Xenogenesis – Octavia Butler

January 30, 2009

Xenogenesis (also published as Lilith’s Brood) is a now out of print combination of three books published as one novel – Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago.  These three stories together tell of an alien race, the Oankali, who find Earth almost unlivable after humanity has attempted to destroy itself with another world war, and of how the Oankali interact with the few humans still alive.  It is told over several generations by different members of a single family, starting with Lilith Iyapo.

Lilith wakes up in an isolation cell with no memory of how she got there and no idea who is holding her captive.  Her captors talk to her as disembodied voices from above, asking her questions, testing her.  Eventually they show themselves and she realizes they are alien.  She is told that over 250 years have passed, and that she has spent much of that time in suspended animation, and has in fact only aged 2 years.  The Oankali have used that time to repair the Earth, making it livable again.  Lilith is told that she has been chosen to prepare other humans to return to Earth and make new homes there alongside the Oankali.  But there is a price for this gift.  Humans are expected to combine with the Oankali in what they call ‘the trade’, an exchange of genetic information that will make the next generation human-Oankali hybrids.  No pure humans will be permitted.  Essentially the human race will be destroyed in one generation.

This is an extremely nuanced story, and a thoughtful exploration of a people/culture struggling to survive.  Both the races are well developed, as are individual characters, allowing the reader to see multiple perspectives on the same dilemma.  Xenogenesis doesn’t shy away from the dark side of human nature and the problems it causes, but it shows our good side as well.  It is an excellent story, and features one of the few strong black female characters in sci fi.  I will certainly be reading more by Ms. Butler.

I was unable to locate a cover shot for this book, so if anyone has it please post.