Some people call it the Xenogenesis series. Others Lilith’s Brood. I call it amazing. This is the series of novels made up of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago by African American sci-fi author Octavia Butler. If you read one science fiction trilogy in your lifetime let it be this one, Asimov’s Foundation series notwithstanding.
Without giving any spoilers away here’s why you should read it. It’s a science fiction novel written by a woman of color, largely about people of color interacting with a species that is truly alien, and the whole time you feel just a little uncomfortable. Read it, read it now.
Not convinced? Here’s a deeper analysis riddled with ******SPOILERS*****of every kind.
The first book centers on Lilith Iyapo, an African American woman from Los Angeles who has survived an apocalypse brought about by a world war and the use of nuclear weapons. Most of the humans who survived were people of color, as the global south was never involved in the fighting, they were just collateral damage. After the war, this is no longer the white man’s world. We soon find out it’s no longer humanity’s world at all.
As the first book progresses we discover that Lilith and other survivors have been rescued by the Oankali and are now on an Oankali “ship.” The condition of the rescue, as it turns out, is that humanity must “trade” genetic material with the Oankali. They are particularly interested in our “ability” to have cancer. This “trade” is conducted by breeding the Oankali and humans together.
Besides the shift away from white males, what really grabs me about this series was how truly alien the Oankali are. So often science fiction’s imagination does not go very far. If you get aliens, they’re alarmingly humanoid. Most science fiction is really just human geopolitics in space. This book, however, had to be science fiction. Space travel and aliens don’t just give it an extra flair, they are central to the plot. The Oankali, are in no way humanoid, or even mammalian, reptilian, or insectoid. They are only bipedal because they realized that if they wanted to deal comfortably with humans they would have to fashion themselves as bipeds. Likewise, they only speak an aural language for humanity’s benefits.
They do not have eyes, ears, or noses. Instead they have sensory tentacles all over their body that do the job of all our sensory organs at once. To communicate, they can simply touch their tentacles together and share directly. The oankali who haven’t bred or adapted themselves at all to trade with humans take on many forms. In the second book, Butler introduces us to Oankali that are shaped more like caterpillars and who cannot communicate aurally. It is eventually revealed that even the Oankali’s ships, which we know from the first book are living creatures, are in their own way also a breed of Oankali. We are far from “humans with funny foreheads” in this imagining of aliens.
The Oankali are a species entirely motivated by genetics and biology. Their sensory tentacles can do more than just see, hear, taste, smell and touch the way humans do. They can “taste” at a genetic level. They can explore a single cell, a single genetic sequence. They understand their universe in totally biological terms. It’s hard to speak of Oankali culture. Everything they do seems to be a very efficient manifestation of a biological need. For example, humans might conceive of their need for discovery in religious or moralizing terms. We might eat for social or ritual reasons. The Oankali, perhaps even more interested in discovery and food, conceive of it in entirely genetic terms. They need to constantly add variety to their genepool through exploring, mating, tasting, and eating.
The Oankali are a three sex species. There are males and females, and the ooloi. The male and female do not touch during sex, in fact they don’t like to touch each other at all. Instead the male and female both link into their Ooloi who manufactures pleasure as “it” mixes their genetic material. All Oankali can “taste” down to the genetic level, however only the ooloi are adept at it, able not only to sense genetic properties but to manipulate them. This is why they are vital to Oankali mating, and also why they are the healers and creators of the species.
All of this sensing, and healing, and mating becomes intriguingly problematic once humans are introduced into the mix. The ooloi, frightening looking as they are, also produce an incredibly compelling pheromone, irresistible to Oankali and human. If an ooloi heals you for any reason, they become even more attractive. The male or female body grows to not just want an ooloi, but to need the one it is matched with. You become attached the ooloi at a physical level.
Also, remember, that Oankali primarily communicating through sense, not through verbiage. What this results in is a disregard for verbal consent. Repeatedly, Butler writes situations where an Ooloi essentially propositions a human and the human says “no!” However, because Oankali are only concerned with biological realities and not verbal realities, they pleasure the humans anyways. They are unconcerned with what the human says it wants, only with what they sense the human wants as they read the individual’s body.
In Oankali groups, this situation does not come up. Because Oankali communicate with their sense tentacles they cannot lie, they can at most only withhold information. Consent, as we imagine it, is not an issue. There’s no possibility of ambiguity. With humans though, it’s different. Humans cannot directly read each other’s bodies, therefore a verbal “no” must mean “no.” There are men who have it ingrained in their heads that they know when “the lips say no but the body says yes,” but they don’t. However, When human and Oankali sex-ways collide, it makes for a very challenging experience for those of us reading the book. The Ooloi really do know when the lips say no but they body says yes. The situation closely resembles rape. I’m not convinced it is so different from rape. It make for a difficult reading experience at times.
The Oankali also make having sex with them necessary not just because of their irresistible scent, but because they made all humans infertile. If a human wants to procreate it has to be done through Oankali channels that involves one ooloi, a male human, a male Oankali, a female human, and a female Oankali.
The humans who do not want to breed with the Oankali, called “resisters,” are doomed to live childless lives. The Oankali did not save the human race. The Oankali saved human individuals. After several generations of breeding there will be no more humans, only a new breed of Oankali. Individuals are not assimilated, but the species is.
The Oankali observe a fatal evolutionary flaw in humanity: humans developed into an incredibly intelligent species without ever abandoning their hierarchical nature. They see humans as a species damned to repeated history of individuals trying to violently dominate other humans.
As the book plays out and the resisters just start killing each other, the reader can’t help by sympathize with the Oankali cause. Despite all the quasi alien-rape, and the planned eugenic genocide, they are the good guys of this series.
This book has to be the most complex example of Afrofuturism there is. People of color are the only survivors of an earth ruined by the white ruling class, but they still do not get to inherit the earth. The earth is now ruled by an aliening colonizing force, but a colonizing force both the humans in the story and the humans reading the story are gently seduced into complying with, then agreeing with, and even loving. It’s unsettling. You do not emerge from reading this series the same as you were.
 Lilith was also Adam’s first wife, but it didn’t work out and she ended up flying around the world as a demon. That adds an intriguing shade to the story, but isn’t really central at all.
 For my thoughts on our need to be more imaginative towards “intelligent life” see: https://everythingisdianetics.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/this-dwarf-planet-life-thoughts-on-the-mysterious-lights-on-ceres-in-three-acts/