Octavia Butler, “Xenogenesis” trilogy (1987-1989) – The premise of these books is a funny one — people have to have brain-sex with alien tentacle monsters to repopulate the earth after a nuclear war — but is played completely straight, with stakes of species-level life, death, and love. The novels “Dawn,” “Adulthood Rites,” and “Imago” explore a wholly alien society, it’s mixture with humanity, and questions of what life, humanity, and family are. Heavy stuff!
First, the aliens, known as the Oankali. They’re basically gene-stealing aliens but (notionally) benevolent. They go from world to world swapping genes with the species they find, modifying both themselves and the others to adapt to whatever circumstances they find. They do this with humanity after the species is almost destroyed in a nuclear war. Humanity’s choice is either accept the Oankali trade or die as a species.
The whole Oankali frame of reference, from its concept of time to the basic value it places on life qua life, is different from humanity. They think in centuries, are obsessed with genes (which they can read like text), and have three sexes- male, female, and ooloi. The ooloi sort of get between the other two, stick them with pleasure-inducing tentacles, and then mix up the baby’s genes before implanting it in the female.
The aliens fix earth and put people back onto it, but at a price. People can now only breed if they do it the Oankali way, complete with ooloi help. As it turns out, ooloi sex is deeply fulfilling, but it also seems wrong and vaguely gay to most humans, so they refuse to go along with it, instead running off to the woods to lead unhappy, sterile lives. Those who stay with the Oankali settlements live complicated but fruitful and long (the Oankali can easily fix most human diseases) lives.
I get that this is meant to be a tale of adaptation. The first novel in the trilogy, “Dawn,” is told from the perspective of Lilith, the first human to agree to be part of the Oankali program. She’s deeply conflicted about the whole thing, but agrees with the Oankali that the continuation of life — and the adaptations that entail — are more important than species pride. The next, “Adulthood Rites,” is told from the perspective of one of her “construct” — part human, but remixed by an ooloi — children, and the third, “Imago,” from another of her kids, the first ooloi born of a human woman. This is about new forms of life, life dedicated to the perpetuation and adaptation not just of themselves but of life in general. There’s a reason these books are a touchstone of the queer (and generally more diverse) turn in scifi.
I don’t see the Oankali as all that benevolent; moreover, I’m not convinced Butler did, either. Part of this, I admit, resulted from confusion on my part. I thought the sterility of non-Oankali-aligned humans at the end of “Dawn” was a side effect of the war or something. But then I realized midway through “Adulthood Rites” that it wasn’t- that the Oankali sterilized the other humans. That’s kind of fucked up! Akin, Lilith’s child, convinces the Oankali to let non-sterilized humans settle Mars, but still.
The excuse is our self-destructiveness. We have the capital-c Contradiction of intelligence and hierarchical behavior that, the Oankali insist, will doom is every time until they breed it out of us. But the Oankali clearly have a hierarchy too, which begins with Oankali>Human! Sure, they say they love us — they think we’re spicy and dangerous, genetically interesting — but the British said the same stuff about the people of India. Moreover, internally, the Oankali hierarchy is much flatter and fairer than most of ours, but it exists- older and more talented people have more power. Someone gets chosen for important tasks. That’s hierarchy. It’s inescapable- just like the other two principles of organization, exchange and communalism, are inescapable. Everything has a little of all three, admit it or not.
Lilith, to her and Butler’s credit, admits it, admits the Oankali used her without her consent, even as she falls genuinely in love with an ooloi and adapts to her hybrid society. She’s deeply ambivalent. I think this is a story at least as much about race, integration, and imperialism as it is about gender. Octavia Butler was the only prominent black woman scifi writer in her time. She was widely feted, but she tackled the contradictions and confusion of pluralism in her own life.
And she never came up with easy answers, which is possibly her greatest strength as a writer. The Oankali are right- people are self-destructive. Just look at us! Though it’s worth nothing the Oankali endgame for Earth is the kind of thing that Elon Musk would come up with, and for which we’d all mock him. The narrow-minded prejudice that drives much of human resistance to the Oankali is wrong, but from many of the resisters, it’s about living according to their own choices, not just space-racism. It’s complicated- much like the Oankali-Human reproduction system, which involves five beings and could probably use a diagram. And like it, it holds out the promise of radically new forms of life, endless possibilities.
I don’t think the reading that identifies uncomplicatedly with the Oankali is wrong. I think Butler’s strength is that, aside from the wantonly destructive, she allows us to identify with multiple radically different perspectives. To me, there are no good choices in this series — I’m not crazy about bending the knee to those who pretend to know what’s good for me, no matter where they’re from or what they look like — but there’s an array of stunningly-imagined possibilities. ****’