Xenogenesis Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler
The Xenogenesis Trilogy was published between 1987 and 1989. It is also published these days under the title Lilith’s Brood which is asinine, would have been hated by Butler, and is clearly the machination of some asshat in marketing somewhere.
The overall arc of the trilogy is that after a massive and destructive war an alien species collected as many living humans as possible. The aliens are called the Oankali, a species with three sexes (male, female, and neuter). They think of themselves as traders, but not in the normal sense. The Oankali travel from planet to planet exchanging genes with the dominant sentient species.
The first of the Xenogenesis trilogy opens with the voice of Lilith, a woman who wakes up in a cell with no doors or windows. She can’t see her captors. Food appears daily and a disembodied voice asks questions. She sleeps and wakes, trying to keep herself sane by remembering books and movies. Because of the recent war she suspects that her captors are from the Soviet Union (which had not broken up when these books were written).
Eventually she’s allowed to see the strange Oankali. Covered with tendrils rather than hair, their senses come through their skin, they have four arms, two for holding and two for reproduction. Lilith is told that she is the first to be wakened and that she had been in the cell for 250 years. The Oankali want her to choose other humans to train for survival in the Amazon rain forest, one of the least damaged areas from the war, in order to begin repopulating the earth.
The book’s strongest moments come from the interactions of the various men and women brought back from hibernation, having to live first in a large cell and then going out to a shipboard reproduction of the Amazon. Many of the prisoners remain convinced almost to the end that there are no aliens, that they’re not on a ship orbiting beyond the moon, and that this is some type of Soviet brainwashing program.
Lilith is an amazingly strong character, morally and emotionally. The Oankali are some of the most interesting aliens in any science fiction. The neuter sex are the Ooloi. Their primary function is to collect cells and study DNA in order to add new genetic enhancements to the race. They do this by penetrating life forms and extracting single cells which they can “taste” and examine in minute detail in an almost psychic way. They bond with the population with whom they are going to “trade” until that planet is dominated by a human/Oankali mix, which will then create a new biological vessel to travel to the next world.
Lilith and the Oankali have the most trouble in bringing male humans back to life. The Oankali themselves did not evolve from a hierarchical species, and they have problems dealing with the violence and competitiveness that seems to erupt from the testosterone-rich half of the human race.
Eventually Lilith and one of the males bonds with an Ooloi, a process in which the Ooloi uses feelers to probe the humans and give both ecstatic pleasure. It is also how Lilith will come to give birth to several children who carry Oankali-enhanced genes.
Years after Dawn humans and Oankali have begun to populate the earth. There are, however, humans who are violently opposed to this genetic invasion of earth. Those children born from human/Oankali breeding are called “constructs”. They appear human but, as they mature, they become one of the Oankali hybrids maintaining some human features but also growing tendrils for Oankali senses. They are always male or female. The Oankali are afraid to breed an Ooloi construct because they have so much potential to cause damage.
Humans have been sterilized so that they can’t breed on their own without an Ooloi. Many of these escape into the jungles creating “resister” villages. However, the desire for children is so great that raiding parties will often steal construct children and try to raise them as if they were fully human.
The book is narrated by Akin, more human than most of the constructs though able to talk clearly before he can walk and having a full memory from his time in the womb forward. He is kidnapped by a trio of men hoping to trade him for food and women. He eventually is adopted by a family where he stays for several years.
Akin can see both sides, clear that the Oankali are determined to make the earth their own until they are able to travel to another planet, but also clear that the humans who want it should be allowed to migrate to Mars and breed again. Eventually the Oankali agree. They make Mars habitable and begin transporting volunteers to the new planet.
The final book moves forward again several years, described by Jodahs, the first human to grow into an Ooloi. He and another young Oankali Ooloi go through the devastating feelings Ooloi experience until they can find human partners. They find a small village that was, somehow, missed by the Oankali. They have been breeding for generations but often inbreeding for lack of other mates. One of the results is a genetic tumor that can disfigure faces and bodies, things that Ooloi can heal through their ability to manipulate individual genes. This is where the two Ooloi will find their mating partners.
I’ve become quite the Butler fan lately. She was writing at a time when I was too busy with career and family to do all the reading I wanted. As it is I zoomed through these three books over a weekend and loved every minute.
All of her books are multi-layered and written with an enviable prose style. As has been said before, science fiction looks at the future to describe the present. Butler is taking on the devastation of nuclear war, the human taste for violence, racial conflicts, male domination, and the human ability to suffer for an ideal. Unlike, say, an Animal Farm Butler doesn’t preach, but she does show the consequences of some behaviors and thought patterns from her unique perspective. She was unique among science fiction writers and left us way too soon.