20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Sometimes chilling, always engrossing,
This review is from: Lilith's Brood (Paperback)
Now HERE's the kind of book (I bought it in this trilogy omnibus binding as well) you sit down to read a couple chapters, maybe because a friend has recommended Butler, maybe because of a book review or because her tragic death got her written up in your local paper-- it got recommended to me by a brilliant professor whose class I foolishly didn't get around to taking -- and find yourself feverishly turning pages at 5 a.m., desperately hoping the sun stays down long enough for you to get to the end of the second, or in my case third, book.
And now that we're past that tortured sentence, some ground rules. No, if you've never read science fiction before, it's not like what you THINK science fiction is like: check out Ursula LeGuin, Gene Wolfe, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree Jr., Marge Piercy, or the many other SF writers who use the genre as a literature for deep exploration into what it is to be human and what it is NOT to be human. If you're trapped in the genre ghetto and fear (as I once did, shamefully, long after I had a million reasons to know better) that there's something cheesy or wishy-washy about Butler, what with her other books about new religions and African myths and whatnot, all I have to say is GET OVER IT, because her speculative thinking cuts you like a knife and leaves you shivering, and because unlike most SF authors and most mainstream authors, she has an overwhelming sense of the realities of everyday people building relationships (and breaking them) in adversity. The conflicts between people are very real, no one is motivated just by a single issue, and a lot of things come down to slightly unpleasant compromise.
Now, to Butler's work, and to the novels at hand. Her books almost always have an intense fascination with the dynamics of power in ordinary relationships, but because this is SF, those "ordinary relationships" become something very strange indeed. Can love exist not just between unequals, but in an inequality that is never going away or even shifting into the background for an instant? What power do the dominated have over those who control or coerce them? What happens when someone needs you more than you need them? Can assimilation ever be fair? Are our choices in these areas even our own? Now, the kicker is this: whatever grotesque-seeming (yet strangely appealing) relationship exists in a Butler book, you suddenly realize that _every_ relationship, no matter how forcefully you try to make it equal, has at least a hint of these issues unacknowledged, bubbling beneath the surface. Butler simply uses every trick of SF to expand them to fill your whole field of view, so you CANNOT turn away. And for that she's a great thinker, and a visionary, and a great writer.
Finally, to the books themselves, which are still my favorite Butler and the epitome of all I've just talked about:
DAWN introduces the Oankali, a three-sexed race of beings that finds the burning husk of planet Earth (nuclear war) and decides to bring us back to life. We see this all through the eyes of Lilith Ayapo, a woman remade by them and who, of any humans, does the most to work with the Oankali. She learns that the Oankali have decided we are too destructive for our intelligence, with a kind of behavioral suicide built into our genes; the only solution is to tack on some Oankali genes and produce a race different enough to survive. (Over the series, we learn that the resultant species is far more Oankali than humans ever expected, and that actually the Oankali have an overpowering lust -- and I mean that literally, because this one of the only books ever to treat alien, and alien-human, sexuality in any way other than laughable -- to merge with every species they meet. But these are slow revelations.)
The novel follows Lilith as she serves as a kind of ambassador to the rest of the humans, and it follows her alternate interest and disgust as the level of control the Oankali intend have over us becomes ever more apparent, and how much control they already have used on Lilith to predispose her to get with the program.
Now most series like this would lead to a rebellion, and while there IS a rebellion, the work is never from their point of view. The pure humans are genetic dead-ends, left sterile by the Oankali but given long life to ease the transition. The other two novels follow children of the merging -- the first male born, and then the first ooloi, the third sex -- letting us see both their own struggles of self-definition in a divided world, and guiding us through an ever-more Oankali-shaped Earth, the only shape that can survive. Our human dilemmas give way to Oankali dilemmas, both practical ones and the moral problems of dealing with us humanely and honestly. Again, this is a common Butler theme: we as humans cannot survive long-term as we are, and what COULD survive might frighten us even more than just giving up. But those who do will have their own wants and needs, and they will have a whole universe in which to satisfy them. Unnerving, yes. But also entrancing, seductive, and a powerful look at the price of assimilation and the terms of survival.