Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler

Book two in the Lilith’s Brood series (following Dawn) is Adulthood Rites. We get a new protagonist and first-person narrator, although Lilith is still an important figure. The worldbuilding remains thorough and engrossing, and I’m still all in for book three to come.

In this novel, we are back on Earth, which the Oankali have worked to make safe for human occupation. Humans live there in two kinds of communities: either side-by-side with the Oankali or without; the latter group are known as resisters. The Oankali have engineered it so that Humans (I capitalize as Butler does) cannot reproduce without their intervention, so the resister communities are childless (although very longlived, also through Oankali intervention; this allows the narrative to work for decades, with Humans who remember life “before” but remain childless). Their inability to reproduce defines and obsesses the Human resister communities. The hybrid communities have children, known as ‘constructs,’ blends of Human and Oankali, born to both Human and Oankali mothers. The narrator is Akin, the first male construct born to a Human mother: Lilith. This first male-construct-born-to-Human is an important and risky step. The Oankali are nervous that he will carry too much of the Human Contradiction: intelligence and hierarchical thinking.

The baby-obsessed resisters are inclined to steal construct children. They are also inclined to hate them, because they don’t look Human enough. (This feels like plenty of metaphor to start with, but it goes on.) Akin is kidnapped very young by Human resisters who both crave him (baby!) and revile him (for his Oankali characteristics). This book is primarily the story of his own conflicted relationships with the two parts of himself. And, of course, we get to see Human survivors of an apocalypse do what we more or less expect them to do. They weaponize, rape, kidnap, and kill each other. It’s sobering (although I don’t find it the least bit surprising). Akin will wind up with a unique perspective on humanity, both as the first of his kind and because of his lived experience, and in the end he may hold some power over the future of humanity.

Post-apocalyptic narratives like this have become commonplace since this series (Adulthood Rites was originally published in 1988), but even in a now-crowded field, Butler stands out. The different traits of the Oankali, and their earnest failure to understand humanity’s protests against them, offer plenty to think about. To have a child who is a mix of both types is (again) ripe metaphor, and a fascinating opportunity to think about blended identities. Lilith tells Akin,

Human beings fear difference… Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need to give them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek different and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior… When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.

Which of course is commentary on xenophobia, but also on that sense of having opposing types in one person (which I think we can all empathize with, one way or another).

There is also plenty to consider about family and social structures. Construct children have five parents (at least until something happens to them): male and female Human and Oankali parents, respectively, and an ooloi, the genderless Oankali who makes fertility possible, who ‘mixes’ the baby. “All interconnected, all united–a network of family into which each child should fall.” And Lilith’s Brood is centrally concerned with ideas of agency, consent, free will, and personal choice. It’s an enormous amount of philosophy to take on, for a book billed as science fiction… or perhaps (as next week’s author interview will point out!) it’s a falsehood and a shame that we expect less from sci fi.

Killer reading. Butler’s a master.


Rating: 8 guns.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

I thought Kindred was good, but Dawn has blown me away. The former was an excellent and thought-provoking book but (at least at this distance of memory) not something I quite got lost in; this one offered a new level of world-building that took me away from my own life in a way I love. It’s still an outstanding work of craft, and offers plenty of serious issues (see the discussion questions at the back of my paperback edition), but it also captured my imagination and took me out of myself. Very special.

Lilith wakes up in a plain room devoid of color and objects, accompanied occasionally by disembodied voices, fed a bland stew or cereal in edible bowls, driven a little mad by isolation; and this happens over and over again. Eventually she passes enough tests to meet her captors, who turn out to be nonhuman alien “people” who inform her that she is not on Earth – Earth as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war, which she remembers – but on a ship. And, long story short-ish, she is among the few human survivors who will eventually be sent to Earth to repopulate it. But there is a price: the alien people, the Oankali, want something in exchange for shepherding humans out of near-extinction.

Lilith is a special human. She’s been identified as having the right combination of qualities to lead and teach humans how to move forward. This role will come with its own frustrations and burdens. It is the Oankali’s belief that humans have “a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics,” which alone would have been advantages but together may doom humanity. These are intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Lilith’s troop of humans have these characteristics, of course. They are also traumatized by war, and the challenges of survivalism include some tendencies to violence, for one thing.

This is a story about the way humans behave, and about relationships, between humans and also across species with the Oankali. In some basic ways, it reduces to a story about people, which I appreciate. It also considers some more unusual questions, especially because the Oankali have some very novel qualities, skills and abilities, and ways of relating to each other. Sex and gender appear in new ways here, which is thought-provoking. Lilith is a Black woman, which has some implications for her place in a human society, because even post-nuclear-war we haven’t lost our societal issues and prejudices. Dawn deals with questions about agency and self-determination; love, sex and gender; and the persistence of old hangups. I was intrigued and engaged by the Issues, but I was most pleasurably lost in the story and the novel world and people.

Very much sold on this series – I’ve ordered books 2 and 3, and can’t wait.


Rating: 9 breadnuts.
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