30 May 2019

Review: Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Trade paperback, 746 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1987-89)

Previously read September 2005May 2007
Acquired June 2016
Reread May 2019
Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler

Way back in summer 2016, when I taught my class on apocalyptic and postapocalyptic literature, one of the novels I elected to teach was Octavia Butler's Dawn. As a piece of postapocalyptic literature, it's even bleaker than most. So many postapocalyptic stories seem bleak, but in the long run cop out on that, probably because of what Claire Curtis says, that "[t]hey provide both the voyeuristic satisfaction of terrible violence and the Robinson Crusoe excitement of starting over again" (6). There's a weird sort of utopian optimism that underlies the postapocalyptic story, even, say The Walking Dead, where things go round and round and never get resolved... but everyone in the book seems to think they will.

This is true of African-American apocalypses as well. This is not my area of expertise, but there's a great article on the topic by Houston Baker called "Freedom and Apocalypse: A Thematic Approach to Black Expression." Baker says that denied access to their own ancestral mythology, African-Americans had to make use of Christianity's, but that wasn't exactly readily available either: "The black folk on small farms, on large plantations, and in the cities of America, having effectively been isolated from West African culture, were denied meaningful participation in white culture by proscriptive and dehumanizing laws. […] The isolated black folk looked to religion as a unifying myth that could provide social cohesion" (43-4). One thing that resonated, though, was the apocalypse, which is when that unification and cohesion would come to pass: "The end of the old earth and the descent of the final destroying fires […] was an event […] all black men could look to with Christian joy and with a firm confidence that freedom would follow" (49).

There's nothing like that in Dawn. Humanity has been destroyed by nuclear war, and the survivors are only alive by the grace of the Oankali, a race of aliens who need our genetic material to survive. But humanity has no desire to learn from its mistakes-- the people in this book are distrustful, carrying forward all the same hatreds and prejudices that doomed humanity the first time around. Lilith cannot convince anyone else of what she thinks because she is black and a woman. And freedom has not followed, because now the Oankali are here, ready to use our bodies as raw material for their own development. In some ways the Oankali are superior, because they don't murder or fight... but they also are completely self-interested as a species, and there are some obvious parallels between what they do to humanity and what America did to black folk. The "final destroying fires" haven't made anything better.

One aspect of the African-American apocalypse that Baker identifies is the trickster, who is able to manipulate the apocalypse: "in the earliest folk art of the black American, the etiological animal tale, we find the expression of revolutionary social and religious concerns. The psychical identification of the slave with the trickster made it possible for the folk to depict apocalyptic events that would punish their white oppressors" (49). I don't know if Butler knew she was doing this, but Lilith feels like a rebuttal to this trickster tradition. She comes up with these plans and ideas, and things always fall apart. The Oankali outmanuever her, or her fellow humans self-sabotage. In the end, she cannot do anything other than succumb. But maybe life as an Oankali slave is better than as a free human? It's a trite question, but Butler is good at utterly reserving judgement. One never feels that an action is supposed to be "good" or "bad" in her novels' moral universe, it simply is. Dawn is a sharply observed, astounding achievement, a discussion of what it means to be human that pulls no punches, and certainly one of the bleakest pieces of postapocalyptic literature ever written. None of the optimism seen by Curtis or Baker is present.

Dawn was the only Xenogenesis novel I taught that summer. Some of my students were intrigued by it; others baffled. That's a success in my book, but I'm not sure I did the book justice. It's complicated in a way that defies easy discussion. Anyway, I had ordered the collected edition (retitled Lilith's Brood in 2000) since a new copy of it is cheaper than a new copy of Dawn on its own, and I eventually got around to rereading the last two installments of the trilogy.

I found Adulthood Rites and Imago disappointing compared to the first book. Don't get me wrong, they're very good, but Dawn is on a whole other level. The complexity of character, the bleakness, the astute observations of human nature that drive Dawn just aren't in Adulthood Rites and Imago, thanks to their focus on Oankali constructs. I did enjoy Imago more, in taking us into the head of the first construct ooloi (it's the only book in the series written in the first person), and being pretty unsettling in doing so, as you're essentially rooting for its main character to change other character's desires for its own advantage. It's presenting very matter-of-factly, but if you think about it, it's pretty unsettling; you end up hoping that the last enclave of free humanity on Earth will give itself up to alien control! It is all to easy to empathize with the colonizer over the colonized, even when your own people are the colonized.

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