I Need to Talk About Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis

/ Books /

FYI: This article will contain spoilers.

I picked up Dawn, the first book in the Xenogensis series by Octavia Butler, during an Audible sale. I didn’t know much about it other than that it was a highly praised first encounter story by a highly praised SF author. I started listening with an open mind and I was immediately engaged. The protagonist was a strong-willed, rational, intelligent women named Lilith. The setting was suitably mysterious, strange, and terrifying.

Everything was off to a good start. And then things got weird. And I do me weird. As it turns out, the aliens (Oankali) that saved the human race from the brink of extinction only did so because they found humans to be genetically compatible. You see, the Oankali require a sort of genetic symbiosis in order to survive. They must interbreed and essentially create a new species that will ultimately replace its predecessors. This evolution is part of their very nature.

And of course this led to a lot of alien intercourse. This was a bit uncomfortable to read at first, but I think it was intentional on the part of the author. The human situation is bad–there aren’t many of them left and those that still live have been brought aboard an alien spacecraft to help the Oankali procreate. They have little choice in the matter, but the aliens are masters of chemical and genetic manipulation and make the experience pleasant to the extreme. That said, it’s still basically rape.

The humans know this, but the Oankali have also sterilized them and will keep them that way until the time is right for the lot of them to start producing new offspring, which will be human-alien hybrids. Oh, and by the way, it takes three to make a baby this way: one male human, one female human, and one neuter alien (Ooloi). But a family unit also exists that includes a male alien and a female alien as well, so five in all.

As I noted previously, things get pretty weird, but some of the humans, including Lilith, are willing to look past all of the transgressions in order to have a chance at a family again, something most humans did not expect to have considering that they had been trying to survive a nuclear holocaust when the alien’s arrived.

And that nuclear holocaust is a huge point of contention for the Oakali. It serves as proof that humans cannot evolve beyond their nature, which has the fatal combination of intelligence and hierarchy. This is what the Oakali refer to as the “contradiction.” That means, the aliens see what they are doing as a service to humanity, because they will be correcting the contradiction through genetic modification during reproduction.

That’s a lot of process. With Dawn, Butler presented a very complicated situation that I found difficult to sort out. Initially, I wanted the humans to rise up an destroy their alien overlords. But as I continued reading I realized that these “overlords” are also pacifistic and actually need humans to continue as a species. So even though they don’t ask for permission (which is troubling), since they don’t really even understand the concept of human rights, it’s hard to say what they’re doing is absolutely wrong, it’s just alien.

It seems like Butler does not have a lot of faith in humanity. She always makes it clear that the humans cannot, under any circumstances, beat the aliens. But she doesn’t go out of her way to justify the Oakali’s cause either. However, what she does do is make you consider another perspective and really try to understand it. Some of the humans rebel, which seems to say that Butler believes that some people will never be able to come to grips with something new, something completely different from what they know. It reminds me a lot of the way that people think about race and I assume that’s what Butler wants. It’s an important topic, especially in the United States, and an extremely complicated one, just like the situation in Dawn.

As the books continue, the human race is allowed to create a non-alien colony on Mars so that their race can continue, even though the aliens expect it to fail because of humanity’s inherent contradiction. The humans that stay on Earth continue to interbreed with the aliens and their offspring continue to evolve and change. Most of the humans are content, but it’s clear that they have moments where they feel like they have lost part of their own humanity or like that they have betrayed their race.

The series concludes with no clear resolution. There is no epic battle between humans and aliens. No winner. No loser. There is only peace and evolution and compromise. And perhaps that’s the real takeaway, that in order to have peace, to find common ground, to compromise, there can be no true winner or loser. Both sides must find common ground, must adapt and grow together, and become something more and less than they were before.

It’s not an easy message. Even as I type these words, I find them unsettling in some ways. Change can be scary. I don’t know if I could do what Lilith does. I don’t know if I’m capable, but what I can say is that Octavia Butler made me think about things in ways that I had not before and maybe even expanded my ability for compassion and to compromise.