~by Octavia E. Butler
1990 Locus Award Nominee

I'm not sure why, but it took me over a year to get around to reading Imago, the final book in Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, after finishing the previous volume. I absolutely loved the first two books Dawn and Adulthood Rites; it's almost as if Butler wrote these novels with me in mind. The series is smart and sexy science fiction; it is possible to be read for pure entertainment value but more satisfactorily on a deeper level. The books were originally published separately between 1987, 1988, and 1989 respectively, but in 2000 they were released in a single volume called Lilith's Brood by Grand Central Publishing. I believe there was also an earlier omnibus called Xenogenesis, but if so it is out of print. The novels are relatively short so it makes sense that they would be collected together.

Jodahs was an accident--the first ooloi, a third sex neither male nor female, to be born from a Human mother. It wasn't until Jodahs entered metamorphosis that the mistake was caught. A Human-Oankali ooloi was not planned to appear for several more centuries at least. Jodahs is either a fluke or the unintentional start of a new species, but either way is considered to be a danger to itself and the living things around it. In order to minimize the impact it has on its environment and still maintain some degree of freedom, Jodahs and its family choose exile in the wilds of Earth. There Jodahs must learn to control its abilities of genetic manipulation, both voluntary and involuntary, prepare for its second and final metamorphosis, and prove that it is not a danger. It is a daunting task and even with the support of its family, Jodahs may fail.

Jodahs has a physical need, a hunger, to be with people beyond even the need the Oankali have. Its intense desire for acceptance and understanding make it a very sympathetic character despite its very alien mindset. The pain of being rejected simply for being what it is and what it never wanted to be is heartbreaking. The Oankali have no pretensions--they are not concerned with preserving Humankind, they are preoccupied with protecting Life. The ooloi are not the only thing that make the Oankali totally alien and Butler captures their strangeness marvelously. By telling the story through the eyes of Jodahs, who is different from anyone else, she is also able to explore the inherent strangeness and contradictions of Humans as well. And because the book is written in the first-person, Jodahs' observations and experiences with Humans, Oankali, and fellow constructs are acutely personal.

I had forgotten how amazing Butler's work is. Just like the first two books in Xenogenesis, I absolutely loved Imago--it was sensual, emotionally charged, erotic, and disconcerting. Although Imago is the third book of the trilogy, it actually stands alone quite well. The ending does seem to come a bit suddenly (Imago is the shortest book of the three) but it was a very satisfying conclusion to the series. Understandably, some people are going to be uncomfortable with these books--they do have quite a bit do with interspecies sex and challenging gender conventions, after all. The Oankali are the unarguably the species that holds the power. The Humans can't help that they are physically attracted to the Oankali even while being repulsed by them. This conflict makes them dangerous as the Humans fight against the sense they are betraying themselves and their species. Even I as a reader felt simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the Oankali. Xenogenesis is a compelling and challenging work, a fantastic series, and one that I would highly recommend.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

I love this series too, and for all the reasons you discuss. Plus a friend of mine who's a SF writer says Butler is a nice person and worth supporting!