Arminzerella's Reviews > Lilith's Brood

Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler
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Apr 10, 09

it was amazing
bookshelves: adult-fiction, aliens, families, other-worlds, science-fiction, favorites, borrowed-from-the-library
Read in July, 2007

** spoiler alert ** People have been telling me to read Octavia Butler for years. I’m not sure why it took me this long to get around to her. Possibly the only reason I did was because a friend of mine passed me this collection and said, “read it.” He tends to make good recommendations.

When we meet Lilith, she’s just been “awakened” again. She’s being held in some kind of room and her inquisitors are people she’s never seen before. She’s nearly insane with loneliness and inactivity. She begins talking with her captors, and eventually learns that “they” are the Oankali – a race of aliens. The Oankali found the remnants of humankind on their war-torn earth just after a final battle decimated its population and poisoned its atmosphere. They took whoever they could find back to their ships and sampled their DNA - tasted them - learned what they could, and found themselves fascinated by them. They reveal all of this to Lilith, who is skeptical until she actually *sees* them. Then she’s horrified by their alienness.

Lilith is selected from among her people to lead them back to a repaired earth. In exchange for the Oankali’s assistance (which, you’ll note, humans never asked for), the humans must merge with them. Oankali call this a “trade.” Genetic information for genetic information. To Lilith, and to other humans, this is genocide about which they have no choice. Despite humans’ negative reaction, the Oankali insist. The humans are then returned to earth – sterile, unless they breed with Oankali mates. (Note: Oankali come in three different genders – male, female, and ooloi.) Under the new Oankali breeding arrangement, families would consist of paired humans, paired male and female Oankali, and an ooloi parent. Only the ooloi can mix the genes properly.

Many humans leave the Oankali settlements once they return to earth. These “resisters” form their own communities – and then wage war on one another. Even the ones that try to remain peaceful find that they have little purpose without being able to reproduce and raise children of their own, so they take to stealing children from one another – either those that were children when they came back to earth, or those that are born to the human-Oankali families. One of these children is Lilith’s “son,” Akin. It is he who truly begins to understand the humans and is ultimately able to express their dilemma to the Oankali in a way that they can understand. He becomes a spokesperson for humans and sees to it that they are offered an alternative to Oankali. An entirely human colony on Mars is born.

Back on earth, the first Oankali-human cross-bred ooloi begins its transformation (ooloi undergo two of these before they care considered full adults). Oankali have great misgivings about this – it’s too early, they believe, for an ooloi. And their concerns have some merit, for as Jodahs matures, it has no control over its power. It changes itself and others in its family without knowing what it has done – alterations that could easily hurt them. The only way it is able to control itself is through relationships with humans. Because Jodahs’ control is so poor, its family elects to take it and its sibling (who is also becoming ooloi) to the Oankali ship in order to help it stabilize. Jodahs does not want to go. It takes to making long journeys by itself and on one of these it discovers two humans who aren’t sterile. They become close while they travel together and when Jodahs enters his second transformation, their bond is cemented. Jodahs’ sibling, however, has no humans of its own, and its control is even poorer. Jodahs’ human mates agree to lead it and Jodahs back to their village, so that they can attempt to convince another human pair to bond with it. After some initial violence, the new ooloi-humans are able to subdue the villagers’ fears. And when other Oankali arrive on the scene the humans are ready either to go to the Mars colony, or to find Oankali-human mates.

This trilogy was absolutely riveting. It had science (genetics and space travel far beyond our abilities), philosophy, ethics, a not-too-far-off dystopic future, aliens, hope. As a human, you’ll immediately understand what takes the Oankali years to know – humans are notoriously stubborn (and proud) – wanting to do things their own way, however stupid and headstrong that way may be. It’s something we value and despise about ourselves. Octavia Butler has absolutely nailed that conflict. The Oankali may have the ability to fix everything that’s wrong with humans, but unless we are able to correct it ourselves by conscious decision – not just gene manipulation and a cross-breeding program, we can’t be satisfied with the results. We’ll have lost something in the process.

I suppose the despair the humans feel has something to do with being the only ones left in a population that can’t increase its numbers – knowing that your people (as you know them) will end, and what is left behind – the new species - will barely, barely resemble you. There’s no immortality in that, no racial security. I’m not sure if that’s something we feel on some deep animal level or if that’s part of our evolved self-consciousness.

But I wonder what the human-Oankali mixes think. Do they feel human? Oankali? Something altogether new and different? Once you have a bunch of different intelligent species sharing space together, does your definition of “people” change? Are you all able to somehow identify with one another as a group? Is there a lessening of that feeling that you are all alone in the world/universe? Perhaps as there are more human-Oankali mixes there will be more understanding between the two groups – they will be the facilitators as Akin showed they could be. Still, the idea of being consumed by a group, almost like the Borg (you WILL be assimilated) is rather horrible.

The Oankali are fascinating as a species. One can speculate boundlessly as to what all of the different Oankali look like/are, as they are homeless and different bands/brands of them are sailing the stars searching for new species with who they can trade genetic information. Their fluidity is part and parcel of their nature, but they never lose control of who they are in the process. That, too, may be part of the difference in their feelings. They choose, they initiate, they manipulate. Humans can only accept what the Oankali offer or die. And we honor the individual who would stand alone and cry out, “give me liberty or give me death!”

I was frustrated sometimes by the humanity of the humans. They built their villages and tried to occupy themselves, but no one seemed to have any initiative to catch up to the Oankali, reverse their sterilization. It has been pointed out to me that genetics is a pretty advanced science. This is true. But they had years, hundreds of years left to them, to make advances. Perhaps the Oankali would even have helped them learn what they needed to know. Or it’s wishful thinking on my part. But no one made any effort. I wish someone at least had considered it and thought, “ok, here’s what we need to do” instead of the lame penchant for violence against one another that we’re all so accustomed to. Here is this common threat to our genetic destiny and all we can do is rape women, steal children, and re-create the Bible. *sigh* You’d think we have more imagination.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Spider the Doof Warrior Yeah, the stupidity of my fellow humans in that book irritated me too. I liked the aliens a lot better. They did have their share of problems like omitting important information people need on a for the best basis, but the humans were just so dumb! They were sitting on a junk pile doing all the same stuff that got them into that situation in the first place, and attacking each other while the Oankali and humans and human Oankali constructs were working together and having a rather nice ideal gun and violence free life.
I think I'd stick with the aliens, but that's mainly because they are so curious and interested in everything and I'm like that too.

Arminzerella I'd probably stick with the aliens as well - they're obviously going places. That remaining human colony wasn't going anywhere.

Spider the Doof Warrior Nope. And they were building guns and everything, talking about shooting each other. Man, they annoy me a lot. (In the middle of the second book in that series)
Especially when Neci was like, we should cut off those ugly tentacles. OOOO, She was irritating!

message 4: by Dave (last edited Jun 07, 2009 02:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dave Synesthesia is a great name. I hope it's your real one, because that'd be even cooler.

It's taken me about four re-readings of this series (and discussion about it with Kaysootee) before I started to really sympathize with the humans at all. Having always been a bit of xenophile, in the strictest sense of the word, I immediately found the Oankali extremely compelling. I still think they are, but I can also understand where the humans are coming from. The constructs are only half human. By joining with the Oankali, the human race would end just as effectively as it would have had they never found us. It's hard not to feel something for that, even when, intellectually, I can see that the survival of the pure species doesn't ultimately matter more than the continuance of culture. Humans and Oankali share a deep inquisitiveness about the universe- and a similarly fickle compassion for its other inhabitants. We are less different than our outsides would suggest. Which is, of course, the point. Butler is more adept than any other author I can think of at showing us ourselves through the lens of the alien, and showing us the alien through the lens of ourselves.

Spider the Doof Warrior I wish it was, but mostly it equals my unique condition.
Yeah, Butler was brilliant at things like that. Mostly I think the humans would live on in the constructs and become something a bit better, less violent and more curious.
It kind of goes with Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds, the manga if you start to think about it.

But dang, would it be cool to be an ooloi human construct. They are so awesome! I kind of wanted a yashi because I'm always outside going, ooo, I wonder what this is, what kind of bug is this. Where can I find some caterpillars and raise them?

Dave I am not familiar with Nausicaa, except peripherally. That's one of the classics I never got around to watching.

The ooloi constructs are kind of frightening, actually. They use our biology against us.

Spider the Doof Warrior Yeah, but they are so cool. The way they seduce everyone and study everything.

I say don't watch nausicaa by Miyazaki, read the manga because it goes into more depth and the story and pictures are very beautiful and interesting though in bits depressing.

But the ending is powerful.

Arminzerella I saw Nausicaa (Miyazaki), but am not remembering the yashi... I'll have to refresh my memory. That's the one where the girl is protecting the natural world? I suppose I could just figure this out now with the search engine of my choice. *grin*

The ooloi-human constructs maybe can see the place that they want to take humanity. They're like...accelerated evolution, in a way (with lots of tampering). Thinking about this some more I'm wondering if maybe it isn't all that important that humans remain purely human. I mean, we'd still be *people* and individuals with our own thoughts. We'd have bizarre relationships/family structures that we'd have to adjust to (some of us, anyway), but it wouldn't be like the Borg, where your individuality was subsumed and assimilated into the collective. Plus, tentacles!

I think the scary and worst part is having the choice to become whatever you become taken away from you.

Spider the Doof Warrior Yashi= the Ooloi organ where they store a lot of cells and information and stuff.
You got to read the book of Nausicaa because it's sooooooo much better and deeper than the movie. Not that the movie wasn't good, but it left out so much cool stuff that I liked.
Yeah, not having a choice would be the worse part. The Host comes to mind. I love that book and think it goes well with this one in a way. But I think I'd like having tentacles and sensory organs and things like that. I already see the world in a weird way, so it would just get weirder which would be fun.

message 10: by Dave (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dave I just found a really interesting review that I posted on my comments page.

Also, I'd like to point out that the Oankali denied the humans- resisters or not- access to old literature, or the materials to produce new literature. Reconstructing genetic sciences- which in Butler's day were rudimentary (and are still considerably so today) without access to any of the prior work or technology would be a herculean, if not sysiphean, task.

I think people tried to move forward as much as they could- but yeah, without children, the motivation to produce or maintain culture or technology would be pretty depressed.

Onnena What if the reproductive control the Oankali had over humanity was a metaphor to what was done to the American slaves?

I understand the frustration of the humanity of the humans, but it seems to me that the whole point was that core parts of their humanity were taken from them. Identity was broken, and it was methodical, intentional. The Oankali were not beneficent. "Trade" was a euphemism. "Harvest" would have been more honest. Lilth is portrayed as a person fighting Stockholm Syndrome, and failing. She knows she is being manipulated and coerced, emotionally and physically, into compliance. She fights as well as she can, but she is no match for them. She breaks, all the while hoping that there are others who are stronger than her. It is no surprise that it is her child who comes up with the idea for the colony on Mars, to give back to humans some of what makes them human.

Onnena OK. I just read Dave's link. While I was reading the book, the parallel to slavery and race was obvious to me.

Spider the Doof Warrior Interesting. I didn't even get that from the book. I was more on the side of the Oankali because the humans were kind of annoying me.

message 14: by Dave (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dave Wow, Onenna, that is a really thoughtful interpretation that I totally missed. I was pretty young when I read it and not very socially aware, so the parallels I drew then were mostly to my own life and struggles; so that initial coloration of the narrative has naturally influenced every later reading. That said I can totally see where you're getting that. I will definitely have some new perspectives the next time I read the series.

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