Imago by Octavia Butler (Lilith's Brood: Book 3)

5/10 We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own, your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile

I always expected the third in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy to be a difficult book, as the first two were, which is why I took such a long time between Adulthood Rights and Imago. I did not expect Imago to leave me feeling as deeply disturbed as it has done, or that my reaction to the book would be this visceral.

In some ways, you could say I have been hoisted on my own petard, since I have admitted in the past my fondness for alien aliens and alternative perspectives, and to get a perspective so alternative that it feels uncomfortable to the point of disgust might just be a reflection of my own narrowness of perception. However, hopefully I can explain the reasons why I feel as I do, and why this is likely one of the few negative reviews of the book you will find.

Jodahs expects to be male. Like all of Lilith’s construct children, both those born to her and those born of Oankali, Jodahs has been created of genetic material from two humans, and two Oankali parents by Nikanj, Lilith’s Ooloi mate. As the time of metamorphosis approaches however, Jodahs  realises something is wrong. Drawn more to Nikanj than either of its male parents, and rapidly learning to perceive and taste the genetic heritage of those around it, Jodahs realises that it is becoming Ooloi. Through Nikanj’s subconscious longing for a same sex child, Jodahs will become the first human born construct Ooloi, neither male nor female, but the Oankali’s third gender, able to process perceive and store genetic material from other life forms, change its body at will, and mate with both male and female pairs of humans and Oankali. Ooloi however possess great power, and if Jodahs follows its human predilection for self-destructive violence, or indeed fails to master its own genetic abilities, it could kill with a touch, or accidently create deadly diseases. For this reason some Oankali wish to return Jodahs to the orbiting ship where it could be controlled and confined. Jodahs however, like all Ooloi wants to explore the life around it. Especially fascinating are the humans, and even though most of the human inhabitants of earth are still resistors, violent savage and dangerous (particularly the males), Jodahs knows that it will only be complete if it can find a pair of humans to mate with. Yet Jodahs human birth gives it abilities and advantages which no Oankali has ever had before, abilities which perhaps might mean an end to human resistance and the creation of a new hybrid Oankali/human species who will eventually continue their journey through the stars.

Written entirely in first person, one thing I cannot fault in Butler’s writing here is the perspective, the sense of the world Jodahs lives in or how it perceives it. Not only the colourful Amazon rainforests of its home, but the scent and touch of other life and other people are a massive part of the narrative and give a real sense of place. We know in detail of Jodahs “hunger” for mates, its fascination with new life, or the ways that its sensory tentacles interact with the world around it. There were occasions, as in Adulthood Rights, especially when describing the way Jodahs directly perceives another’s body, stimulates cell growth or plays with a human nervous system, that this perspective could feel somewhat cold and clinical, though again, since highly direct perception of biology is such a major part of Oankali; and particularly Ooloi experience, this was likely deliberate on Butler’s part. Likewise, despite the book dumping a lot of information and dealing with some pretty complex ideas, the plot moved surprisingly quickly and the action never dragged, a doubly impressive feat given how distasteful I found other aspects of the story.

With the whole book being first person, it is also only through information Jodahs gets at second hand that we learn a little of the general situation across the world. The Mars colony which Akin had proposed in the previous book for humans who wanted a life free of the Oankali has now been setup, and many humans have already left, however the forest is still full of human resistors who are as dangerous and primitive as ever, though the Oankali are slowly dealing with the resistors, giving them the choice between going to Mars, mating with Oankali, or (for the most violent), simply drugging them into a permanent coma and keeping them on the ship as stores of genetic material.

This brings me on to the first issue with the book. In the two prior volumes, it was fairly clear that the Oankali were not intended to be seen simply as the benevolent saviours of humanity. From their plan to strip mine the earth (including the destruction of all of its non human species), to the Ooloi forced mating which made a mockery of the idea of sexual consent; it was pretty clear that Butler was simply presenting a complex situation, not making moral judgements on one side or another.

Even in Adulthood Rights, when most of the resistors were shown to be chauvinistic and violent, Butler was clever enough to question things a little and present us with some decent resistors, and even a decent male or two; not the least Akin with his near saint like efforts to plead the resistor case.

Here, I was hoping that perhaps a human Ooloi would undercut the position a little further, maybe show the Oankali that humanity and individuality had more to offer than some interesting genes to play with, or even counteract the Oankali’s belief that humanity was cursed with a self-destructive conflict between hierarchical tendencies and intelligence.

Unfortunately, I was sadly disappointed. All the resistors we meet are if anything more hateful and barbaric than before. Whether this is because the more civilized humans have already left for Mars, or whether it is further evidence of humanity’s intrinsically flawed nature I don’t know. Either way, whatever issues there might be with the Oankali, the consensus is that humans are always much worse.

To add to this, humanity on the whole might be bad, but male humans are simply thugs, with “rapist”, apparently the male default setting, indeed Jodahs at one stage even directly muses on how male biology comes with a predilection to violence and to mating with as many females as possible). Neither do any of the very few none brutish males we meet actually refute this misandry, indeed the closest we get to anything like a reasonable perspective from a man is his assertion that the Oankali “take mankind like a woman”, a surprisingly unsophisticated attitude for a man who was apparently a doctor and therefore an educated person before the nuclear war.

To say that only once in the book do we meet a woman who directly mentions being raped, it’s really quite astounding how often Butler mentions rape, or potential rape throughout the rest of the narrative, as though most human men were clones of Gregor Clegane, since of course “rape”, is very much something only done by men to women.

This is doubly ironic given the major and most serious issue with the book, Jodahs complete and total lack of anything resembling any kind of sexual morality at all.

Jodahs spends most of the book talking about its “hunger for a mate.” When it first comes upon a woman, it starts off by putting out all the pheromones it can and then sleeping with her, even going as far as to make itself appear more male to sexually attract her. Though this seduction fails, it is not due to either Jodahs respect for her autonomy, or for her ability to say no, but simply Jodah’s immaturity and lack of the full biochemical arsenal of an adult Ooloi. Neither does Jodahs take any account of the fact that said woman has recently been the victim of rape herself.

This trick similarly fails with a male slightly later, though only more narrowly, however it does succeed with a disabled brother and sister whom Jodahs is able to cure of their disability, and who stay with it out of duty; not realising that once Jodahs finishes its transformation into an adult they won’t be able to leave (a fact Lilith keeps from them).

In Butler’s straightforward prose, we are given no doubt as to the unwillingness of Jodahs two mates at the start of this process, or how, once they understand what is happening to them their objections that “marriage involves more than mating”, are simply swept aside by Jodahs in a flood of biochemical seduction.

Not only does Jodahs therefore casually mind trick a couple into committing incest, something which I wouldn’t mind in and of itself if both parties were willing, but seems doubly disgusting given they were not, but also directly takes from them much of human experience. As young humans, they will never experience either ordinary human lovemaking, or any kind of  consummate love or companionship with a partner. Also; as with all humans mated to Oankali, they will no longer be able to touch any but their own gender and their Ooloi, including each other. Reading this whilst cuddled in bed with my lady; who is also my best friend was an especially repellent experience.

Indeed when Lilith’s male mate Tino displays some supposedly “male anger”, when he realises that since Jodahs is becoming an Ooloi, he will no longer be able to touch his own son, I felt this was pretty justified.

The rest of the book involves Jodahs attempt to acquire mates for its Ooloi sibling, and how it effortlessly uses its abilities to simply walk into a resistor village and subdue everyone. It’s even able to convert a long time resistor into accepting the arrogant Oankali caguiat as a new Ooloi mate with its touch and reject the idea of going to Mars (despite said register even walking away from Caguiat when he first sees it).

In fairness, Jodahs also does a lot of healing, particularly of genetic conditions which have become endemic in that village, however it is made absolutely clear that it is not just healing alone which convinces the resistor humans that Ooloi mates are a good idea, but Jodahs ability to play the human nervous system like a fiddle.

The book then finishes with Jodahs planting the seed of a new town, which will in time become an Oankali ship to continue its journey through space seeding new life. Given the reunion of several characters, I presume Butler intended this as a kind of happy ending, but I found it difficult to take that way.

After all, humanity had at this point been (as one resistor actually puts it), swallowed whole by the Oankali, and even Akin’s hard work at starting a Mars colony would likely be negated, either because future human Ooloi could simply subdue and force mating with existing resistors, or because those humans on the Mars colony were of course doomed to destroy themselves.

What I find almost as worrying as the book itself, is the almost total lack of objection to it. It is possible this is because those who found the Ooloi’s forced seduction too hard to handle quit after Dawn. However, I find it actively worrying that though many reviews talk about the book having a “different morality”, nobody really seems to question that morality, since “different”, apparently translates to perfectly acceptable.

The last I checked myself, “rape”, was not a matter of how pleasant a sexual experience was, or even whether healing or other benefits were offered in return, but whether the person involved had the ability to give consent; indeed real world survivors of sexual abuse experience a great deal of serious psychological trauma when their abuse was physically pleasurable or occurred through coercion.

The story is also not helped by the fact that Jodahs is a succeedinator of the first order, indeed the only real obstacle Jodahs faces is its own sexual immaturity, and neither the bullets of resistors, the attitude of the Oankali  nor the feelings of those it wants to have sex with are really much concern to it at all. I wonder how sanguine people would be about Jodahs’ actions, or how well received this book would be were Jodahs presented as male using masculine rather than neutral pronouns. What would people’s opinion be of the story of a man with superhuman seductive abilities, who tries them out on several partners before finding one he can dominate completely and impregnate with his child, before using those abilities to acquire a partner for his brother and subdue anyone who dares to object to what he is doing.

There is no denying that Butler has explored some fascinating ideas and perspectives in the series, or that she has incredible talent as a storyteller. But all in all this third volume, with its weak story, less than moral protagonist and inability to question the status quo has been a major disappointment. Dawn was the story of a woman trying to cope with an alien environment and circumstances outside her control, Adulthood Rights was the story of a hybrid alien human actually trying to understand humans despite their mistreatment of him. Here however, with a pure succeedinator running roughshod over all finer feelings, what the humans want doesn’t matter, and the ultimate end will not be (as some reviewers put it), a hybrid new species, but a race of Oankali who have added a few human genes to their toolbox, absorbing humanity before ravishing earth; a process Butler likens to eating all the meat from a fruit and throwing the peel away,  then going off to do the same thing to other worlds across the galaxy.

We have the ultimate conclusion that humanity is basically predestined to be evil (especially the men), and our only hope is that some aliens will like our planet enough to drug us all into submission whilst they take what they want from it (Lilith directly compares Ooloi mating to drug addiction).

Other science fiction writers who have dealt with alien aliens have at least shown a respect for our own species, warts and all, and suggested that there might be something humanity could give to another race. Butler however tells us that humanity is simply biologically doomed (a sort of scientific version of the concept of original sin). Art, science, friendship, love, forget all of that.

If the invaders come, better just lie back and think of Terra.

Review by


Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood series

Adulthood Rites

Lilith's Brood: Book 2


Lilith's Brood: Book 1


Lilith's Brood: Book 3

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