In the third book of her Xenogenesis series, Octavia Butler gives us the alien’s perspective. It makes the Oankali marginally less creepy, but only a tiny bit. Butler excels at creating truly alien life forms, with wildly different forms of reproduction.
The Oankali having stinging cells and tentacles, giving them some resemblance to jellyfish (Cniderians) in our world, but they are upright walking, hand-and-arm-possessing, intelligent life forms. And, it turns out, they have a three stage metamorphosis like Earth’s insects do. This installment follows that mysterious third sex, the Ooloi, as one of Lilith’s children matures sexually into the adult form (hence the title, Imago).
In the first book, the Oankali have rescued the small remainder of humanity from a disaster of their own creation and have begun combining the two species. That’s what the Ooankali do and they consider it their payment for their rescue services, but that’s not what it looks like or feels like to humans. Lilith gradually becomes convinced that she won’t be allowed to live as human and reluctantly gets involved with the aliens, although it is against her true wishes.
In the second book, we follow Lilith’s construct child, Akin, who actually has five parents and who understands the relationship between the two species better than either the humans or the Oankali. He sees the basic incompatibility between the two species but also how they can also become compatible. Seemingly a paradox, which Akin reveals as a prejudice of the Oankali against humanity—we’ve always known that humans are prejudiced against the aliens.
This third installment reveals just how much the Oankali need and long for relationships with humans. To this point, they have seemed very unemotional, almost clinical, in their desire to revitalize their own DNA through incorporation of the human genome. Jodahs, who is metamorphosing into one of the mysterious Ooloi, shows us the depth of feeling, the intense sexual need, and indeed the pain of separation that we have been missing so far in the story.
Despite gaining understanding, the whole sexual system of the Oankali feels deeply creepy. The human male and female in the sexual constellation experience repulsion when they touch one another directly, but when joined by an Ooloi, experience intense sexual pleasure. Pheromones by the Ooloi make the situation addictive—being apart from one’s group becomes torment.
Butler is skillful in her refusal to “pick a side.” She provides logical reasons for the aliens’ behaviour and points out both the logical and totally illogical responses of humanity. She explores co-operation, coercion, limited choice, and unequal power without making it obvious which species she favours.
In some ways, this series makes me think of Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in that humanity is being absorbed into a genetic continuum, but likely won’t survive on its own ever again. Do we mourn the loss or celebrate what survives?
Book 260 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.