I have just completed my fourth re-reading of Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler, also known as the Imago Trilogy or the Xenogenesis Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction, an eye-popping, queasy, deeply uncomfortable imagining of the issues that would arise if the human race were sexually absorbed by aliens.
The speculative framework for the books is that after an apocalyptic human war, when everyone on earth is dying or dead, a race of deep-space-traveling aliens comes along and offers a sort-of choice: Survive, while mating with us and breeding with us to create a third race, or you all die. The choice is framed through the personal struggles of the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, a young black woman from Los Angeles who is the first kidnapped/saved human the aliens wake up from suspended animation on their space ship, and who is tasked with convincing other humans to cooperate.
The beginning is the perfect waking-up-in-a-locked-room-mystery. Lilith awakens, with no idea where she is. “The walls were light-colored—white or gray perhaps. The bed was what it had always been: a solid platform that gave slightly to the touch and seemed to grow from the floor.”
She proves to be strong-minded and adaptable:
“When her body calmed and became reconciled to reanimation, she looked around. The room seemed dimly lit, though she had never Awakened to dimness before. She corrected her thinking. The room did not only seem dim, it was dim. At an earlier Awakening she had decided that reality was whatever happened, whatever she perceived. It had occurred to her—how many times?—that she might be insane or drugged, physically ill or injured. None of that mattered. It could not matter while she was confined this way, kept helpless, alone and ignorant.”
The aliens are terrifying and repulsive to humans, but find humans erotic and compelling. They are vastly more evolved, deeply condescending, and can manipulate human bodies on a molecular level to produce pleasure. They stick their tentacles into us, drug us, and produce spectacular, instantly addictive sensations. They live in three-person, three-gender groupings, have wild sex, and hope to add human partners to make five-person households, plus children. Anyone who won’t cooperate with them, they sterilize. Eventually everyone ends up back on a repaired earth, either as a collaborator, living and breeding with the aliens, or as a resister, sterile and angry. Lilith is a collaborator, but is tortured by it. She has a family and is attached to her alien partners, at the same time as she cannot forgive them for coercing her, and cannot forgive herself for betraying humanity, which will cease to exist as a separate race after the last resister dies.
Butler is famous for being a black, female science fiction writer who came to prominence in the ’80s, and is unusual in the genre for putting “soft” “women’s” issues like reproduction, sex and love at the heart of a hard sci-fi series. She’s asking difficult theoretical questions—What kind of sacrifice is more noble? How much violation should we take for a good cause?—but always embodying them and grounding them in fully-realized characters’ lives. It’s simply my favorite type of speculative book.
I was sad to notice on this reading, though, that as a speculative work about gender and sexuality written in the 1980s, the book has dated. Butler—in this work at least—has fairly intense gender essentialist views—men are biologically more violent and prone to wander, women are more domestic and care more about babies—and leaves same-sex pairings entirely out of her framework. In a book about extreme reproductive technologies and genetic mixing, nowhere does she question the idea that it takes a man and a woman to reproduce.
Another somewhat sad note from 2015, apparently the publisher has decided to tart up the cover to make the book look more lightweight and appealing to women, or something. Here’s the latest. I cannot imagine the author would be pleased.