Literature

REVIEW: Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy

“They own themselves. They don’t belong to you.”

Title: Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Publication: 1987-89
Rating: 3/5 stars (for the whole series)
CW/TW: violence, child abuse, murder, rape


Between the months of August and October, Vegan Book Club, an online community that gathers on Goodreads (and sometimes Instagram) to discuss, well, vegan books (duh), had been reading the Xenogenesis trilogy (sometimes combined and called Lilith’s Brood by science-fiction author Octavie E. Butler.

Xenogenesis takes place after the Earth and its inhabitants were just about destroyed by themselves. Luckily (or unluckily), they were saved by an alien race, the Oankali. The Oankali are the reason why this series was selected: this group of aliens refuses to use animals for food and will not allow the humans to use them either. Instead, the Oankali create meat- and cheese-like dishes for humans…out of plants.

It’s almost like Octavia E. Butler predicted things like Violife cheese and Sweet Earth’s Benevolent Bacon.

Book 1: Dawn

In Dawn, we are first introduced from Lilith. Lilith is strong and has something the aliens want: her genetic defect, cancer. What would be deadly for our heroine is a savior for the Oankali, but they want her for more than just that. The aliens trust Lilith to wake more humans up to teach and prepare them for life on Earth. Lilith, however, is hesitant. After all, the Oankali want to create half-humans, half-Oankali…and aren’t giving the humans much of a choice in the matter. 

As a result, a large issue that comes up in this novel (and eventually the whole series) is the issue of consent. The Oankali constantly claim to know what’s best for the humans, so they frequently ignore Lilith and the other humans’ expressed consent. This leads to Lilith feeling as if she is the aliens’ animal or pet. However, the reality is they treat actual animals much differently. As much as they take from humans, they will not take anything from animals. Because of this, I struggled with my thoughts on the Oankali: I wanted to like them because of their veganism/vegetarianism, but with their treatment of humans, I found them to be much too hypocritical.

Maybe this had to do with the point-of-view. What we know about the Oankali and humans comes from Lilith. Though it isn’t a first-person narrative exactly, everything happens through her eyes, which can be limiting. Perhaps she hears and views things differently from what they are? It’s hard to tell (well, until you read the books that aren’t from her perspective).

Overall, Dawn intrigued me, which was surprising because I don’t read science fiction ever. I liked Lilith as a character and appreciated that she wanted to help the other humans, instead of necessarily forcing them to go along with the Oankali. I found her to be a respectable character, while the Oankali frequently repulsed me. 

Book 2: Adulthood Rites

Adulthood Rites takes place quite a while after Dawn. Lilith has had several children with her Oankali and ooloi mates, but one is of particular interest. Akin looks more human than his siblings, which is especially attractive to Tino, the son of resistors in nearby Phoenix. Without a living human father, Akin finds comfort in Tino, and the two become like father and son. Unfortunately, Akin gets kidnapped by violent resistors and eventually taken by the people of Phoenix, some of which were previously friends with Lilith.

While living in Phoenix, Akin, who had previously only had any real understanding of the Oankali, now gains insight into his human side and he quickly learns that maybe the Oankali aren’t always right. This is what I found myself most interested in, as opposed to Akin’s life Chkahichdahk, where he learned more about his Oankali side. I felt as if his Oankali family was more interested in teaching him why the humans are bad, will destroy themselves again, and continue to need to be “saved” by the aliens. This mindset has been frustrating throughout the series.

With Adulthood Rites, I struggled with sympathy. I do not agree with the Oankali’s actions: I think humans should be allowed to live their lives how they want, reproduce how they want. But at the same time, the humans in the novel were cruel. They condemn and kill their own kind and are willing to cause harm to children just because they don’t look like them. Both sides have serious flaws. I understand why both groups do what they do, but it’s hard to agree 100% with either of them.

Book 3: Imago

Unfortunately, Imago doesn’t pick up right after Adulthood Rites either. More years have passed, which means more children have been born to both Lilith and Ahajas. One of these children is Jodahs. At 29, Jodahs is expected to be male but has yet to experience metamorphosis. This isn’t necessarily a problem – constructs can experience it in their 30s – but Jodahs and the family do start to notice something wrong, leading Jodahs to go to Nikanj, the ooloi of the family. Nikanj realizes the mistake it made: through its carelessness, it allowed Jodahs to become an ooloi, something that has never happened to one of the construct children. This means that, like Nikanj, Jodahs is sex-less. 

Unfortunately, throughout the novel, we still see humans’ consent being blatantly ignored or not even asked for. And you know what? I’ll be completely honest: I couldn’t finish it. It became way too much for me. The following are some quotes that really bothered me:

  • “[I]n only a little time, they will be more willing to give up eating than give you up.” – Nikanj, discussing the humans’ dependency on the ooloi
  • “They don’t always have to know what we’re doing.” – Nikanj, again, on withholding information from the humans and manipulating their bodies without their consent
  • “Tomas wanted desperately to withdraw from me and from Aaor. I put him to sleep and kept him with me. His presence would help Aaor whether he was conscious or not.” – Jodahs essentially drugging Tomas so he will do what Jodahs wants him to, regardless of whether or not Tomas wants to

I found these quotes incredibly appalling. Imago showed me what goes on inside the Oankali and ooloi’s minds…and I didn’t like it one bit. It took away any sympathy I may have had for the aliens in the previous books. Maybe that’s the point. I don’t know. But I was largely disturbed. 

The Trilogy as a Whole

Dawn was incredibly strong, but I believe each book in the series got weaker and weaker. Maybe I’d just had my fill of science fiction and ignoring consent. 

Here’s the one thing I agree with in the series though: “That was then! They don’t have to kill animals and eat them now!” Aaor, Jodahs’s sibling, says this in Imago when it realizes the humans still hunt and consume animals, despite there being plenty of other options available to them.

Overall, I think it was a good choice for Vegan Book Club but maybe not the best choice for me.  Still, I have nothing but respect for Octavia E. Butler and her contributions to science fiction. 


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