Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Lilith's Brood

[This review contains spoilers]

Lilith's Brood, written by legendary author Octavia Butler, is a lengthy three-volume novel that I will try to sum up in a way that does it justice but that is not, like, a 200 page review.

The setting of Lilith's Brood is post-apocalyptic. Humans have killed each other off via bombings, with the exception of a few scattered pockets of human settlements remaining in the Earth's southern hemisphere. An alien race, called the Oankali, comes to Earth, collects the remaining humans, and imprisons them on their spaceship.

The Oankali, we learn, are a three-sexed species of genetic manipulators who travel the universe finding other forms of life with which they can "trade" genetic material, effectively creating new, theoretically better, blended species. Perceiving the inherent genetic "flaw" in humanity that is intelligence plus hierarchical behavior, the Oankali's master plan is to procreate with humans in order to create better, less-flawed human-Oankali hybrids. The Oankali are utterly convinced that humanity's flaw is destined to doom humanity. To induce humans to participate in this plan, the Oankali (a) take away the humans' ability to procreate with one another and (b) use their alien genetic engineering powers to make the Oankali chemically irresistible to humans.

Lilith, our protagonist, is the first human with which the Oankali reproduce. After this initial reproduction, the Oankali release small settlements of humans and human-Oankali hybrids back onto Earth. Lilith's Brood is the story of Lilith, her children, and other humans coming to terms with Lilith's "choice" to procreate with the alien race.

1) Colonialism

Preliminaries out of the way, I consider the best test of good science fiction to be how it relates to, twists around, and/or subverts real world themes. On this point, well, there's a lot going on in Lilith's Brood, especially related to race, (trans)gender, sex, assimilation, racial purity, and reproduction. Most striking to me, however, were the colonialist and rape culture narratives.

Specifically, we see a purportedly more moral, more advanced, and higher race of beings come to Earth with big plans for the bodies and land of who they see as an immoral, less advanced, and incredibly flawed humanity. Yet, while colonialism for indigenous populations often means rape, death, exploitation, and displacement in our real world, Butler managed to make the Oankali appear justified, almost heroic and noble, throughout much of the novel.

Because all of the humans are flawed and many are violent and tribal, humanity comes off looking very negative- indeed, in need of fixing. The human villages that resist human-Oankali procreation are male-dominated, with men using women as trade and sex objects, while hoarding weapons and using force to maintain power and control. They regularly attack the peaceful Oankali and other humans without provocation.

As a reader, one can be led to root for the gentle-seeming Oankali, given their non-violent ways, their extraordinary healing powers, and their alleged desire to make humanity better. After example after example of violent human behavior, the stubborn human resistance to human-alien mixing becomes incredibly frustrating. The resisters main objective in life seems to be to perpetuate a pure human race, devoid of Oankali inter-breeding. When this obsessive desire is juxtaposed with all of the "badness" of humanity, the reader is invited to ask why such human "purity" is desirable or even worth saving.

However, Butler also embedded hints that perhaps there was more to this Oankali plan than was let on. While Lilith's first son struggles with his identity as neither "a full human" nor "a full Oankali," something the children of immigrants and multi-racial people can likely relate to, he suggests that some humans should be permitted to reproduce with one another and perpetuate a race of pure humans. The Oankali agree, hesitantly, but only on the condition that the humans leave their homeland and inhabit Mars. The humans are not told why they have to leave Earth, but it is later revealed that the Oankali will occupy Earth for 3 centuries before leaving "behind a lump of black rock more like the moon than like [the] blue Earth" (531). No humans were told this. To tell the humans of Earth's fate, the Oankali believed, would be "cruel."

2) Rape Culture

Speaking of which, far from being an equal "give and take" relationship, it was clear from the get-go that the "trade" was to be solely on Oankali terms. Holding all social power, including the power to give and take away human procreation, Oankali were almost completely dominant over humans. Which was ironic, given their regular recital of the human flaw of hierarchical behavior. Whereas the Oankali seemed to make decisions as a collective mass, they gave humanity three options for living: (1) Displacement to Mars, which would mean a difficult life but the ability to procreate with other humans; (2) Resistance on Earth, in tribal low-tech communities without the ability to procreate with other humans; or (3) Life with the Oankali, with the ability to procreate Oankali-human constructs.

Examining the last option from a rape culture perspective is interesting. While most male and female humans were naturally repulsed by the Oankali, the third sex ooloi were master manipulators of human feeling. By "linking in" to a human with their tentacles, they could induce a previously-unwilling or hesitant human to become aroused, making the human capacity for true consent with the Oankali impossible, or at least questionable.

The Oankali did not solely coerce human women into sex and procreation, they coerced human men as well. Indeed, this coercion is later revealed to be a primary reason as to why male humans so strongly resist and are repulsed by the Oankali and procreation with them, as the following conversation demonstrates:

"Why do you hate me?" [asked the Oankali.]

"I know what you do- your kind. You take men as though they were women!" [the man said.]

"No! We-"

"Yes! Your kind and your Human whores are the cause of all our trouble! You treat all mankind as your woman!" (599)

Whereas human men did not object to treating women like sexual and procreative property, they strongly objected to being treated that way themselves. For, in the all-human settlements, women remained the sexual property of men. Faced with a loss of everything that mattered to them, many of the remaining men regressed to a caveman ideal where each man was entitled to one woman.

For instance, in the first human settlement on the Oankali spaceship, the society didn't take too kindly to one particular woman who refused to "pair off" with a man like all the others had. One of the other women demanded, "What the hell is she saving herself for? It's her duty to get together with someone" (176). When a man reached to grab the woman for himself, a different man who had apparently already claimed his stake on her chimed in, "What is she to you! Get your own damn woman!" (177).

Having observed this human male tendency to assert dominion over women, the Oankali purposefully created human-Oankali male constructs who would "be small and solitary," and women who would be large. The males "would not want to stay in one place and be a father to [their] children. [They] would not want anything to do with other males" (445). In the society of human-Oankali constructs, a complete family would consist of a female, an ooloi, and children.


The very name Lilith carries disparaging, demonic connotations throughout the book. Butler's use of the name seems to derive from the Lilith of Jewish mysticism, who was said to have married and had demonic children with the archangel Samael. Indeed, when Butler's Lilith and her progeny encounter human resistors on Earth, they regularly curse her name, viewing her children and the Oankali as somewhat demonic and impure.

The title Lilith's Brood also seems to play on a double-meaning of the word brood. As the first human woman to give birth to human-Oankali hybrids, the three volumes center around Lilith's "brood" of children. Yet, Lilith's demeanor after she mates with the Oankali is one of persistant brooding, being fully cognizant of her role as "traitor" to human purity yet also cognizant of the no-win situation the Oankali put her in. Fully aware of humanity's flaws, especially regarding male dominion over women, Lilith is perhaps every woman who realizes that even when humanity wins, women can still lose.

No comments: