Lilith’s brood is the omnibus edition of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago). Since this is a trilogy of books, this review will be broken into four parts, three brief plot summaries, then some of my thoughts on the series. Unfortunately, since it is a trilogy it is impossible to summarize the later books without “giving away” the endings of the first books. Expect some spoilers.
The earth is dead. A group of extremists obtained nuclear weapons and their actions resulted in a terrible nuclear war that left the earth uninhabitable. Humans are all but extinct. The few survivors are plucked from the surface of their dying world by an alien race, the Oankali.
The title character Lilith (a black human female) awakens centuries later from stasis on an Oankali ship. She meets her saviors/captors and is repulsed by their alienness. The oankali don’t have eyes, or ears, or noses, but sensory tentacles over their entire bodies with which they can perceive the world much better than a human can. Stranger still the oankali have three genders; male, female; and ooloi. All oankali have the ability to perceive biochemistry down to a genetic level but only the ooloi have the ability to directly manipulate genetic material. Ooloi can mutate and “evolve” any living thing they touch and build offspring gene by gene using the genetic material from their male and female mates. Despite their differences the ooloi oankali are strangly alluring, sexually arousing even while being visually repulsive.
The oankali have fixed earth, returning it to a wild and habitable state. They want to return humans to earth and they want Lilith to help them. They train Lilith to survive in the new wild earth. The ooloi manipulate her genes to give her a perfect memory, a stronger body, and a longer lifespan. The oankali ask Lilith to awaken other humans, pass on her knowledge, and prepare them to return to earth. However, in return for all their generosity, they ask a great price: to interbreed with the humans until eventually all inhabitants of earth are neither human nor oankali but a hybrid of both.
Throughout the book Lilith struggles with her identity as a human and as a woman. Accepting the oankali’s bargain would mean everything would change; she would mate not only with a human man but with an oankali ooloi as well; her children would be strange to her and her grandchildren might be unrecognizable as anything remotely human.
Years after the end of Dawn, humans and oankali live on earth though everything is not peaceful. Some humans have accepted the bargain and live with the oankali and give birth to hybrid children called constructs. Others, however, have refused the bargain and live in separate, all human, villages. The ooloi have made all humans infertile so the only children born are the ones made with ooloi intervention. This creates a great deal of tension and strain as the humans see themselves being outbred by the oankali-human constructs. Desperate humans often steal human looking construct children to raise as their own.
Akin is the first male construct born to a human mother. Akin has more human in him than any construct before him. This book focuses on Akin’s struggle with his human and his oankali natures. As a human he understands the desire to fight for the survival of humanity as an independent race. As an oankali he understands that the combination of the species is necessary and that humans would destroy themselves again if left alone.
The final book of the trilogy is the shortest. Imago shows the reader what has been hinted at for the last two books, the full potential of the new human-oankali hybrid species. The story is told from the prospective of Jodahs, the first ooloi construct. Through its unique heritage it has unlocked latent genetic potential of humans and oankali. This book brings a sense of completeness to the story by allowing the reader to understand the oankali better by understanding Jodahs.
Lilith’s brood is a disturbing, powerful, thought-provoking, and downright weird book. Butler has made some truly alien aliens. The oankali are not merely warlike humans with forehead ridges or emotionless humans with pointed ears; they are unlike any earthly beings at all. It is of course technically possible that there is a three gendered species that survives by interbreeding with other species on earth and I have just never heard about it…but I doubt it. The oankali are one of the best depictions I have seen of an alien race that is so different from humans that it is almost beyond comprehension. By seeing the interactions between the oankali and the humans the reader is forced to think about the role of gender in how we identify ourselves and our place in the world. The ooloi are hard to grasp and I found it difficult not to assign a gender to any individual ooloi based on their behavior. The integration of the human and oankali species makes one consider race and species. As a human reader I immediately identify with the desire for humans to remain independent from an alien species but at the same time see the obvious parallels with xenophobic humans who have rejected humans of another race and tried to maintain racial purity. This is where were the story really shines — the human-oankali interactions makes this an interesting if somewhat uncomfortable read. I would recommend this book to anyone who is not easily disturbed and wants a thought provoking book with a unique and interesting alien race.
Somewhat unrelated my largest complaint with this book is the cover which makes it looks like a bodice ripper, observe:
I think this cover does a disservice by not hinting at all to the complex sci-fi story that awaits inside. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, they say, though of course everyone does.