I hope no one ever comes for Octavia Butler. She’s so good at exploring issues related to gender, our bodies, consent, sexuality, and our brains and demonstrating horror and disgust without getting didactic about it. A novel about significant and existentially nightmarish changes to our genes, coupled with a total helplessness to do anything about it except acquiesce is something else.
In this novel, Lilith awakes in some kind of captivity. A frustrating wait as she gets used to her new situation reveals that she’s onboard a gigantic living spaceship inhabited by an alien species (kind of two really) and that the Earth as she knows it was rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war. Now it’s several hundred years later and the alien civilization has been working to rehabilitate Earth for humans they’ve saved to repopulate it. The reason? The alien civilization propagates through a shared interchange of genetic material with alien species and the humans that repopulate the Earth will be altered and their children will be the products of a new symbiotic genetic process and will be a whole new species. Lilith and the humans she is grouped with will simply be the transitory state. The rest of the novel then spends its time with Lilith as she trains and then leads this group. This leadership is of course fraught with danger and violence as human reaction to the new situation is volatile and unpredictable.
“You are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as problem, but took pride in it or din not notice it at all…” The rattling sounded again.”
“Human beings are more alike than different—damn sure more alike than we like to admit. I wonder if the same thing wouldn’t have happened eventually, no matter which two cultures gained the ability to wipe one another out along with the rest of the world.”
“She had learned to keep her sanity by accepting things as she found them, adapting herself to new circumstances by putting aside the old ones whose memories might overwhelm her.”
In this second novel of the trilogy, we meet Akin, the son of Lilith and the first child mix of human and Ooloi/Oankali who is both male and looks like a human. Akin though is not entirely human and has physical features, like an elaborate tongue, that expose his make up. More so, his disturbing uncanniness gives him up even more. A 9 month old who can converse freely, walk on his own, and argue a point is disturbing. The community that Lilith has built up since the first is visited by an outsider, a human male, who Akin takes to. Lilith does to, but a second group shows up, attacks, and kidnaps Akin and this man. Eventually Akin is sold to another group of humans out in the world, where he meets old friends of his mother and grows to know and love them.
So much of this book is based in the idea of knowing where we’re going. What I mean by this is that Lilith is told from the very beginning that she won’t fully recognize the humanity of her children, and that their children will not be human at all. This is about the transformation of the race. We know the outcome and it is practically fate at this point. The Ooloi and the Oankali are just too powerful. So these books represent the process, the journey, and not the destination.
Generally when I think about “body horror” in literature and film, I think about the destruction and trauma a body goes through, often in stories where surgery, grafting, that kind of thing. But Octavia Butler continues to present us with a version where body horror refers maybe one’s body, but also definitely dealing with and processing other bodies that should be familiar becoming increasingly uncanny and grotesque, even when they’re evolving.
In this final volume of the trilogy, we meet a different child of Lilith whose genetic destiny should be to become a human/oankali construct, but slowly becomes more and more ooloi. This means that rather than becoming the more humanoid, less powerful oankali, it becomes the much more alien and more powerful other. As we watch this happen, we’re treated to their narration of things, not to than own horror, but to others.
I ended up liking this series more the second time I read it mostly because it asks a lot from you, including patience.