I first read the Xenogenesis saga of Octavia Butler when I was a teenager and it arrived with a ton of other books I ordered from some science fiction book club (I had just gotten a job and was a dumb kid, don’t judge). What I remembered most from the initial read was the use of cancer cells by the alien race, the Oankali, to reshape their own bodies which I thought was a brilliant concept (actually still think it is brilliant).
Maybe I did not catch it as a 16 year old, but I did not remember the sex, or to be more specific, sensuality, because there are no scenes of graphic sex and I would not want to imply that there was. But, holy hell are there erotic and sensual scenes between mostly humans and Oankali. The idea of an alien race being able to share in our pleasure and bonding to people, and us to them, is something my teenage brain never picked up on but is beautiful and speaks to common interests that may exist within all life.
I also did not pick up on the subtle misogyny within this work. Men are very much feared throughout the novel, as they act aggressively, even violently and are incapable of seeing the protagonist, Lillith, as their leader even though she has clearly been enhanced by the Oankali. Writing this review just a few weeks after the attempted coup in Washington DC, I am not taking issue with Butler’s assessment and commentary but I do find it a sad observation. It does make me wonder how much progress as a species we are truly capable of.
One aspect of this story I appreciate is that her aliens really do seem alien. They look, act, and perceive the world completely different from our species and, while they may have deep knowledge of humans, they never had a complete understanding and that does lead to some disastrous consequences towards the end of the book. Hers was an important voice, taken from us far too soon, and I look forward to the next two books in the Butler’s Xenogenesis saga