Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler (Lilith's Brood: Book 2)

I can’t exactly say I was “looking forward” to reading the second Lilith’s Brood book. Dawn had been compelling, rich and unique, and also at times incredibly uncomfortable, disturbing and full of hard questions, and so it’s sequel wasn’t the sort of thing you exactly “look forward” to. It was however something I knew I “had” to read, and something I knew which would be similarly deep, complex and liable to make me think, feel, and perhaps be a little disturbed at times as well, which is of course a good thing, since there’s nothing worse than getting bogged down in the swamps of sameness and not having ones perceptions tweaked occasionally. Plus of course, Butler’s cool immediate style and ability to just plain grab my attention meant that I simply wanted to see what happened next.

Twenty six years have passed since Lilith Lyapo was awakened by the alien Oankali following humanity’s destructive nuclear war. Lilith, and some of the humans are fulfilling the Oankali’s plan of creating a new hybrid human/Oankali species, forming families which contain both human women and Oankali mated triads to produce both human born and Oankali construct children. Meanwhile however, those human “resisters” who are not willing to follow the Oankali’s plan have formed their own fully human communities and are free to live as they wish, accept for the fact that they have all been genetically sterilised and cannot reproduce. So far, the Oankali have not created any human born male children due to the implicit contradiction they perceive in humanity, a contradiction supposedly most heavily born out in males, the conflict between intelligence, and hierarchical tendencies. Akin however is their first attempt at a male child, the son of Lilith produced using genetic material from Lilith’s long dead mate Joseph, Akin possesses both human and Oankali characteristics, and thus the Oankali hope will be a way of preserving more of the essence of humanity in the new species. As Akin however comes to terms with the world around him, the complex genetic and physical communications from his Oankali siblings, and some unexpected encounters (both good and bad), with fully human resisters, Akin begins to question the Oankali’s assumptions about his mother’s species and their ultimate plans, both for Earth and for human kind.

Even though Butler takes the basic trope of a coming of age story, her execution, and the book’s central character are so profoundly different, that the book’s title is almost deliberately misleading. Whilst the book does indeed begin with Akin’s birth and childhood experience and follows him until he matures as an adult, Akin follows his Oankali heritage having a fully cognisant brain an infant’s body. This not only gives us a fascinating view of the world Akin grows up in, his experiences of physical helplessness and family connection, but also throws us directly into the world of Akin’s mingled human and Oankali senses. Whilst Akin looks fully human, his tongue is able to act as an Oankali sensory tentacle, able to pick up genetic and biological information about anyone or anything he interacts with, as well as pass data and communicate on a biochemical level. Whilst on the one hand I did find some of the straight forward descriptions Butler gives of Akin examining someone’s genes or playing with their nervous system a little cold, at the same time this is possibly deliberate, since one thing we know about the Oankali is that their primary concern is genetic information, and even their emotional attachments are definitely biological first.

Yet, Butler blends this perspective with Akin’s very human exploration and curiosity about the world around him, indeed the way that he both recognises that Lilith remains damaged by her experiences with the Oankali, and yet is still in every important sense his mother is a beautiful, and slightly disturbing insight.

A major part of the plot concerns the conflict between the Oankali, those humans like Lilith who go along with their plans, and the childless human resisters. It is clear, as I noticed in Dawn, that the Oankali are not simply benign aliens bent on uplifting a backward human species, but have their own blindness and moral shortcomings. Where in the first book, through Lilith’s perspective we clearly saw the Oankali’s less pleasant aspects, such as the induced mating which skirted the edge of rape, the blatant manipulation, and the fact that all humans are at this point essentially powerless partners in the Oankali’s ultimate plan. However, here the worst aspects of the human perspective, or at least the resistor perspective were so in your face awful that it was a little difficult to maintain sympathy for them.

The resisters are represented as a steadily decaying society formed of small communities allowed to live freely as they want with no Oankali interference, accept for not having children. Unfortunately, this also means that most of what both we, and Akin see of the resisters is the worst sort of barbarism. A society of warring factions and gangs of bandit raiders, where in many places women have reverted to the status of property, either captured in raids or bargained as trade commodities. Of course, Butler is too nuanced a writer to have this barbarism be total, indeed I like the fact that just at the start of the book when Akin is being warned off resister human males, Lilith seems to be heading for a confrontation with a typically threatening robber who turns out to be nothing of the sort, and of course there are several decent male characters including Akin himself, as well as a couple of very unpleasant women. However, whilst it is clear that the chauvinist, violent society isn’t universal, it is at least fairly extensive, which seems odd given that this society is made up of a comparatively average bunch of people from around the world whom the Oankali saved from the war. There unfortunately did seem to be an implication here, stated out right by the Oankali directly that human males were genetically determined to be destructive, indeed it’s significant that there are few human males among those who cooperate with the Oankali, and even Oankali males are seen as loners, rather than part of the family. Then again of course Butler also gives us a brief perspective of an Oankali male who is regretting the lack of human males due to need of human families to have fathers, though sadly we don’t get as much of this view. Of course, the Oankali are definitely far from right about everything, and Akin does run into at least two very respectable father figures throughout the book, though the proportion of scummy men is sadly rather high, and does to an extent justify, rather than challenge the Oankali’s misandry.

Whilst in comparison to the human view, the Oankali we see are relatively peaceful, I did like the fact that again Butler showed nuances which will become apparent if you think about them, albeit the Oankali’s flaws are painted in pastels rather than primary colours. Early in the book, we see Nikanj, Lilith’s Ooloi mate quite literally order a man it gained an infatuation with whilst that man was a little boy of eight, to mate with it, whilst later, an Oankali experiment concerning Akin robs him of one of the most profound parts of Oankali family life.

Perhaps the worst aspects though, are the hints we get at the Oankali’s final plan for Earth which go beyond even their paternalistic treatment of humanity, indeed an early section in which Lilith tells Akin “Oankali embrace difference whilst humans fear it,” was I think intended as deeply ironic, since in actual fact it seems the Oankali attitude to anything different from themselves is to alter it sufficiently to make it acceptable and useful to them, then casually discard anything they can’t use.

Perhaps another reason the Oankali passages of the book are a little too subtle in comparison to the primitive survival world of the humans, is that unfortunately many of them occur at the book’s rather slower paced middle section in which Akin returns to the Oankali ship. Since Butler rarely talks about emotions like love and friendship; especially with the Oankali, Akin often felt more like an analytical test subject than a character. This unfortunately meant that a section in which Akin feels troubled due to the lack of bonding with one of his Oankali siblings fell rather flatter than it might’ve done, particularly since Akin’s sibling is not a strong enough character for us to really sympathise with them. Indeed, possibly intentionally, very few of the Oankali we meet here have distinct personalities or even much motivation beyond their race’s general imperative and the consensus they reach to achieve it, though I suspect this was partly deliberate on Butler’s part, even if it does make the Oankali characters, and Akin’s struggles with them harder to relate to, after all, one slightly understated theme in the book is the Oankali’s lack of imagination, even going as far as their dislike for music and stories that are untrue.

Then again, some of this might have been Butler’s writing, since while we’re told that Akin as a young man did have relationships with human women, most of these are described in fairly cold, casual terms with women hoping Akin might have viable sperm, and even the closest thing Lilith has to an actual loving relationship is more a matter of pleasant expediency. Indeed, this unfortunately is one aspect in which Butler’s writing falls slightly shorter of some other survival or apocalypse fiction, where human connections, rather than simply biological ones are shown in sharp relief.

That being said, the section on the ship does feature the most beautiful lessons in the book, and it is a wonderful irony that it is one of the Oankali Akjai, an Oankali who has never been to Earth or interacted with humanity, whose very world and sensory experience is alien to Akin, who is most sympathetic to the resisters plight, and most receptive to the plans Akin has for helping them. Of course, the resister’s negativity towards the Oankali is understandable, especially given the coerced (if gentle), Oankali mating and the Oankali on only allowing hybrid children, something which at least some of the more pleasant resister characters allude to, although even here some of their mistrust for the Oankali is borne out in some truly horrific actions.

Unfortunately, one major weakness is the fact that since the resisters are portrayed so negatively, it’s slightly hard to understand why Akin wants to help them at all. Indeed, whilst we meet some sympathetic resister characters (sadly few of them men), it almost seems that Akin would be better persuading the resisters to stop resisting, since whilst the Oankali are far from perfect, what the resisters have on their own is so much worse. I suspect myself, living in comfort and safety would way rather higher on many people’s lists of priorities, even accepting the Oankali’s coercive practices.

Given how bad most of the resisters are, it also appears that the Oankali’s contention that humanity is genetically predetermined to destroy itself seems pretty justified. Indeed, this is perhaps the one occasion when Butler’s own tendency to always show and never tell (at least with humans), is acting against her, since none of the resisters, even those who are sympathetic characters actually talks to Akin on more than a surface level, and given Akin’s interest in the resisters, a more in depth account from one of the resisters themselves, explaining the nature of their mistrust of the Oankali and their misgivings about a blended species might have helped here.

I was also slightly disappointed that not only does Butler feature no gay characters, but nobody seemed simply to have decided not to have children. Of course, I freely admit this might show my own bias, given that my lady and I are quite content with each other and don't feel the need to reproduce, and of course whether we’d still feel the same way were we not living on a stupidly overcrowded planet I’m not sure.

All that being said, the book still had its pace and its compelling factors, and characters I found myself growing close to, especially those we saw from the first book, characters whose fates I’m still interested in.

The book’s ending was very much a questionable one which left the ultimate fate of the resisters rather uncertain, which of course makes the prospect of reading the final book in the trilogy all the more enticing.

In general, Adulthood Rites was exactly what I expected, thought provoking, dark and full of alien complexity. Unfortunately, occasional fits of coldness in style, a slightly slowed down middle section and a rather overblown negativity about humanity in general and males in particular made this not quite as much of an awesome experience as Dawn, still, Earth under the Oankali is definitely a fascinating place, and one I look forward to exploring further in the conclusion.

9/10 How many tentacles must one man have, before you can call him a man

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