Category Archives: Book review

“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

Everyone says this about every book, I know. By the end of the term it’s pretty cliché, but honestly and truly, if you want to experience this book – and that’s what it can be, an experience – you have to leave now, and read it first. Then you can see what I have to say about it. But seriously, no peeking! This book review is for the eyes of those who have read it already (and for those who do not care about twists and turns – because this book does have a lot of content to offer, not just a surprise inside).

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is her newest book, written earlier this year. It’s a story – about a story – that starts in the middle – which, in a normal story, would be where the action happens. But, because it’s not the story about the story’s middle, this is where ‘setting the scene’ happens. Are you lost yet? It’s a little Memento at first, with things just happening and having no reason for any of it. Her middle isn’t quite as crazy, though – this isn’t science fiction in that sense.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is three-quarters autobiography and one-quarter desperation, depression, and, finally, hope. The scene is set when our narrator, Rosemary, is in college, meeting a woman named Harlow for the first time. Harlow, as Rosemary tells us about others in her tale, isn’t necessarily a part of the story we need to get attached to – her purpose is to make Rosemary open up, if only in her head. Almost all the storytelling is told through Rosemary’s retelling of events, her thoughts and feelings.

Rosemary gets sent to jail for the first time for a minor disturbance in a cafeteria Harlow started with her boyfriend.  Harlow is spitfire, wild and crazy – the opposite of Rosemary, but Rosemary hasn’t always been that way. As a child she was out there, talked all the time and did the crazy things kids her age usually did. But she lost a sister, Fern, after spending half a decade together, and it changed her life. They were two peas in a pod, closer than can be, and the two of them along with Rosemary’s brother, her father and mother made a really happy family. But she eventually lost her brother, too. They just disappeared – she has no idea where either of them went.

Rosemary went from exuberant and lively to a more reserved and withdrawn version of herself. Fern brought life to her life – it’s obvious from the pain she feels, even though Rosemary doesn’t explicitly express it. Rosemary’s family changed, too, when Fern left. They all became quiet, and they all withdrew into themselves. That’s why her brother, Lowell, left. He couldn’t take it anymore – he needed to get out the house, he needed to live again and do something. Their home was a place where everyone was standing still. Fern leaving, and everyone just looking past it, sent him over the edge.

Usually, a broken home and a broken family are normal after a child disappears. The tragedies we see when children are abducted or killed are received with grief and despair – all completely and absolutely normal, human reactions. Unfortunately, the same isn’t always said when a chimp leaves your life. A ‘pet’ some from the outside might even say. When a chimp leaves, you don’t get to shut down and stop everything – you just have to move on.

Wait a second, I’m sorry – I might have just Memento’d you. Did I forget to mention Fern was a chimpanzee, and that Rosemary’s father is a scientist? Of course I did, because Rosemary fails to mention it, too. You hear about the middle for a while, and then you get to hear the beginning – how Fern came to be a part of their lives. The prevalence of chimps in households was increasing, and her father wanted to expand the research available in the field. They raised Rosemary and Fern together, making them both part of the experiment – they wanted to know what would happen when they grew up together. Rosemary and Fern were attached at the hip, growing up as normally as you can when your sister is a chimp. They were studied by Rosemary’s father and the graduate students that he received to help as part of a special research grant, with Fern’s development the specific concern.

It’s unclear from Rosemary’s perspective if their family expected it, but Fern became a second daughter. Rosemary never considered her anything other than a sister – chimp or not. As Fern got older, however, the differences in their species became more and more apparent. Fern had more and more accidents, when a particular incident with a grad student sent things over the edge. They had to end the experiment before she got any stronger and uncontrollable, and they sent her away. The family, from then on, never talked about her and no one told Rosemary where Fern was. Fern was just gone from Rosemary’s life, forever.

Rosemary’s brother, Lowell (a human!), couldn’t take it. The family shut down, but not in grief – just in general. They stopped being a family, they stopped showing love the way they used to. He left, and Rosemary is just being reunited with him in the middle of her story – though not the middle of ours. The middle of our story is the beginning, and then there’s the end that Rosemary is experiencing as it happens. As I said before, those times are filled with sadness and happiness alike, with twists and turns of their own. I won’t spoil those, for that you’ll really have to read the story.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an amazing testament of love and family, despite boundaries created by genus and species. In a feminist science fiction course, this book might seem almost out of place. But Fowler presents a take on feminism we don’t think of very often – one that takes feminism to literally mean people should be equal, one that redefines what ‘people’ should mean. Fowler presents a world where you can see the human in an animal, and where the animal in the human can be. A compelling read, it’s certainly worth taking the time – it will fly by, as it does for Rosemary, as you hear of her tale of loss, reunion, and discovery.

Book Review: Redwood and Wildfire

Redwood and Wildfire

**Spoiler Alert**

Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire published in 2011 by the Aqueduct Press won the James Tiptree Jr. Award in the same year. The book is narrated by a mysterious person who never mentions his/her direct identity. The book is enriched with a dazzling but somewhat painful story about an African American woman Redwood Phipps and Seminole Irish man Aidan Wildfire Cooper who journey through life. Hairston’s voice and style help elevate the book to a higher level which doesn’t necessarily satisfy the readers at the end, but it sure leaves behind unfinished feelings about the characters and what will happen to them next.

It is quite difficult to summarize the plot without spoiling the story itself, so readers please be alert there will be some spoilers followed this book review.

The story takes place in the rich swampland in a fictional town called Peach Grove, Georgia. The book opens with Redwood Phipps’ family running away from a lynch mob which kills her mother as the result. Aidan Wildfire Cooper, a Seminole Irish boy, is the one to find the dead body and is haunted by the fact that he could not save the poor woman, even though he was only a teenager at the time. About ten years later Redwood is a now maturing woman who is coming into real magical power, “a hoodoo conjuror”, just like her mother. Aidan is a dysfunctional alcoholic with two ruined marriages due to his drunken abuse. However, together they create greater powers. Redwood captures the power of a thunderstorm, and this special power is used by Redwood throughout the book. It is clear from the narrator that Redwood and Aidan are meant for each other, to be one another’s soulmate. Though Redwood inspires Aidan to get through his alcoholism, and he inspires Redwood’s magic to get stronger, but none of them thinks love is a possibility and dares to express their real feelings towards the other partner due to the difference in races.

Eventually Redwood is assaulted and raped by a powerful white man, Jerome Williams. In defense, Redwood kills her offender with her “storm hand” by breaking his neck right when Aidan came to her aid. Buried in humiliation and pain, Redwood needs to flee town as soon as possible with Aidan’s help. Aidan feels shameful, for he was unable to prevent harm coming to someone he loves. He covers up the assault and killing by telling the town Jerome Williams fell in love with the beautiful Redwood and ran away with her to keeps the town from pursuing her Redwood.

Redwood, on the other hand, tries to recover from the painful experience and ran off to Tennessee first. She joins a traveling musical group with Eddie and Milton as a singer and eventually makes their way to Chicago.  After some years and the death of most of Redwood’s family back in Georgia, Aidan takes Redwood’s little sister-Iris and journeys first to New York then joins her in Chicago. There they stay with George, Redwood’s and Iris’ older brother, who is already established with his own family and business. Redwood and Aidan finally feel more free to admit their feelings for one another, yet they are haunted by the traumas they thought they had left in back in the swampland. Redwood’s rape has led to her inability feel sexual pleasure, and Aidan is still haunted by failure and guilt from his past.

Both Redwood and Aidan join the film industry with Redwood working chorus and “African savage” parts and Aidan taking lead roles for the play “Noble Indian Savage”. Eventually they turn to the growing black middle and upper class in Chicago. At the end, both Redwood and Aidan finally admit their feelings towards each other while getting caught in a dangerous fire. Standing between the line of death and survival, they have nothing to lose but to admit their true feelings. There is no satisfying end to the story, but it must be Hairston’s intention to leave her readers’ imagination to wonder what will happen next to the couple.

Redwood and Wildfire describes the costs of racial discriminations as well as class and social boundaries such as lynching, segregation, rape, alcoholism, and the abused arson of black businesses in Chicago. Furthermore, the book shows the intensity of a love, lust, greed, struggles, betrayal, and guilt mixture presented in the characters. The novel expands its spectrum of racial tension by amplifying that the issue is much more complicated than just the surface. Aidan’s mixed-race heritage also shows problems for both the black and white communities.

The novel describes the characters’ progress as they move and journey their ways through life. Redwood moves forward in her life, trying to escape her dark past, getting herself out of the swampland, taking control to learn magic, achieving and enjoying her successes in Chicago. Moreover, the magical storm hand is a metaphor for Redwood’s character as she grows and learns to control both herself and her power to become a more mature and independent women. Aidan takes control over his alcoholism and dysfunctional life, travels to a better place where he can achieve more success in both life and love.

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Written in 1991 by Karen Joy Fowler. Published by Plume, 2004. 304 pages.

Sarah Canary is one of those books you should sit down and read in a weekend. If you pick it up and put it down, you might be apt to fall out of the confusing haze of localized history and suspended reality this story tends to throw you into as fast as it slaps you out of it. Instead you should sit down for a couple of days and let the moody northwestern saga (and it is certainly that) of magical realism wash over you like the Puget Sound.

The intricately twisting plot of the story falls second to the format and structure of the book and third to the exploration of perspectives of oppression and wrongdoing though dynamic characters. The book is broken up into nineteen chapters, each of which are entitled and introduced with a line or stanza or short poem by Emily Dickenson, thematically relevant to the respective chapter — a self-aware move by Fowler that helps to set the theme and tone for the chapter to come. Most chapters are also preceded by a historical anecdote, generally focused around happenings in the Pacific Northwest. These moments in time progress chronologically with the book, and serve the dual purpose of tying reality (temporally, geographically) to the story, and to teach us about moments in history when power is created, and occasionally overturned. The story shifts perspectives frequently, chapter by chapter, and each shift gives the reader insight into the personal objectives of each character — circulating around their respective need for Sarah Canary.

When the story opens on one of the main character perspectives of Chin Ah Kin, a Chinese railworker during the sprawl of the transcontinental railway, the reader is instantly given a unique socio-historical context to chew on in the background of an otherwise simple set of interactions. In this moment, Sarah Canary (or just “ugly white woman” at this stage in the game) is introduced. An unattractive woman with dark gnarly hair and a large hooked nose, the mysterious emergence of Sarah Canary from the thick woods of the Pacific Northwest begins a long series of interactions between her and Chin – wherein her lack of speech capabilities and generally confused demeanor consistently agitates and incriminates her erstwhile protector.  Chin’s character, for all intents and purposes, acts as the ‘hero’ of this tale, but is repeatedly ignored for his feats and bravery because of his race. He is perhaps the most sane and thoughtful character in the book, and continues to earn no respect, even amongst his own people.

Chin seeks to protect and deliver (to an unknown end) Sarah Canary to whence she came under the assumption that she is a goddess, and according to the mythology of his heritage great wealth could result from his taking on this heroic task. A series of events leads them to an asylum wherein the book’s second (of many) example of institutional oppression is mapped out in the explanation of the psychotherapy practices of that era. During Chin and Sarah Canary’s short stint in the asylum, the third main protagonist, B.J., is introduced. B.J. is an overly-friendly and familiar tagalong who acts in the story not so much as a greek chorus, but as a moral reflection for the other characters. B.J. is introduced as a patient at the asylum, and escapes to continue the adventure with Chin and Sarah Canary. He is psychotic only in that inanimate objects “speak” to him from time to time. His other curious tendencies are reminiscent of Foucault’s madman, unable to view and accept the world exactly as it is presented to him — he distrusts his own perceptions of distance, size, and general appearance, because he has been systematically convinced that his sense of perception is incorrect. It should be noted, that B.J. maintains social superiority over Chin and therefore is the mouthpiece of the mottled duo. He is the first and only character in this story that latches onto Sarah Canary out of purely good will, and thereupon reflects Fowler’s expression of altruism in this story.

The third major character that the group comes across is Miss Adelaide Dixon, a suffragette and independent lecturer who clings to popular social events as a vehicle for her feminist works. Dixon becomes one of Sarah Canary’s protectors upon mistaking her for a recently escaped husband-murderer, and then continues on with her as a sort of point to be made. It is indicated that Dixon may lack the actuality of sisterhood that she preaches. Through Dixon we get to peer out of the eyes of a popularly-opposed suffragette, and similarly we are allowed into the minds of B.J. and Chin, who are struggling to understand the political nature of a woman. Much of the book’s feminist work is appropriately catalysed by Adelaide Dixon, as her influence spreads to the minds of multiple characters and how they view, think about, and treat women. Many other characters of various races and classes are encountered in the book, all of which are meaningfully entwined in the period’s culture, as they are in the complicated ruse of the mysterious Sarah Canary.

Fowler elegantly plays the reader into believing that the point of the story is to figure out Sarah Canary: Where is she from? What is she? What is her objective? What will happen when it is reached? In reality, this book is about every character but Sarah Canary. The question persists in the reader’s mind throughout the story — why, even after these characters learn that Sarah Canary may not be of discernible use to them, do they need her around? Sarah Canary never imposes herself on her protectors, she is instead taken on like a project, an endeavor through which the protectors might find meaning, wealth, love, you name it. Sarah Canary (named as such by patients at the asylum, for her beautiful chirping voice) exists as an ethereal palette on which the dreams and anguishes of the characters of this story can be written. It is a metanarrative of exploitation to the minor stories within, both in each of the character’s lives, as well as in the historical anecdotes Fowler includes before each chapter.

This is the sort of book that could appeal to a multitude of audiences. It can be read from a variety of angles, and provides enough depth to never really touch the bottom. The writing is clear and accessible which allows space for the reader to digest the complex socio-political nature of the story. I look forward to reading more of Fowler’s works in the future.

Book Review: The Salt Roads

Published in 2003 by Warner Books, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads is as rich and dazzling as it is visceral and exhausting. Through the eyes of Lasiren, a Loa, and the three women whose lives become intertwined with her consciousness, Hopkinson leads her readers on a journey many lifetimes long and centuries apart.

The Salt Roads begins, in the most literal sense, on a Haitian sugar plantation during the life of an older slave woman named Mer, but it will cross time and space to show us France during the life of Jeanne Duval, and even more time and space to the journeys of Thais of Alexandria during the Roman Empire. It finds its richest inspiration in Carribean lore, history, and spirituality, but Hopkinson’s novel also pays respect and honor to other African roots – from the Arabic-speaking Muslims to the ancient worshippers of Hathor. Even more than saluting them, Hopkinson embraces them; she melts them into her story to profound effect. But across all the time, space, and culture The Salt Roads traverses, a single thread ties her novel firmly together: the struggle of the Ginen, the enslaved African people. Thus the story begins in its chronological middle, with “matant” Mer.

Mer is a healer, trusted more than the local doctor, and a devout of the Ginen gods and the ancient African spiritual traditions. It is these two characteristics which lead to her being at the river near the plantation in the dead of night, burying a stillborn child while praying to “Mama” Lasiren, goddess of the water. It is that moment that Lasiren says she is “born from song and prayer. A small life, never begun, lends [Lasiren] its unused vitality. [She’s] born from mourning and sorrow and three women’s tearful voices… from countless journeys chained tight in the bellies of ships… from hope vibrant and hope destroyed… of bitter experience… of wishing for better…”

The circumstance of Lasiren’s ‘birth’ sets the tone for the rest of her work in the human world, for her mission in this/these particular incarnation(s). She will do many things in the course of The Salt Roads – manifest herself to Mer, possess Jeanne Duval throughout most of Jeanne’s carnal, tumultuous life, and inadvertently turn Thais into St. Mary of Egypt – but they will all serve her purpose to free, in one interpretation or another, the Ginen.

Lasiren is not always successful (her possession of Mer during a particularly volatile time on the plantation leads to Mer’s tongue being cut out), nor knowledgeable in the way one might expect of a deity (she must learn to control bodies and to influence minds), but her fight is timeless, multifaceted, and earnest. It manifests itself in small ways, like guiding Jeanne through a youth full of suffering and poverty to old age in relative comfort and happiness, and it manifests itself in large ways, like becoming Erzulie Dantor during the Haitian slaves’ battles for freedom. If Lasiren’s character is a symbol for the struggle for freedom, then her power is the embodiment of hope. Through Lasiren’s manifestations, and the salt roads that are the Ginen’s connection to her (and by extension, their heritage), Hopkinson explores a history that is rife with suffering, ornamented with perseverance, and rich in enduring culture.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of The Salt Roads or to provide a story arc in a conventional sense; there is no climax or traditionally ‘satisfying’ end. Mer does not see freedom in her lifetime, Jeanne dies crippled and decimated by sexually transmitted disease, and the last we see of Thais has her wandering through the desert, possibly forever. But their lives do see minor victories: A few generations after Mer, a successful slave revolt will give rise to the first generation of free Haitian blacks. Jeanne dies at an old age, with a husband who loves her, despite being the black, dancer daughter and granddaughter of a prostitute. Thais doesn’t return to living her life of slavery on her back, and goes down in history as the “dusky saint” of Egypt. All are manifestations of small measures of freedom and escape, of Lasiren’s love for her people.

The message of The Salt Roads is neither an admission of defeat, nor a writ of contentment, but a promise of success to come. It is heartwarming and depressing, at times, in equal measure, and a riveting story. While accessible to those without knowledge of Afro-Carribean culture and lore, appreciation of the artistry of The Salt Roads’s authorship deepens with any amount of it. Hopkinson’s novel is raunchy, vivid, and beautifully crafted; “eat salt” and don’t miss it!

Hopkinson, Nalo. The Salt Roads, Warner Books, New York © 2003.

Book Review: Brown Girl in the Ring

Nalo Hopkinson’s first novel, Brown Girl in The Ring (1998), a novel published by Warner Aspect, is 256 pages of twists and turns filled with Afro-Caribbean culture that brings folklore and magical realism to life. Her enthralling story was selected as the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, and accelerated her career as a feminist science fiction author. Since the selection, Hopkinson’s novel has received critical acclaim in the form of a Locus Award for Best First Novel and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1999, as well as approval from renowned author Octavia Butler. Hopkinson is of Jamaican descent and she grew up in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, the United States, and Canada.

The setting of Brown Girl in The Ring is not utopian in nature. Riots of the past have caused the inner city of Toronto to collapse into a slum of poverty, homelessness, and violence. While the elite and city officials have fled to the suburbs, children are left to fend for themselves and survive on the streets that are ruled by Rudy Sheldon and his posse of criminal thugs. Disappearances and murder are not uncommon, and everyone is left to either fend for themselves or band together to provide support for each other.

Hopkinson then introduces the heroine of the story, and a very different perspective of life in the outskirt of the city is seen. Ti-Jeanne, the granddaughter of Gros-Jeanne, is struggling with very different problems than street survival. Having recently given birth to a baby boy, Ti-Jeanne has moved back in with her grandmother to care for her child as a single mother because the child’s father, Tony, suffers from addiction and is a member of the posse. While she loves her Mami, she has difficulty seeing the importance of her grandmother’s spiritualism and medicinal work, and is frightened by her visions of death. Gros-Jeanne has gone to great lengths in the past to share her culture with her family, but has continuously been pushed away by her daughter and granddaughter.

Paths begin to cross when Tony is called upon by Rudy. Hopes of leaving his criminal life behind and reconnecting with his love, Ti-Jeanne, are shattered due to the threats from the posse leader looming over him. Tony must perform a horrific act of murder to obtain a heart to save the life of one of the city’s elite. The situation only gets worse when he involves his relationship with Ti- and Gros-Jeanne.

The magic comes alive for the rest of the novel when Tony seeks help from the spiritualism of Gros-Jeanne. In attempts to save Tony, Ti-Jeanne performs the rituals alongside her Mami and accepts her father spirit. When plans go awry, Tony makes a rash decision that forces Ti-Jeanne to be the one to save herself and the city from Rudy’s evil spiritual acts.

Ti-Jeanne’s personal growth throughout the novel is evident in her attitude toward her elders, culture, and outlook on life. Through acceptance of her ancestry and culture, she finds power and support to overcome steep odds and end the horrific violence of the posse and their heinous leader, despite her personal connection to the man who took her mother away from her at a young age. The story closes with hope, Ti-Jeanne’s victory is monumental, and the stolen heart possesses the power to permanently change the city of Toronto for the better.

The power of women of color feminism and the use of magic, “Obeah,” or seer women, are major themes throughout this novel. Nalo Hopkinson has done a marvelous job of presenting strong female characters who take control of their fate to make change in the world. Her novel is a work of feminist science fiction because it shows a very realistic perception of the struggles women face as single mothers as well as the struggles women with different cultural beliefs face in society. However, it shows their ability to use their culture, background, and experiences as women to overcome obstacles and show the true strength women possess. In addition, themes of community and systemic economic disadvantage run throughout the scenes with the street children. The compassion and heartache written in those scenes reminds readers that there is strength when we band together for a common goal and to put less focus on obtaining material items to achieve happiness and genuine relationships.

This book is well-written and exciting to read, and I recommend it especially to those who want to experience science fiction through the lens of a different culture. On a personal note, I found the novel to be difficult to read at times due to the Caribbean dialect and use of phonetic spelling when the characters were speaking out loud to one another. My initial frustration though was eased once the characters were more developed and I could see how the conversations and word choices illuminated the type of relationship held between characters. Other than the conversational prose, I found the book to be easy to read and enlightening on folklore of other cultures I was unfamiliar with. The book is unique compared to other works of feminist science fiction, because it draws on the ancestry of a different past and opens up perspectives that have yet to be shared in the science fiction community.

Book Review: The Wanderground

The Wanderground

Sally Miller Gearhart

Persephone Press, 1980

196 pages

It is an unknown point in the future of the United States. The country has continued to promote rape culture, with society growing into a more and more male-dominated, woman-controlling world. It gets worse and worse, to the point that “cunt hunts” (page 160) become a pastime for some men, who go out into the country to chase and rape any women fleeing from the cities. Women live in submission, or terror, until one day, the Earth herself has had one too many rapes. In a moment’s notice, nothing man-made functions outside of the cities. Machinery and tools of every kind suddenly fail in the act.

Finally, there is some circle of peace for the women who have fled, the hill women. Forming separatist communities on the idea that it is not in man’s nature not to rape, and it is not in woman’s nature to be raped (page 25), they live in peace with nature and other women, in Wanderground, far from the old civilization. In this communion, they find their own psychic/spiritual power they can use to communicate with each other and their animals, which they call mindstretch, which is done with their soft-selves (as opposed to oral communication with one’s hard-self). This exchange of information allows them to share present thoughts and ideas more clearly and immediately, even over long distances. It also allows them to share memories without speaking, as if the receiver were there herself.

This power is a crucial part of what makes the Wanderground women’s lives possible. Communicating via mindstretch is the most genuine form of interaction, as it allows women to share so much more than just hard-self words convey. The women also depend on the distance communication mindstretching provides, in order to communicate with women in other communities of women, and to the women who live underground in the cities and on the borders, keeping watch. Besides current communication, it is soft-selves that are used for the conveyance of memories, both individual and collective that form the history of the hill women.

All of this knowledge gets imparted bit by bit through the stories of The Wanderground. What is not a book began as individual short stories, published in fanzines and magazines before they came together (at the encouragement of everyone’s favorite ray of sunshine, Joanna Russ, who Gearhart totally fangirled over) in a book. The narrative style of The Wanderground reflects this piecemeal history. All of the stories fit together loosely, all somehow adding to the story of The Wanderground.

The continuing narrative, that makes some appearance in all, or almost all of the stories, is caused by some kind of shift in the cosmic balance between the hill women and the cities. Rumors are whispered, things are getting worse. In a beautiful, gripping opening set of stories, an armed woman dressed in battle armor appears at the edge of the hill women’s territory, and the woman on watch, completely unarmed, convinces her to drop her arms, and let her armor be removed. She is unable to speak, and rattled to the point of losing part of her mind. Her truth is that she was raped, and then set loose like that, a truth she is only able to communicate via her soft-self, as her words still no longer work.

As the stories build on each other, subtle remarks are made about how things are getting worse, the cities are becoming even more controlling, it is more dangerous for the women underground, men are appearing outside of the cities, even to the point of rapes occurring in the borderlands. Something is changing.

The tension finally comes to the foreground when the gentles, (gay men, who have the greatest respect for all women, especially the hill women) request a meeting with the hill women. The message is smuggled out of the city, and a great discussion begins. Even though the gentles are considered to be allies of the hill women, they are still men, and this mixed status of ally and enemy causes a great debate. I won’t spoil how it turns out, but I assure you the process of getting to that point is something I marveled at.

After several stories in a row really focusing on the tension building in the book, the ending came as a surprise. It was completely removed from the semi-plot that Gearhart had been focusing on for most of the book, and instead was a death narrative. For anyone who has lost anyone important to them, I recommend reading these two, final chapters, “Voki at the Welling Place” and “The Telling of the Days of Artilidea” (with some tissues). They were touching, and beautiful, and an unexpected but welcome conclusion to the book.

Reading this book in the context of the books that we have been reading, that are either unintentionally constrained by the male-centric world of science fiction, or intentionally ‘passing’ as part of that genre, this book is a total departure from that idea. After doing research in Gearhart’s papers, I saw in this book the literary embodiment of what she hoped for in her theorization of lesbian separatism, from the intentionally inclusive communities of women to the treatment of gay men as allies but still essentially different than women.

The Wanderground isn’t a book I’d recommend for new readers of any kind of feminist literature, but I loved it. I think it transcends the boundaries of science fiction, and could be seen as utopian fiction, or even potentially as fantasy. (The concept of mindstretch reminded me mightily of a concept Tamora Pierce brings up in her Emelan books, with the main difference that Gearhart considers it a natural part of women’s communication rather than magic.) By virtue of being what it is, The Wanderground takes a feminist mind to enjoy, but for the feminist reader, it is an imagination-stretch and a joy to read.

Lilith’s Brood

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.

Adulthood Rites

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

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.

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