CONFESSION: This is the first Octavia Butler novel I have ever read. However, I think I can see the influence of this book on some other (less good) novels that I’ve read over the years. Basically, the less good novels just keep the weirdness with no deeper themes.
But holy shit, is it ever a stressful and uncomfortable read. I’m not sure I want to read the rest of the series, even though it is very interesting. I finally picked it up as it let me tick off another book on the Read Harder Challenge, a book by an AOC set in or about space.
So, plot then. Earth has had a nuclear war, wiping out most of humanity. But the survivors have been picked up by an alien race, the Oankali. This alien race has far superior technology (though living and symbiotic) as well as the ability to manipulate genes. The main character is Lilith, who the Oankali choose to help bring other humans out of stasis and start repopulating the Earth. However, the Oankali are ‘traders’ and basically will merge their DNA with humans and create a new species, which will potentially wipe out what’s left of humanity in the process.
It’s very stressful because Lilith has this strange relationship with the Oankali, at once understanding the futility of resistance but also wanting to be free of them and not wanting to merge their species together. She has to eventually mentor a bunch of other humans (of various intelligence and hostility) to prepare them for life back on Earth. A lot of the tension being that she knows whats happening because of all her experience and so the humans don’t really trust her.
Everything ends of being very tense and sometimes a bit creepy.
The Oankali have a third gender (the ooloi) which a male and female pair with in order to have children. They basically then want to do this with humans as well. There are some creepy passages like:
“Your body said one thing. Your words said another.” It moved a sensory arm to the back of his neck, looping one coil loosely around his neck. “This is the position,” it said. “I’ll stop now if you like?”
It’s all a bit invasive and knowing, which I get is the point. It doesn’t make it any more comfortable to read though! Reading about some of the interpretations, it has a lot to do with the legacy of colonisation and integration, which makes a lot of sense.
I think the only thing that really annoyed me was how intransigent the Oankali could be. It added to the frustration and tension building throughout the novel but also felt a little out of place – like why wouldn’t a superior alien race answer some basic questions?
But it is an incredibly interesting read, with complexity that doesn’t really exist in a lot of science fiction novels. I can see why she has had such a legacy within the science fiction community but equally can see why she’s becoming more popular than ever. I imagine this would have been a harder read when it first came out.
What is also kind of amazing is how modern it feels, even though it came out in 1987. Like, I’m remembering some of the other books I’ve read from that time and they are poor comparisons to the world building in this novel. Anyway, it’s super interesting and it’s definitely a novel that should live on ‘best of’ lists, despite it being difficult (thematically) to take in.