Author Archives: rccramer
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.
Ms. Joanna Russ,
Hello my name is Richard, a student at the University of Oregon. I have been reading some of your papers that the UO has in the special archives. Of particular interest to me have been your unpublished works. I have read two Kirk/Spock stories and a stage play of The Hobbit. I have to say you are an excellent writer though I suppose that much is obvious. I particularly like how you depict the characters in Star Trek. In my opinion the best part of the Star Trek show is the acting between the main three characters. While at many points in the show, the writing is weak the actors carry the show regardless. You have captured that sense of humor and friendship perfectly in your writing of your Kirk/Spock stories. As I rewatch some of the original Star Trek episodes, it is hard not to imagine that the slow smiles and knowing looks between Kirk and Spock are the beginning of an as of yet unspoken relationship. But I have to say my favorite part of the story has to be McCoy. From his perspective, you see a good man struggling with realizing that his bigoted assumptions on homosexuality are completely wrong. McCoy’s journey from bigotry to understanding culminates in him apologizing to Kirk and Spock and asking for their forgiveness. It is beautiful. Coming from a more conservative part of Oregon I have many friends from high school who are good people but have some particularly intolerant views on homosexuality. I wish that they could undertake the journey that you have written for McCoy in your short story.
All gushing aside I should probably ask you about your opinions on the gender roles depicted in the world of Star Trek as I am writing a research paper on that topic. Star Trek seems to elevate the status of women slightly over what it was in the 1960’s but not all the way to equality. I would also like to hear your views on Tolkien’s work as I have found nothing from you on his work other than the aforementioned stage play. I think it highly unlikely that you will respond to this letter but if you do I would be thrilled. I would have you know however that after this class I will be reading more or your works for pure entertainment when I have the time.
Richard C. Cramer
Star Trek proclaims that it will take its viewers “where no man has gone before” to see strange and wondrous things in a strange and wondrous future. Unfortunately the gender stereotypes of the 1960s are all too present in this 2260s world. Star Trek has inspired spin off shows, movies, toys, games, and books steadily for the last forty seven years making it one of the most prominent pieces of science fiction ever. Therefore the portrayal of women and minorities in this show has a strong influence on how women and minorities are portrayed in the science fiction genre as a whole. Understanding these representations can help one better understand other pieces of contemporary science fiction.
For the 60s Star Trek portrayed a progressive world with a multiracial and multigendered crew going into the galaxy on a mission of peaceful exploration. However, the dominance of the white male in this narrative is unquestionable, the three main characters, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are all white males and the two from earth are both American. While there is a woman of color on the bridge with a position of some authority Lieutenant Uhura is really nothing more than a glorified secretary and all other women on the ship seem to be short skirted yeomen or nurses. While this project will focus on the women in Star Trek it is also noteworthy that despite having many nationalities on the crew the only non-European with any significant amount of power is Mr. Sulu who is ambiguously Asian (the actor is of Japanese ancestry but Sulu is not a Japanese name). Despite its perpetuation of gender stereotypes the show was very popular with some of the female science fiction writes of the time such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Vonda McIntyre.
For my project I will examine the opinions of contemporary feminist science fiction authors Joanna Russ and Vonda McIntyre about Star Trek. I will be comparing the world of the television show1 with the world of the Kirk/Spock slash fiction2 written by Joanna Russ and the novelization Enterprise, The First Adventure3 by Vonda McIntyre. In addition to comparing the works of fiction directly I will seek out quotes from the authors sharing their thoughts. I will search for sources in the special collections4 and on the internet5 I have identified some promising preliminary sources but anticipate needing more. I hope to discover how these women felt about how the world of Star Trek compared to both the world as it was in the 60’s and how they imagined it should or would be in the future. The obvious expectation is that these women will feel that Star Trek was not progressive enough. Where I expect to find the most interesting differences is in how the authors rework the world in their own fiction. I will compare their views on Star Trek with my own opinions and with what progress has been made up to 2013 on the issue of gender equality, both in the real world and in our modern Star Trek fiction.
(1) Star Trek: The Original Series, 1966-1969, accessed via Netflix (2) Joanna Russ Papers, University of Oregon, Box 14, folder 12 & 13 (3) Enterprise, the first adventure, Vonda N.McIntyre – Pocket Books – 1986 (4) Joanna Russ Papers, University of Oregon, Box 15, folder 39 (5) Stefan Blitz and Vonda McIntyre, TREK WEEK – Novelist VONDA N. McINTYRE interview! Forces of Geek, http://www.forcesofgeek.com/2009/05/trek-week-novelist-vonda-n-mcintyre