Lilith’s Brood

// 25 April 2009

Lilith_s Brood.jpgI couldn’t resist doing a bit of a mini-review of Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood (formerly published as Xenogenesis).

I just finished it, and it’s surely one of the most complex and interesting books I’ve read in a good while. It sounds a bit cliched, but it really did suck me in from the first line to the last page.

Lilith Iyapo wakes up in a plain cell, where she is kept in almost complete isolation, other than disembodied voices who question her. Gradually we find out that the Earth has been poisoned and most of humanity has been killed in an apolcalyptic war, and Lilith, along with all surviving Humans, has been saved by an alien people, called Oankali.

The Oankali are ‘traders’, who have an innate urge to seek out new life, reproducing and forever changing themselves and the peoples/life they find. Under normal circumstances, this is meant to have an element of the voluntary about it, but not in this case, because the Oankali have rescued Humans from certain destruction – and because of what they call “the contradiction” – genetic predisposition towards intelligence and hierarchy, which they say would always mean Humanity would self destruct.

The Oankali sterlise all the Humans they rescue, meaning they’re only able to reproduce within Oankali families (of male, female and a third sex, ooloi), which would ultimately mean the end of the Human race, as the children would be constructs – replacing both the Oankali and Humans as distinct races. Given that it’s forced upon them, Humans generally find the proposition that they will be the last generation of Humans frightening and disturbing.

Meanwhile, those Humans that reject the Oankali and try and strike out to settle on their own on Earth revert to a violent, hyper-patriarchal way of life, where women are sold and raped as a matter of course. You’re not left feeling humans=good, aliens=bad, oh no… indeed, while the Oankali’s actions evoke eugenics, are the Humans resistance falling back on notions of racial ‘purity’?

Really, I don’t want to go any further into the plot, as part of what’s interesting about the collection is the way Bulter unfolds information on Humanity’s predicament. But I’m sure that’s enough to guess at some of the themes of interest which are grasped at in the book, including what it means to be human, the nature of freedom, slavery, reproductive rights, eugenics, genetic engineering, racism, sexuality, consent, sexual violence, human reactions to difference, disability, ‘alienness’, othering, gender – in particular masculinity.

One particularly (intentionally?) creepy element is the near invisibility of LGBT Humans in the books. Other than a few mentions of homophobic behaviour and attitudes of some Human men, the issue is mostly left undealt with, sex is not just about reproduction in the book, far from it, but its described uniformly as “mating”. The Oankali are fixed in female-ooloi-male groupings (actually, it’s a bit more complex: female Oankali, male Oankali – usually brother and sister, ooloi, female human, male human).

The reader is left to wonder whether the Oankali, with their biological imperitive to reproduce with humans, have simply selectively not woken up LGB Humans… And, while Butler does interesting things in terms of the gender identity of the Oankali (in addition to introducing a third gender, they have no gender until they go through a puberty-like metamorphisis), trans and intersex Humans are not mentioned at all.

I’m new to Butler – other than Lilith’s Brood, I’ve listened to an audiobook of Kindred (in which Dana, a 26-year-old black woman, is repeatedly pulled back in time from LA in the 1970s, to a plantation in the antebellum South, where she saves the life of the plantation-owner’s son, who is also, she discovers, her ancestor).

Despite the traditional time-travel bit, because the book is set in actual history, it’s a very different read. But it actually does deal with some of the same/similar issues.

Further reading:

Strange Horizons article about eugenics, attraction and aversion in Octavia Butler

brownfemipower on Kindred

Addicted to Race interview with Octavia Butler (from about 54 minutes in)

Comments From You

Silvia // Posted 25 April 2009 at 4:39 pm

‘Lilith’s Brood’ sounds like one helluva book. Jess, you really know how to enjoy yourself!

jennifer Drew // Posted 25 April 2009 at 5:35 pm

Now I know authors have no say over the type of image they wish to be used for the front cover of their books, but this image is yet again one depicting a woman as a sexualised commodity. Futhermore the image implies contents of the book will consist of depictions of women as men’s sexualised masturbatory objects.

Do publishers imagine any work of fiction written by a woman will not sell unless there is the obligatory soft-porn image of a woman or a woman appearing to be a child on the front cover? Why is it books of fiction written by men do not have soft porn images of men on the front cover? Yes I know the reason and that is because women are men’s sexualised commodities but men are fully human and their dignity and respect is never compromised.

Jess McCabe // Posted 25 April 2009 at 6:09 pm

Jennifer, I don’t know I’d say it’s that bad… Probably the original covers were better though: here, here and here

Amy2 // Posted 25 April 2009 at 7:53 pm

I love books like this, that completely take you away from ‘culture’ which gets suffocating… and suffocating, and is responsible for hierarchy/ patriarchy/ suicide. Nice escapism!

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 26 April 2009 at 11:14 am

Sounds like a really interesting read, I’ll get on it!

Jennifer – just because the woman is naked, doesn’t mean she is meant to be read as ‘men’s sexualised masturbatory object’. Even if she is, perhaps that is a reflection of the way women are treated in the novel. I think it is troubling that you would interpret any naked picture of a woman on a book cover in this way – isn’t this line of thinking patriarchal in itself? Why should we view an image like this through the male lens?

maggie // Posted 26 April 2009 at 1:10 pm

This is a book I will certainly be reading, based on your review. Thanks Jess.

Ellie // Posted 28 April 2009 at 12:38 pm

To be honest, there’s a lot of sci-fi out there I could read that doesn’t involve sexual abuse so I’ll probably give this a miss.

The only thing I thought about the cover was that the publishers seemed to think, oh its a sci-fi, but its about gender and sex so we’ll market it at the ladies and make it look as though its got nothing to do with aliens.

Wisrutta Atthakor // Posted 28 April 2009 at 3:28 pm

The book certainly sounds like an interesting read, not just for the fact that I enjoy sci-fi but also for the ‘themes of interest’ that Jess lists. I would be interested to see for myself the author’s take on these topics. Thanks for the suggestion – I was just in the process of trying to decide what book to read next!

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