Lilith’s Brood, a science fiction trilogy by Octavia Butler, tells a post- and pre-apocalyptic story, where a few humans survive a nuclear apocalypse only to face the end of their species in a very different way.
(Some spoilers after the cut, which I figure is probably OK since these books have been out in the world almost as long as I have.)
As the original title of the trilogy, Xenogenesis, more literally implies, the trilogy tells the story of humans rescued from a nuclear apocalypse by a group of space-faring aliens, the Oankali, who return the Humans to Earth only when the latter consent to make a genetic “trade” and create a new half-Human, half-alien species.
“Consent,” of course, is a loaded word. If your entire species is going to die out unless you agree to a genetic trade, you can’t really be said to be freely consenting to it. But the Oankali—a three-gendered race of highly intuitive creatures who can “read” other species’ genetic destinies and have the power of healing and prolonging life—are seductive. As they have to be, I suppose, since they spend their entire existence convincing alien creatures to reproduce with them.
Lilith Iyapo, the first novel’s protagonist—notably, like Octavia Butler herself, a black woman in a genre that now as well as then is still dominated by maleness and whiteness—finds that she has been chosen not only to lead the return to Earth, but to convince forty fellow Humans that they should go along with the Oankali plan. She agrees, telling herself that the only way to escape their captors is for the Humans to play along long enough to be transported back to Earth. But in order to carry out her plan of escape, she has to do the Oankali’s work for them.
And that’s why the rename to Lilith’s Brood makes so much sense. Lilith, in a way, gives birth to the entire rest of the series, in which native human, native Oankali, and eventually the new generation of half-Human and half-Oankali characters navigate their new identities and destinies. She fades into the background, and it is her ooloi (neuter-gender) offspring who propel much of the plot of the next two novels.
The problem of complicity and consent in the novel jumped out at me over and over again. Lilith wants her chosen Oankali mate, Nikanj, sexually, and the canny Oankali read biological signals so well that they “know” it even though she says the exact opposite—because she also fiercely wants to resist her inevitable fate. “I gave Lilith what she wanted but could not ask for,” Nikanj declares. We are made to sympathize with these seemingly reasonable creatures who mate with Humans after their strenuous objections, secreting chemicals so strong they act almost like naturally-grown drugs. Even Lilith, rebellious though she is at first, settles down and learns to love Nikanj and the children his people forced her to bear.
One conceit of the book is that the Humans have a “genetic contradiction” that the Oankali plan to fix for them: they are intelligent, yet hierarchical. As Nikanj explains, “When human intelligence served [hierarchy] instead of guiding it… That was like ignoring cancer.” Many of the Humans, who of course can’t “read” genetics the way the Oankali can, refuse to accept that their contradiction dooms them, and desperately want to be given the chance to restart the Human race on a cleaner planet. But the Oankali, who hate to kill, cannot stand to abandon the Humans to their own fatal flaws. Instead, they placidly wait for Humans to fall under their spell and agree to mate with them for life.
It starts to seem like the Oankali’s view of hierarchy as a particularly Human obsession seems to extend to a kind of lack of understanding of rape. Once again, I have to go back to the issue of “consent.” Lilith and the other Human women who are awakened by the Oankali are raped or threatened with rape by their fellow “hierarchical” male Humans, and it is always grievously painful and traumatic. In their turn, the Humans are, let’s say, chemically induced into mating with the Oankali, but the experience is pleasant, even craved. They “want” it, but do they want it, or are they the science-fiction equivalent of a drugged date-rape victim?
The Oankali seem to not understand this modern notion at all. They don’t seem to ever mate with someone against that person’s will as they understand it, but they have no compunction about modifying the person’s will with whatever tools of seduction they have in their arsenal, or justifying unwanted touches as being wanted deep down. What if you need a conception of hierarchy to feel outraged and violated by the concept of rape? After all, if power and hierarchy don’t matter to you, rape—the ultimate act of violating another person’s autonomy and power—might be less heinous to you as well.
An essay by Erika Nelson argues, “If Butler is showing her negativity about humanity, she’s doing it allegorically through the Oankali as much as she is directly through the humans.” But it was hard for me personally to see it. Butler has an immense talent for rendering the world through the eyes of her point-of-view characters, some Human and some not. She resists moralizing, or simplifying. If anything, both the Oankali and Humans, as well as their offspring, are presented with incredible sympathy despite their capacity for evil. When one blended offspring tries to help the Humans survive as their own species–but without stopping the Oankali from their overall mission, which they insist cannot be stopped, and which will leave the Earth uninhabitable–the offspring seems like someone complicit in what is essentially a genocide, motivated by guilt to lessen the consequences to Humans in an inadequate way, yet the story is framed as the story of an ethical triumph.
Most of all, I was left wondering about how to interpret Lilith’s role. Her very humanity is constantly in question by her fellow Humans—even her lover Joseph, who believes that her hopes of rebelling on Earth may be in vain. She remains confident of her own humanity, but her fellow Humans believe she is “not human, or not human enough.” She is fiercely lovable, strong, and pragmatic. Yet by the end of the book, she has lost her rebelliousness and ceded the center of the action to her offspring.
Her very name becomes a bad word to the Human “resisters” who have never assimilated with the Oankali. To them, she seems to be complicit with the Oankali program—to share guilt, if what the Oankali have done is as monstrous as the resisters believe, with her captors. As I read, perhaps having been influenced by my expectations, I felt I was supposed to see her as someone who had learned to love a group very different from herself. But I couldn’t help but see her as a person whose very intelligence and courage has been coopted by the expert maneuvering and seduction of the Oankali.
As this article by Joan Slonczewski points out, Lilith also shares many characteristics with American slaves, forced to interbreed and lose her heritage and home against her will. Perhaps Lilith’s seeming contentness and, indeed, complicity is only a way to cope with what she sees as an inescapable fate–and perhaps I was too easily seduced by the seemingly rational, self-justifying voices of the Oankali and half-Oankali characters who perpetrate this domination.
This tension made the entire book creepy and unsettling to me. What I am certain of is that Butler’s work is immensely sensitive, powerful, and strange. I don’t read as much science fiction as I’d like–maybe because early in my reading life I encountered too much of it that lacked any characters possessing the kind of literary complexity that Lilith and her “brood” have–but this trilogy did what I always hope science fiction will do: it built a world that interrogates or expands or complicates my understanding of my own.