Book Review

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

read a massive book about aliens like a nerd

I received two Octavia E. Butler books for my birthday last month, and I enjoyed the first one I read (Kindred) so much that I didn’t wait long at all before diving into the other, this one, the fucking massive Lilith’s Brood.

Originally published as three separate novels – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago – in the late eighties, Lilith’s Brood tells the story of the destruction of the last vestiges of humanity by an – in their opinion – benevolent alien coloniser who specialises in genetic engineering.

The aliens, the Oankali, do not seek to kill all the humans, instead they wish to “trade” genes with them/us, until all that exists is a version of the Oankali that contains all the worthwhile bits of humanity. I read it as an uncomplex and very effective analogy for colonialism, but my enjoyment was diminished by Butler seeming to drop the blunt analogy in the final third of the book, which then made me realise I was reading a massive book about aliens which made me feel like a loswer.

The first section, Dawn, is about the first human, Lillith Iyapo, to be woken up by the aliens on board their spaceship. The aliens’ plan is to tame the few million humans who survived our inevitable nuclear apocalypse, starting with Lilith, and then once humans and aliens are friends, everyone can breed together.

The Oankali offer these humans sex, extended lifespans and the potential for eternal life for [some] human DNA once it becomes integrated within these wandering aliens. The Oankali feel no guilt, no remorse, because they are certain that – were humanity left to itself (again) – we are hard-wired to self-destruct. To live, the Ooankali argue, humans must lose our humanity, our connection with Earth and everything that had existed before.

In this colonialism analogy, the aliens bring cultural death (and literal death for the dissenters); the aliens brings control, they bring more powerful machinery and improved medical knowledge, and they want to destroy all forms of society that existed before. The coloniser will not, does not, withdraw: the coloniser offers you a choice, a life on the coloniser’s terms, or the coloniser offers you death.

In this decision, Butler’s novel seems to imply, there’s a right choice and a wrong one, but the bestial urge to survive prevents people from wise assessment. When offered the end of an entire culture or the end of an individual life, the less painful immediate answer leads to mountains of misery at a later date.

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Adulthood Rites is about a first generation human-alien hybrid who spends a long time amongst “resisters”, the humans who – oh, the aliens make every human infertile until they are ready to crossbreed – decide to live away from the aliens and therefore remain childless. After his time away, the hybrid decides that the eradication of humanity is inexcusable and he succeeds in persuading the aliens to let SOME humans colonise Mars and be fertile.

The third novel, Imago, is about the first-human alien hybrid who is the alien’s third and most attractive sex – ooloi. To explain this sufficiently I’d have to go into an amount of detail I’d find excessive, and this is the point I alluded to above: the reason why “normal people” don’t read genrey stuff is that it’s ridiculous. 

Butler spends the first two novels of this trilogy making a clear, and sharp, allegory for European nations’ treatment of, well, all the rest of the world. While doing so, she creates an interesting – but ultimately pointless – imaginary species of aliens, which means her allegory gets to include some fun scenes of kinky alien sexy stuff, but it never loses focus on its message about colonised peoples being forced into compromise.

The victim of colonialism may try to pretend it hasn’t happened, but colonialism is powerful and terrible. Everything was different before, everything is different now. This is almost the same kinda idea explored in The Leftovers, i.e. how people respond to incontrovertible evidence that reality as they knew it to be no longer exists.

For me, this was where the novel excelled in its first section, and why Adulthood Rites, too, I loved. The second part of Lilith’s Brood is about loss of selfhood and identity and attempts to find/create one for the first generation of human-alien hybrids. Imago, tho, moves beyond this allegorical exploration and – to me – felt like a novel about the struggles of being a hypersexed alien hanging out in the last days of Earth after its alien brethren have saved and then genetically compromised the few survivors of humanity.

I don’t want to read 750 pages about alien wars and alien sex and stuff.

Yes, I dabble with genre texts from time to time now, but I’ve never dabbled with a genre text this big and I don’t think I will again, certainly not unless I’m on holiday and a 700 page book is two days of lounging rather than two weeks of ALMOST ALL MY DOWNTIME.

FYI, I’m not counting as downtime the many hours I spend watching True Blood on crosstrainers. Also, I’m nearing the end of that show and a growing subplot over later seasons is the religion of the vampires, which believed Lilith (see The Bible) was the original vampire and that vampires – not humans – were made in God’s image so vampires are mega mega holy. I couldn’t help thinking of this Lilith – an Aramaic speaking, always naked, always blood-soaked vampire god who can form herself out of puddles of blood like the bad robot (with metal) in Terminator 2 – when reading about Butler’s Lilith, who is definitely the most interesting character in this book because – to be blunt- the aliens are pretend and pretend things are only good if they feel like true things.

Because the allegory in those first two thirds is so clear, I never really felt like the alien mythologies and biologies were what the book was about, and when Imago came around and those mythologies and biologies became the focus I became profoundly aware of how… pretend… the book I was reading was.

It’s pretty standard, innit, for the third part of a trilogy to be the weakest, but this felt more like the end of a relationship where you retroactively notice all the red flags you’d willingly ignored in the past (i.e. “oh wait this book with loads of aliens in is about aliens” is the same as “oh wait all those times when you BEHAVED like a dick is because you ARE a dick”)

Lillith’s Brood contains a pair of great sci fi novels that I read – and was able to read – as political allegory, and then one novel that, well, just felt like alieny frivolity. That, I’m afraid, is not for me.

I don’t think genre books this big are a good idea. I’ll be more careful about trapping myself in one again…

Something more human next.


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