Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood (formerly Xenogenesis) is a sophisticated novel featuring human relations re-imagined after a catastrophic war. This short analysis is not intended to give the game away by revealing all the plot details, but rather to serve as a compass for the conceptual complexities the reader is likely to encounter.
Let me begin by saying what the novel is not: Xenogenesis is not a scientific treatise of the future. We are given subjective views from the viewpoints of the main characters and we are often bewildered and confused about the nature of this reality, just like the main characters. It is also neither a utopia nor a dystopia. It is not a soap opera. It does not defend mainstream values. It is not comfortable.
Did you follow that? It is not comfortable.
Now that that is out of the way, we can focus on the main guiding forces in this fabulous but never easily digested novel.
What if someone offered you a highly desirable life beyond your imagination: promises of riches and personal achievement beyond your dreams. What if this offer came at the price of an exchange in which you have to offer up yourself in daily sacrifice in a kind of Faustian bargain? Would you do it? No really, would you?
Now what if this offer applies to things you did not necessarily want, nor dreamed of, but that you know is actually good for you. It's like an ideal world, but not in the personal sense: in other words it is something you have to learn to appreciate, and eventually can. Like committing yourself to a religion you know for a fact to be true, or to a partner you know to be unfailingly loyal and satisfying. But a commitment that at the same time would come at the cost of other pleasures and freedoms.
So what if this - admittedly good - situation, also comes at the cost of your soul, your essence - not to be given up, but to be controlled by another, perhaps owned by another. And what if - yes, that's another if - in this process, you are also betraying everyone you ever knew and ever held dear. Committing yourself to something that would forever render you despised or hated in the hearts of those you used to call your own.
And yet what if, if you do not go through with it, if you do not choose this good thing, you and all your children may possibly forever be doomed. What would you do? Would you choose it? Or would you risk your future in favour of a reasonable, admirable personal pride and dignity?
What if ... what if ..
What if you have to choose?
Welcome to the world of Lilith's Brood, where people are placed in situations where the only choices are severe, and there are no comfortable alternatives. Where moral dilemmas and severe existential challenges have to be faced. Where you are between a rock and a hard place.
Meet Lilith, whose world is turned upside down when she realises she has been "rescued" by the Oankali (an alien race) after humans nearly wiped themselves out in endless wars, and the "benevolent" Oankali managed to pick up a few remaining survivors who are now their new trading partners: genetic trading partners, that is; and the Oankali are so powerful, they don't really have to ask ...
But all the same, they are giving her a choice: Lilith is offered a chance to pioneer humans' new life. Understandably, she'd rather not. But unlike the Faustian devil, the Oankali are both Satan and God, both the seducers and the benevolent givers and protectors. They also need them (a truly interpersonal axis), the Oankali are dependent on the bargain. It is a world beyond good and evil, the choices are tough, and mediating and negotiating relationships between humans and Oankali is no mean feat.
Without giving any more away (as this is not an exhaustive analysis of the novel) suffice it to say that the novel offers wonderful scope for interpretation, and I hope that by offering a glimpse into its structural mechanism I have helped the reader on her way to unravelling the story's interesting evolution.
Octavia E. Butler was a multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner, and receiver of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. She passed away suddenly in 2006.