The Mother of Monsters and Gods: Sociobiology, Colonization, and Reproduction in Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood Trilogy

Daniel José Older, author of Salsa Nocturna and editor of Long Hidden, recently put forward a petition to redesign the World Fantasy Award statuette. The current award is a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, who, although a towering figure in the speculative fiction canon, was a terrible racist. Older proposes to change the statuette to a bust of Octavia E. Butler, a black woman who wrote lucid and enthralling stories that explored issues of race, politics, and gender.

Nnedi Okorafor, whose novel Who Fears Death won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, wrote a powerful essay  about her pride in winning the award and her pain in having one of her greatest accomplishments as a writer be the bust of a racist man.

It has also been suggested that the award be changed to a common fantasy motif, such as a dragon or another mythical beast. This would match the dominant trend of major awards of speculative fiction, which typically feature abstract images. For example, the Hugo Award statuette is a rocket; the Nebula Award trophy is a transparent block with an embedded glittery spiral; and the Sunburst Award is a medal of a swirling sun.

I myself support this last suggestion, but if the World Fantasy Convention were to decide to change the statuette to another author, Butler would be one of my first choices. A single novel by Butler contains more brilliance, imagination, and humanity than can be found in most authors’ entire corpus. Let’s look at one such example of Butler’s genius, the haunting Lilith’s Brood Trilogy, first published under the name Xenogenesis.

The first book of the trilogy, Dawn, opens with the resurrection of Lilith Iyapo 250 years after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed Earth. She finds herself on board an enormous ship—actually a female plant-like organism called Chkahichdahk—the captive of a mysterious alien species, the Oankali.

Though humanoid, the grey-skinned Oankali do not have eyes, ears, a nose, or even hair—instead, their body is covered in sensory tentacles. The Oankali can use these tentacles to read and manipulate the chemical and genetic makeup of everything they come into contact with. They are nomadic gene-traders who travel the galaxy searching for new species with whom they can interbreed. Their current target is human beings, and they want Lilith to be the mediator between the two species.

After learning Oankali customs and being genetically altered so that she is stronger and faster than the average human, Lilith is assigned the task of awakening a group of 40 people from suspended animation and training them to re-colonize the Earth. She is torn between her loyalty to humanity and her certainty that resisting the Oankali is futile. Her inner turmoil is further fueled by her intimate—even romantic—relationship with Nikanji, one of the Oankali.

Nikanji is neither male nor female, but ooloi, the Oankali’s third sex. When Lilith first meets Nikanji, it  is eka: a sexless child. Oankali children go through a metamorphosis (a condensed equivalent to puberty) during which they become one of the three sexes, usually the sex of the parent they are closest to. Ooloi undergo two separate metamorphoses.

Female Oankali are responsible for bearing and protecting children. Male Oankali are responsible for searching out new life. The ooloi have an additional pair of ‘sensory arms’, specialized organs that allow them to connect to other organisms and make alterations to their genetic structure.

During sex, all contact is mediated through the ooloi, who uses its sensory arms to connect directly to the nervous systems of its mates. The ooloi is thus able to provide intense pleasure to its mates while orchestrating the conception of children. Once they have mated, males and females find it unpleasant to touch each other directly.

Human-Oankali hybrids, called constructs, are born from five-person family groups that consist of one member of each sex from each species. The Oankali alter all human beings’ genetics so that if they refuse to participate in the ‘trade’, they are unable to reproduce on their own.

The title of the trilogy points to the novels’ chief overarching concern: reproduction. There is no room for same-sex or otherwise non-reproductive relationships in the Oankali’s world, as they are non-procreative. In fact, the Oankali purposely did not rescue same-sex couples from the nuclear holocaust because they would not be inclined to reproduce.

Despite the seeming progressiveness of multiple sexes across two species being engaged in reproduction, the whole process is markedly conservative and heteronormative. Ooloi constructs always change their appearance to align at least superficially with heterosexuality when seducing a human being. An ooloi construct seducing a male human will take on features typically associated with a female construct, and vice versa.

The multi-generational trilogy follows the lives of Lilith and her construct children. Each book follows a protagonist of a different sex: the first books follows Lilith, a human female; the second book follows Akin, a male construct; and the third book is narrated by Jodahs, an ooloi construct.

Lilith is the most compelling character in the trilogy. Her name and role as the progenitor of the human-Oankali hybrid species evokes the figure of Lilith from Jewish mythology. According to the Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith was created by God at the same time as Adam and was intended to be his wife. But when Adam demanded that Lilith lie beneath him during sex, she refused on the grounds that they had been created at the same time and were therefore equals. After departing from the Garden of Eden, Lilith became a winged female demon who kills infants and endangers mothers in childbirth.

The title of the first book, Dawn, refers not only to the nascent human-Oankali civilization, but also contrasts Lilith with the Biblical Eve. In Jewish demonology, Lilith becomes a mother of demons and a bringer of miscarriage. In Butler’s novels, the character Lilith attains the same reputation as her mythical namesake when she is blamed for the sterilization of humans.

Because the Oankali have the ability to read and manipulate genetic structure, they are able to identify in human beings a fatal flaw, the ‘human contradiction’ of intelligence and hierarchy. Lilith’s Brood is fundamentally engaged with the theory of sociobiology, which posits that social behaviour derives from genetics and evolutionary processes.

The Oankali are certain that humanity will destroy itself because of this contradiction—it was, they assert, what led to the nuclear holocaust—and so they present their strict control over human beings as benevolent, if patronizing.

However, the Oankali are using sociobiology as a justification for colonization—similar to eugenics and the European colonizers’ rationale that they were lifting indigenous peoples out of a state of barbarity and ignorance.

The Oankali’s genetic trade with human beings is tainted with coercion and abuse: Lilith spends two years in solitary confinement while the Oankali observe her; she is initially denied access to writing materials; and she is impregnated without her consent. The Oankali also destroyed all ruins of human civilization that had survived the nuclear war because they wanted humans to begin anew entirely. They did not, however, destroy their own historical records.

By the end of the trilogy, the Oankali have successfully acquired human beings’ greatest ‘blessing’: cancer. With the disease, the Oankali are able to maximize their regenerative abilities, manipulate genetics at an even higher level, and alter their appearance entirely at will. This last ability will allow them to adopt a more pleasing and recognizable form to any future trade partners, making their genetic trading—and accompanying colonization—even easier.

The title of the last novel in the trilogy is multi-referential. In biology, imago refers to the last stage an insect reaches during metamorphosis, at which point it is sexually mature. Thus the construct ooloi of the third novel represent the apex of the Oankali’s development. But it also recalls the Abrahamic religions’ concept of the Imago Dei, the “Image of God”, pointing to the Oankali’s ultimate aspiration. By colonizing the galaxy and absorbing all life that they find, the Oankali are in the process of becoming omnipotent and all-encompassing—they are becoming “God”.

Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith Brood Trilogy explores what it means to be human and what it means to be posthuman. This trilogy is terrifying in its quiet intensity. It is the product of a writer whose gift with language is matched by her scathing critiques of society and her disturbingly vivid vision of the future. Whether or not the WFC changes the award to a bust of Butler, it is doubtless that her immense influence will still be felt in science fiction for decades.

 -contributed by Alex De Pompa


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