I feel sort of silly writing about Octavia Butler, because for years she and Delany were basically The Two Black People who Write Science Fiction and surely everyone already knows about them. But then, I’ve known about Delany for years but didn’t actually read any of his books until a couple of months ago, so maybe there are people out there who have heard of Octavia Butler but have yet to pick up her work. So, I reread the Lilith’s Brood trilogy (originally published as Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, with the series name Xenogenesis) recently, and now I want to write about how good it is.
Butler writes a lot about several recurring ideas. In the most general terms, she explores tensions between biological roots of behavior, and conscious choice. Sometimes this can take the form of diseases or genetic conditions that alter an individual’s behavior, sometimes it involves people’s pheromonal influences on each other. In much of her writing, Butler sets up situations where her characters end up with desires they find out-of-character or even repugnant, due to explicitly biological triggers. Then she plays with possible responses to this conflict between belief and desire, and explores their consequences.
That’s not the only thing she writes about, and it’s not her only recurring theme, but I think it is one most distinctly characteristic of her work. And as I am a pretty die-hard pragmatic materialist, and if there is anything I learned from getting a psychology degree, it’s that my “conscious mind” is a lot less impressive than popularly conceived, I love Butler for talking about these sorts of ideas head-on.
And Lilith’s Brood is steeped in them. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, humanity has gone ahead with nuclear-based mutually-assured destruction (the books were written during the Cold War, after all) and made the Earth uninhabitable for most forms of life. But while we were busy destroying everything, a group of aliens known as the Oankali had been watching us. As part of their nature, they were irresistibly drawn to humans. And so they rescued as many people as they could, and began to clean up the planet.
It’s difficult to talk about the whole trilogy without explaining why the Oankali are so interested in humanity, but I can’t help feeling that that spoils an important part of the first book, so I’ll do what I can. The Oankali have plans for our species, and they’ve chosen one woman, Lilith Iyapo, to be the leader of the first human group who will be a part of the plan. Lilith, it turns out, does not like this plan in the least, but the Oankali leave her without much choice. They make Lilith desire to please them, even while she hates their goals.
I didn’t learn anything about the mythology of Lilith until long after I first read this series, but now that I do, I can appreciate Butler’s excellent choice for naming her protagonist. Lilith is strong and complicated, and my favorite character in the series. The first book, Dawn, deals with Lilith’s struggle to come to terms with her role in humanity’s future. Adulthood Rites and Imago are each told from the perspective of one of her children, who have their own unique and significant influence on that future.
Butler’s style is direct and powerful. The plots move quickly, with enough action to suit my adventure cravings, but what I like best is the internal conflicts of the characters. They are all caught, in one way or another, between Oankali and human nature.
My goal with these reviews has been to describe the books in a way that will help other people tell if they’d like them, so I try to be relatively neutral. But the thing is, if you haven’t read anything by Octavia Butler yet, you need to. As far as I’m concerned she’s one of the most talented people ever to write science fiction. Go read Lilith’s Brood. Do it now.