A few weeks ago, I reviewed Dawn by Octavia Butler. I’m following up on my promise to review the entire series, and boy was it worth it. While short, the Xenogenesis trilogy packs a huge punch.
Adulthood Rites and Imago follow the events of Dawn, diving into the lives of the protagonist’s (Lilith) children. After having accepted her role as an ambassador of sorts between humans and the Oankali, Lilith paired with the Ooloi Nikanj. The rest of the trilogy follows two of her children, a book devoted to each one. Adulthood Rites follows her son, Akin, as he grows amongst small villages of resisting humans. Imago follows a different son, Johdas, as they eventually grow into a new kind of Ooloi, one more human than Oankali. Both are stories of growing up and finding one’s place within a changing world, while also being limited by one’s own biology.
As with Dawn, the rest of Xenogenesis is a slower, more philosophical story that digs into the moral quandaries of interspecies relations, sexual and political. Butler takes her time, dancing between dialogue and introspection to highlight her points. She manages to keep the Oankali mysterious by slowly shifting away from them, and instead exploring the lives of the hybrid offspring. Humanity, on the other hand, remains front and center as Akin and Johdas have no recourse but to deal with them head on. The ugly and the beautiful are on full display, and Butler steers the reader head on into every collision she can imagine, and just as the car is about to hit, she slows it down so that most details can be seen by the naked eye.
Akin and Johdas are great windows through which to view the rest of the story. Akin is one of the first males allowed to be born amongst the hybrid children. The Oankali fear the men as most in their care have exhibited brash aggression to their kind. Akin constantly has to face this representation of who he could be, all while growing up within a community of Resistors, humans who have left the Oankali encampments and live without the ability to produce children. Day in and day out he has to learn about the darker impulses of humanity, while helping them understand the Oankali. Butler navigates this by making him inquisitive and introspective, allowing his encounters to fully bloom within his own perspective. The baggage of being a male with the whole world watching one’s every move, trying not to make the same mistakes one was told they would make is thoroughly realized through Akin’s struggles. As a reader, you get to feel the tension within Akin, making his decisions feel earned, whether or not you feel they might be right. It spoke to me on a level I wasn’t expecting it to.
Akin was easy to relate to because of the inner turmoil of his maleness, but Johdas was easier to attach to personally. They grew up fully expecting to become male during the metamorphosis, but instead became Ooloi, one of the sexless members of the Oankali aliens. They are more facilitators of relations, able to manipulate genes on a near atomic level. Johdas was exploratory, often putting themselves in the mess of things to find their way out, instead of pondering about it from the outside. While it matched their role as Ooloi, Butler made the trip interesting, humanizing both Johdas and the Oankali as a whole. While the Oankali spoke in grand sweeping understandings of humans and their ways, they were also sort of feeling around in the dark, propelled by their own species’ wide impulses. Johdas captured this distinctly as they searched for human mates, trying to better understand their own limitations and later incredible power as they matured. It was delightful and often veered towards being almost heartbreaking.
It would be hard to talk about this series without mentioning the amount of compassion involved, even while there was heavy skepticism and cynicism within the stories. Butler certainly had a deft hand when it came to broaching subjects like human nature and what is to be done about it. The pain and fear that the resistance communities felt and inflicted on each other felt real and horrible. The community that Johdas runs into in the final third of Imago was incredibly dark, but well imagined and explored in a way that did not condemn their ways. The characters Akin and Johdas, while facing incredible struggles, never broke from the ideals of the Oankali. They had the ability to kill, and sometimes resorted to the threat of violence. But more often than not, it was more a warning, not an ultimatum; a condition that would be used if they were attacked, not disagreed with. Ultimately, they took the path of slow convincing through compassion, instead of brute force change, and Butler painted this road vividly, showing the shadows as much as the light.
Xenogenesis is about the necessity of change, and the sacrifices one must go through so that others may progress. Sometimes, that may even mean leaving behind some of your humanity, but not in the way that grim stories often portray. Instead of the proverbial breath of fresh air, Xenogenesis was a whole new environment to take a stroll through, a new ground to engage with the first contact genre. If you want a slower, more ponderous first contact story that explores the nature of humanity, and what it might cost to truly change, the Xenogensis Trilogy by Octavia Butler is the perfect fit.
Adulthood Rites: 9.0/10