Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.

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Review roundup

Life has been busy, no time to blog. But always time to read. Here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve read since the last update:

20893314A Brief History of Seven Killings: Violence and conspiracy in 1970s Jamaica as several characters encircle the little known assassination attempt of Bob Marley. The lengthy, smart dialogue matched up with the stream of consciousness point of view, coupled with the long and shifting list of characters gives you the feeling that The Wire, Quentin Tarantino and William Faulkner were placed in a blender.

It’s good, but too long. Some characters bleed into eachother, some chapters seem completely unnecessary.

 

 

7950980Tropic of Cancer: Life is a pretty much a shifting, slimy, disgusting morass. A sewer. Except when it’s not. Henry Miller’s amoral disillusionment with life, while he wanders around Paris, broke, is interesting but has largely lost the shocking relevance of its initial publication.

Shameful that the US censored this for a good thirty years in any case.

 

 

6617037Debt: The First 5,000 Years: When I was a kid, elementary school teachers
taught us that blood in your veins is
blue, and blood in your arteries is red. Your blue blood only turns red when you’re wounded because of its reaction to oxygen. When I learned much later that this was complete bullshit, I was outraged and astounded. Why teach kids a pointless lie??

Why is this relevant? Well, because the beginning of Debt outlines that the myth of barter — that one dude is trading a bundle of fish for another dude’s socks — that is taught to every child in America is also false! And I’m mad about that too!

Credit came first, then coinage. And the credit came back. And then coinage. And now, as of Richard Nixon delinking the dollar from the gold standard in the 70s, we’re embarking on yet another credit cycle.

 

White Like Me by Tim WiseWhite Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son: A sort of racism 101, told by a white guy occasionally revealing amusing or insightful anecdotes.

His most important point w/r/t white people talking to white people about race is the erasure of white resistance in history. For example, hundreds of thousands of southern whites deserted or protested rather than fight in the civil war. By silencing them, Wise points out that you deny whites the historic knowledge that you have a choice.