates, Dichaan and Ahajas application word for free. While she helps it grow into an adult ooloi, it teaches her about the Oankali and prepares her to awaken and teach other humans. Eventually the family settles earth together and, over the roughly 60-year-plus span of the trilogy – for in addition to ridding humans of disease and defects, the Oankali have also lengthened their natural lifespan – Lilith has multiple children with her Oankali and human partners (at first the deceased Joseph and, later, former resister Tino).
  • Because human males are considered especially dangerous, unpredictable, and domineering – the very essence of what the Oankali call the “human contradiction,” intelligence coupled with hierarchical tendencies resulting in destruction and violence – and the ooloi, with their ability to manipulate life for better or worse, are also thought a risky investment, the first generations of human-born construct children are all female.

    Naturally, Lilith is the mother to both firsts: thirty years after the conclusion of Dawn, Adulthood Rites sees her child Akin (mistakenly) develop into the “prototype” human-born construct male. Kidnapped as a baby and held in a resister village for several years (the residents of which include Tate and Gabriel, former shipmates and friends of his mother), Akin has a special affinity for the resister humans. His time living among them, coupled with his human ancestry, has fostered within him an empathy with their desire to live and reproduce free of Oankali interference. On the cusp of adulthood, Akin returns to the ship where he learns to care for living systems. Eventually he becomes an advocate for the humans, convincing the Oankali to build a human settlement on Mars, to which the resister humans will be relocated, restored fertility and all.

    Many generations (and at least thirty years) later comes Jodhas and Imago. Another one of Nikanj’s “mistakes,” Jodah’s shocked to learn during its first metamorphosis that it’s becoming ooloi rather than male, as everyone had assumed. Construct ooloi are especially dangerous; capable of altering life at the molecular level, their unique skills can quickly become dangerous if not properly controlled star wars battlefront 2 herunterladen. Rather than face “house arrest” aboard the ship, Jodah and its family go into exile on earth.

    During its solitary wandering, Jodah encounters Jesusa and Tomas, a pair of fertile resister humans. Part of a horridly inbred resister village – all fertile residents are descended from First Mother, a fifteen-year-old who was pregnant when the war broke out, and her own son – Jesusa and Tomas suffer from neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow all along the body’s nerve tissues. The siblings were to be married off and bred against their will, only to give birth to another generation of painfully diseased humans.

    Ooloi are especially drawn to cancers and other human diseases that are characterized by uncontrolled cellular growth, as ooloi are able to harness this power and put it to use, for example, by regenerating lost limbs. In short order, Jodah heals them and convinces Jesusa and Tomas to become his mates. But, when his paired sibling Aaor – now an ooloi like Jodahs – becomes sick over its lack of human mates, the four decide to revisit the village from which Jesusa and Tomas escaped in order to find humans willing to mate with Aaor.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the escapees/alien invaders are captured – but cunning as it is, Jodahs manages to convince the resisters to surrender. Though the ending of the trilogy is somewhat open-ended, Butler leaves us on a hopeful note: just as Akin was able to bend the Oankali’s will and establish a human colony on Mars, perhaps another member of Lilith’s brood will be able to convince them to spare earth as well.

  • While the Oankali never lie – they’re incapable, as their body chemistry gives them away to fellow Oankali – they do tell quite a many half truths. One of these concerns their plans for earth. Whereas human resisters are led to believe that the Oankali wish to settle there permanently, in reality the planet’s resources will be used as fuel and nourishment for their living ships upon their departure herunterladen. What they leave will be a barren rock, consisting only of that which the ships are incapable of digesting. In other words, they restored earth only in order to devour it – and “saved” humanity only in order to transform it. Hence the scare quotes around “rescued” in the first bullet point.
  • If I had to describe Lilith’s Brood in one word, “rapey” would be it. To begin, there are a number of obvious rape attempts. Lilith herself thwarts four rapes that we know of, three of which are assaults on her own body (including one gang rape). On earth, the sexual trafficking of women is commonplace: women are kidnapped, bought, sold, and traded, oftentimes against their will. One such victim is literally raped to death. As we see with Jesusa and Tomas, some communities also arrange marriages and encourage rape for reproductive purposes. Much like old earth, new earth is a terribly frightening and dangerous place for human women and children.

    And yet despite their insistence on nonviolence, the Oankali often exhibit as little respect for consent as their human counterparts. Theirs is just a kinder, gentler form of rape. (That was sarcasm, people.) Ooloi emit undetectable (to human noses) but potent chemicals that serve to bond its mates to it. Initially, a human bonded to an ooloi will find herself repulsed by other ooloi – so attuned she has become to her own. The process is complete even before the human realizes what’s happening – and the ooloi certainly doesn’t give any warning. (A lie of omission being the only lie an ooloi can tell adobe photoshop elements 2020. Or not tell, as it were.) When Lilith first meets Jesusa and Tomas, they talk of staying with Jodahs only long enough to see it through its metamorphosis; little do they know that, if they hang around that long, they’ll become addicted to its biochemistry. In such cases, anything but a short separation from the ooloi becomes physically and psychologically painful. Knowing this, Lilith finds herself torn between a mother’s love for her child – and the loyalty she feels for resister humans, even if she no longer counts herself as one.

    Likewise, two humans mated with an ooloi may only experience physical contact – sexual or otherwise – through the ooloi. Along with pheromones that draw partners to it, the ooloi also secretes chemicals that engender in its mates repulsion for physical contact with members of the opposite sex. The consequences are slightly less deleterious in the Oankali, since male/female mates are also siblings and may not desire sexual contact; but in human pairs, this often creates an unbearable tension. Oankali-mated humans have not lost the desire to touch their human partners sexually – to engage in sexual relations in the absence of the ooloi, even – but rather, that desire has been thwarted. Worst of all, it isn’t inevitable or even necessary: the ooloi has the ability to turn this particular chemical on and off, but they almost universally choose to keep it turned on at all times. Presumably this is because the ooloi doesn’t want to find itself excluded from any pleasurable activities, which makes it a terribly selfish lover at best. Male/female human partners are left touching one another’s hair (dead cells don’t feel pain) as the only means of providing physical comfort or closeness herunterladen.

    Thus, we have a creature that has no compunctions about binding two or more individuals to it via the use of addictive chemicals, and then robbing those individuals of the ability to touch anyone else in a sexual manner, their own partners included. Lovely.

    To make matters worse, ooloi have a nasty habit of overriding verbal objections in favor of biochemical ones: the classic “your mouth says no, but your body says yes” victim-blaming spiel. In a series of disturbing incidents, we see Nikanj coerce Joseph into a sexual encounter in such a manner – blatantly ignoring his many verbal “nos” – and then impregnate Lilith with his sperm without her knowledge or consent. Nikanj “knew” that she was ready to bear a child – her body told it! – and that was all the consent it needed.

    Due to humans’ strange and unfamiliar genetic makeup, ooloi find us especially fascinating. In fact, this attraction can best be described as a sort of fetish. There are multiple examples of ooloi “blaming” humans for its uncontrollable lust; when this desire is coupled with rape-like behavior, as it always is, it amounts to little more than victim-blaming. “We just can’t help ourselves.” Since there aren’t enough human mates to go around, the Oankali have taken to breeding more on the ship; even as children, these humans are described as “spoken for.” Just as with the humans, the Oankali also practice forms of arranged/child marriage and sexual trafficking – the only difference is, a chemical addiction causes the ooloi’s victims to take pleasure in their victimization.

  • In accordance with their nonviolence, the Oankali are vegetarians. Though they populate the earth with nonhumans animals and allow the humans to consume them (against their vehement and sometimes dramatic objections), meat is not allowed on the ship – a topic that results in no small amount of anger amongst the newly-awakened humans. (One especially unpleasant woman demands meat and then breaks into a violent temper tantrum when she’s denied it.)

    However, readers should be careful not to conflate vegetarianism with an animal rights/liberation perspective: the Oankali way of life is emblematic of animal welfare as opposed to animal rights geschütztes youtube video downloaden. That is to say, the Oankali believe that it’s acceptable to exploit animals (the ship, for example) as long as it’s done in a “humane” way. Ostensibly they don’t even respect the rights of the humans they rescued (see the passage on rape above), let alone the nonhumans they (re-)created for human use. And later, Oankali use: recall that the departing ships are to ingest everything edible on earth, leaving it a barren rock stripped of life. This isn’t even consistent with vegetarianism, let alone the ethical veganism demanded by an AR/L philosophy.

    The concepts of “violence,” “death,” and “destruction” don’t even necessarily carry the same meanings in Oankali culture as they do for humans. To the Oankali, the greatest evil is destruction – destruction of genetic material and information. The person to whom it belongs is almost irrelevant. Thus, it’s acceptable to feed countless earth-dwelling animals to their ship, as long as the animals’ genetic blueprints are preserved. It’s less about the individual than the species – again, a welfarist position.

    This is also reflected – horrifically so – when Lilith is nearly raped by the very first human she meets after her awakening. Though Nikanj and its mates intervene before she can be violated – but not beaten unconscious – the human’s Oankali family allows it to happen. More than that: they expected that it would happen, and didn’t care. Lilith was just a means to an end and, as long as her genetic material remained intact, no harm, no foul.

    In many ways, humans aren’t that different than livestock to the Oankali – we’re kept, bred, experimented upon, and cloned at their will rainbow herunterladen. At one point Lilith remarks: “It’s a good thing your people don’t eat meat.” – lest they consume humans. In many ways, the Oankali do just that.

  • In spite – or perhaps because of – some of these more uncomfortable details, Lilith’s Brood is an intriguing, engaging read. Butler touches upon a number of difficult issues, including sexuality, gender, consent, rape, violence, and the human condition in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. This is the first of Butler’s books I’ve read, and I can’t wait to dig into another. Truly a feat.

    (This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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  • One Response to “Book Review: Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler (2000)”

    1. Book Review: The Culling (The Slave Girl Chronicles #1), JC Andrijeski (2014) » V for Vegan: Says:

      […] is a fan of Octavia Butler or not, but the Nirreth share many similarities with the Oankali from Lilith’s Brood. In both cases, the aliens visited Earth only when it was on the brink of environmental ruin (or […]

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