Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler
Adulthood Rites (1988) is the second book in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy. It continues the story of Lilith in Dawn (1987), a human woman revived by the alien Oankali centuries after humanity has mostly destroyed itself with nuclear weapons. The Oankali offered humanity a second chance, but at a price — to merge its genes with the Oankali, who are ‘gene traders’ driven to continuously seek new species in the galaxy to combine their DNA with, transforming both sides in the process.
10 years after the events of Dawn, Lilith has given birth to a son named Akin, the first male ‘construct’ to be born to a human woman. There are number of distinct groups in this newly reborn Earth – Oankali who do not merge with humans and remain on their spaceship above the earth, Oankali sent down to the Earth to mate with humans in ‘trade villages,’ ‘construct’ children that share both human and Oankali genes, and human resisters who refuse to accept the Oankali offer and resent both Oankali and ‘traitor’ humans alike.
Akin is unique in that until now the Oankali have not allowed human males to be born to other humans, in order to avoid what they perceive as the aggressive nature of males. Of all the ‘constructs’ born to date, he is the most human. Nevertheless, his Oankali DNA imparts special traits like rapid mental development, healing ability, and sensory organs that allow him to communicate with both humans and Oankali at a more instinctual level. This is the normal mode of exchange for the Oankali, who have only adopted speech to be more accessible to humans. Akin is intended by the Oankali to be a bridge to understanding humans better and furthering the integration process.
However, when Akin is kidnapped by resisters, who have been made sterile by the Oankali and therefore yearn for the children they cannot have, he gets first-hand exposure to the human side that is opposed to the Oankalis’ plan. He learns all the faults of humanity, particularly what the Oankali call the ‘human contradiction,’ namely the inherent conflict between intelligence and hierarchical behavior, which inevitably (in the Oankalis’ minds) leads to conflict, aggression, suppression, and eventually self-destruction. This is why the Oankali do not believe that humans can be allowed to revive their society without any modification of this ‘flaw.’
Much of Adulthood Rites details just how ALIEN the Oankali really are, especially their genderless adolescence and metamorphosis into either male, female or Ooloi, the third gender that forms a triumvirate and serves as the gene manipulator to create children, a more hands-on approach than the random DNA recombination of humans. They communicate constantly by means of sensory tentacles, exchanging feelings, sensations, and thoughts between family units and larger groupings. Although they supposedly shun ‘hierarchical’ behavior, there is a clear hierarchy among the Oankali. The events that surround Akin, his Oankali siblings, the Ooloi in his ‘family’, and the humans in his life are complicated. More importantly, the biology and sexual practices of the Oankali are bizarre, unsettling, and downright creepy. Once again, Butler never shies away from making the reader uncomfortable by testing our comfort zones. I’m quite pleased by this — why read science fiction if not to be exposed to the truly alien, while also using this as a mirror to better understanding ourselves?
Just as in Dawn, humanity seems primitive, distrusting, and brutish in comparison to the Oankali. Again and again, resisters prove that they will quickly resort to violence when faced with difficult situations, attacking both Oankali and human collaborators. In return, the Oankali will subdue them but try to avoid killing other than as a last resort. After reading Dawn, my initial impression was that Butler really had a dim view of humanity and that the far more advanced and evolved Oankali were a benevolent race intent on fixing the flaws of humanity out of both biological imperative and a desire to improve their lot.
However, based on some thought-provoking comments to my review of Dawn and after reading excellent reviews of the series by Tor.com’s Erika Nelson, I reassessed what was going on in Butler’s story because I know full well that she never writes a story with a simple dichotomy of good/bad, benevolent/exploitive, etc. The themes she is most concerned with include colonialism, slavery, power, cultural imperialism, and all the moral conundrums they entail. If the Oankali are so benevolent, why do they only offer humanity the option of cooperating or being left to die off due to sterilization? They have already judged human civilization as unworthy of continued existence, and while they abhor outright violence, the Oankali essentially hold complete power over humans. Still, for a potential oppressor, they are far from being the worst. So there are no easy moral conclusions to be drawn, but plenty to think about.
Incidentally, I’m always cautious about reading into a text overly direct parallels with current social issues. There’s no question that Octavia Butler, a black female author in a field previously dominated by white men, has an interest in issues of race and cultural dominance. However, first and foremost she is a science fiction writer, and the XENOGENESIS series is a story about all of humanity, faced with its own self-destructive behavior, and given a choice to be saved but utterly transformed by an alien race. So I don’t think her story can be reduced to merely an allegory of colonialism, cultural imperialism, or racism in alien guise, even though these play an important role. If I had to choose one key theme for this series, it would be ‘transformation,’ with all the implications it has for both sides.
In both Dawn and Adulthood Rites, we gradually come to see through the experiences of Akin that both humans and Oankali are less than perfect, and their motivations are not completely altruistic. In the first book I felt that Butler strongly leaned towards the Oankali, and though we certainly learn a great deal more about their biology and social structure in Adulthood Rites, we also see that they treat humans with a certain contempt and lack of understanding. It is only through the eyes of Akin that the flaws and mistake of both sides become more apparent. I’ll have to read the final installment, Imago, to discover where this story will lead to, but any science fiction book that can explore such serious themes, without simplistic moralizing or becoming just a vehicle for political or social views, will get five stars from me whether the final outcome favors humanity, the Oankali, or a combination thereof.
Though I didn’t enjoy Akin’s story as much as Lilith’s, but I still find this series to be interesting and thought-provoking. The audio editions are terrific.