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  1. #1
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Memorial Book Club Discussion: Xenogenesis by Octavia Butler

    Due to the recent death of Octavia Butler, many of our members have moved the Xenogenesis Trilogy to the top of their to-read pile. To honor Ms. Butler's memory, we've decided to open a discussion on the Xenogenesis Trilogy. I'll open this thread for discussion around the 15th or 20th of March.

    The books in the trilogy are:

    Dawn
    Adulthood Rites
    Imago


    They are also collected in two different omnibus editions, one entitled The Xenogenesis Trilogy and the other called Lilith's Brood.

    I hope many can take part. I can see no better way for us to honor Ms. Butler's life work than to talk about her books.

  2. #2
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    I'll go ahead and open this thread for discussion.

  3. #3
    Prefers to be anomalous intensityxx's Avatar
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    I finished this trilogy last night, and am so pleased I finally got around to reading it. I can't remember how long it's been since I read about interesting aliens, and in such depth. I've been occupied with cyber- and post-human sf, contemporary fantasy, and it feels good to go back to the familiar old roots of sff.

    Not that there's anything too familiar in these books. Butler's original and complex society of Oankali captivated me from the beginning. I liked the biological twists and the cultural ramifications, both in the Oankali themselves, and in the ways humans and Oankali came together. The resistance, the acceptance, the blending, the numerous possible outcomes of the genetic mixing, were all involving at both the level of society and at the individual character levels. I found the construct characters fascinating and enjoyed how the characters in the first book didn't fade from view, because I cared about them too.

    What'd you think, Erf?

  4. #4
    Yobmod Yobmod's Avatar
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    I finished this trilogy last night, and am so pleased I finally got around to reading it. I can't remember how long it's been since I read about interesting aliens, and in such depth. I've been occupied with cyber- and post-human sf, contemporary fantasy, and it feels good to go back to the familiar old roots of sff.
    I just finished Dawn this morning, and i'm enjoying the series. I noticed from the very first chapter that it felt more like a golden age SF story, with some modern sensibilities included, especially those of gender and race. The clothing being made of some strange silk-like material, with its magical invisible fastenings, and the walls that grow doorways open and closed could be from a pulp story from the 50's - I wonder if inclusion of some of these things was an intentional attempt at making traditional SF readers feel at home, before challenging them with the complex moral dilemas.

    Not that there's anything too familiar in these books. Butler's original and complex society of Oankali captivated me from the beginning. I liked the biological twists and the cultural ramifications, both in the Oankali themselves, and in the ways humans and Oankali came together. The resistance, the acceptance, the blending, the numerous possible outcomes of the genetic mixing, were all involving at both the level of society and at the individual character levels. I found the construct characters fascinating and enjoyed how the characters in the first book didn't fade from view, because I cared about them too.
    Lilith's characterisation is ok so far, but for me she is a little bit too flat and sensiible. It certiainly felt that she was somewhat of a mouthpeice for Butler's opinions. I don't mind this, but considering the amount of stress Lilith is put under, i would expect a few more incidents of loss of self control, or simply less consistency. I understand that the Onkali are supposed to have selected her for these attributes, but they have done an impossible good job IMO.

    In fact i often find the Onkali to be too perfectly capable at everything; we are constantly shown being stupid or unreasonable or incompetent humans are, but never the Onkali. At most they make minor errors in judgment, but from their point of view the consequences are always minor (a few human are put into suspended animation again).

    The omnipotence of the Onkali (so far), does force the reader and chharacters into a corner when it comes to the moral decisions, the simplistic option of just resisting and fighting is not really a possibility. I think its the best example so far of a book i've read in which supposedly benificient uber-aliens come to Earth to transform and improve humanity (cf. Clarcke's Childhood's End, Tepper's The Fresco). There is always the opposition between wanting humanity to not be interferred with, and wanting to applaud the improvments. In Dawn, i'm feeling both, but i do hate the Onkali more.

    The parallel that came to mind, was a man saving a child from drowing, than taking her home and making her a sex slave. He rapes her while she's too young to understand, when she get big enough to fight back, he drugs and rapes her, when she has children he either rapes them or seperates them and teaches them to be rapists. I'm usually dismissive of people who say 'rape is the worst thing that can happen to a women', but in this case i am leaning toward thinking it would be better for the child to have drown.

    So at the moment i'm feeling it would probably be better for humanity to have been left to destroy itself rather than being enslaved and raped. I guess drug rape wasn'r a crime when these books were written? I wonder if Butler even saw it as rape to drug someone so they enjoy the experience. I particularly didn't like the times when Onkali to individuals ''your mouth says no, but your body says yes'' - i don't see the victim being sexually aroused as any kind of excuse for forcing sex against someones stated wishes.

    But after all that i can accept that there is an argument, that survival is the most important point in the long tem for humanity, i just don't agree with it. Unlike historical slavery, it doesn't seem likely humanity will ever be free again due to the interbreeding. This also has parallels to the systematic rape of black slaves, which has resulted (so i've read) in all their 'black' western decendents being mixed race to some extent. If it had continued until eveyone was mixed race, i wonder what would have ahppened to the concenpt of one race being the slaves of the other?

    That will do for now
    Last edited by Yobmod; March 29th, 2006 at 06:19 AM.

  5. #5
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    I'm still thinking about what to write here but:


    So at the moment i'm feeling it would probably be better for humanity to have been left to destroy itself rather than being enslaved and raped.
    It's important to point out that humanity is about to cease to exist. The remnant (at least as far as Dawn is concerned) are transformed,into something that is really no longer human. Not enslaved.The Oankali are transformed in the process as well.The lack of prudence that you say you never see the Oankali guilty of, is that they bother to engage with the human race; they are of two minds about the whole notion of joining with us.
    Don't underestimate Butler's misanthropy-she doesn't think much of the human race at all.

    You stack the deck emotionally with your rape analogy, but you're leaving out-the part about being healed of all illness and made practically immortal. There are real boons to this admittedly ambiguous trade. That's not the usual rapist's deal.

    The alternative is death -not due to the Oankali, but death due to our own self destructive tendencies.
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; September 10th, 2007 at 08:09 AM.

  6. #6
    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArthurFrayn
    Don't underestimate Butler's misanthropy-she doesn't think much of the human race at all.
    Yes, I was very surprised by it. I really liked the book, but I find very difficult to believe that *nobody* was excited about meeting an alien race. Is it really so? I don't know how I would react in such an extreme situation, but I think that the possibility of improving my body (no more illness!!!) would be very apealing and I wouldn't care too much about not being human anymore... Specially because there is nothing to loose (the alternative is death)!

    I would dislike being told what to do everytime (that was the most disgusting part of the treat for me) but anyway I'd be excited about the new chances and possibilities (I guess).

    In fact, I liked more the Oankali than the humans as depicted by Butler
    Last edited by odo; March 29th, 2006 at 09:38 AM.

  7. #7
    Yobmod Yobmod's Avatar
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    It's important to point out that humanity is about to cease to exist. The remnant (at least as far as Dawn is concerned) are transformed,into something that is really no longer human. Not enslaved.The Oankali are transformed in the process as well.
    The children are transformed into something non-human, but not the rest of humanity. So far (althought this could change as i read more), humanity has been imprisoned, drugged, raped, steralised, and told they can only have children via interspecies sex with their new masters. It may not be a traditional type of enslavment, but its certainly not what i would call freedom.
    Its true there have been some benifits for the reamining humans, such as the increased lifespan, but this was also done without the victims consent. I'm firmly against government (even an alien one!) being able to force medical treatment of patients. Refusing medical treatment is a fundemental human right under the UN, and is in the US constitution. Its just another type of rape, and loss of freedom inflicted by the Onkali IMO.

    I've just read a part that hints that the Onkali are going to "leave the earth a lifeless husk". It is really not much of a trade off - the Onkali have all of the power, and all humans gain is having their DNA subsumed to allow a parasitic race to spread. The Construct children so far seem much more Onkali than human - psychologicaly Akin hasn't done anything so far that an Onkali wouldn't do.

    If the story had been about about an advanced western culture kidnapping and breeding with african captives from a war-torn countries, would people still call it a "trade"? The captives would get better medical treatment, food, etc, and their children wouldn't be african anymore, and would have a new culture. That wouldn't make it acceptable to me.

    I think Butler has made the story much more morally ambiguous than "aliens save humanity and merge to the benifit of all, except for a few short-sighted and morally repugnant resisters." Her protogonists may accept the change as the only option, but that doesn't make the change good.

  8. #8
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    I'm firmly against government (even an alien one!) being able to force medical treatment of patients. Refusing medical treatment is a fundemental human right under the UN, and is in the US constitution. Its just another type of rape, and loss of freedom inflicted by the Onkali IMO.
    That's very nice.Except-no more UN.No more human rights. No more Constitution. No more Captain Kirk. No more Space Police to the rescue. We blew it up.
    Everything you say is true,this is an alien invasion, but if you whip out your Boy Scout Manual, I think you're missing Butler's point. Don't worry. There are people who feel exactly the way you do in the novels. Like Butler, I'm of two minds about it.
    You sound like you think the novels are obliged to advocate human rights. I think if you had said that to Butler you'd just get a cold stare, and you'd know why.

    Conversely, these novels do not advocate subjugation,they just deal with it .
    You're supposed to be provoked by these novels. Lilith hates the Oakali as well.She also loves them.
    These novels are about being forced to be something other than what you are, with no turning back.
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; March 29th, 2006 at 10:02 PM.

  9. #9
    Anitaverse Refugee FicusFan's Avatar
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    I have been meaning to post for a while but have been too busy, and then I would forget.

    I read these books in the 80s I think. After they had been published and gone oop, but before the omnibus edition came out.

    What I remember was the incredible, searing pain of Lilith's that OB was able to impart. The fact that she had to do something that she hated and that was awful, but it was the only option for the human race. How she had to betray herself and her race for their own good. How she was hated for doing what was necessary, and trying to make it better.

    I thought OB had Lilith act out 'the good of the one versus the good of the many'. In many other stories that do this the 'one' has a heroic death, and so doesn't have to deal with the consequences. OB kept the 'one' around after the sacrifice so she has to help cleanup and deal with the mess.

    I never took the story to be one of alien invasion, but rather beings who were there to collect and preserve what they could once we humans had destroyed ourselves. Because of the rescue, the aliens were a.) entitled to some compensation, without being thought evil, and b.) because they had taken on a destructive and suicidal group who would basically crap in and destroy their own nest, they had to take actions to prevent that behavior, which now could threaten them (aliens).

    I found the first book to be the most memorable. Many say the other 2 books aren't as good, and I don't think I agree. They are much less intense, and have much less of an emotional shock value.

    I thought OB was using Lilith to show what its like to be different and know you are right, and to have to chose to follow your soul, and then be rejected by those closest because your way is different than theirs, or the traditional way. I think she was also talking about societies and how they need to give up old habits that were destructive, even if they defined them, and move on and change. Yet change is very frightening and painful and even if its for the best, people who have to change often lash out and try to spread their misery.

    OB was very bleak in her views because she was totally embedded in the 70s, no matter when or what she wrote. The upheval and chaos, the hatred and destruction and lack of hope of that time, the malaise, shine through in almost everything she does. I think those times fit in with her personal experiences and reinforced them. I think she wrote to try to warn of what was ahead if different actions weren't taken, but I am not sure that she believed it did or would make a difference.

  10. #10
    I just recently read the Lilith's Brood series and I came across this discussion as I was browsing the books from this book club. I realize many of the people originally engaging this thread may not still be around. Hopefully, some will have read the series though!

    I had many of the same reactions as FicusFan. I found it impossible not to have strong feeling regarding the Oankali, however. I disagree with Yobmod that Butler was trying to portray the Oankali as perfect, or should I say that my reading of the books did not reveal the Oankali as perfect. I was constantly struck by the Oankali's lack of culture. They can remember all, so why write books or tell stories or engage/create art? The Human Contradiction, dangerous though it may be, encourages the flourishing of human cultures. At one point in the last book, Jodahs has a conversation (I think it was Jodahs) about how Oankali do not necessarily love their mates, yet it feels like Lilith and Nikanj do eventually feel love for each other. That begs the question whether love as we understand it requires choice. If it does, is the Oankali world mostly without love?

    My biggest disappointment with the series was that I feel like she didn't properly conclude it. I wanted to follow the Mars colony and read about their story in the final book. I felt like the story was a story about humans through the Oankali, not other way around. And so I wanted to see perhaps what it would be like for a child of Akin, the only construct in a world of humans (assuming Akin stayed to build the world?), or a child of one of Akin's lovers, or a child of one of the humans we had come to know and care for. The plot she chose for the third book was interesting, but ultimately not satisfying for me. I suppose that her purpose was to see how a human population might be converted to Mars or to Oankali life. I guess the major argument I derived from the book was that men could actually achieve peace. Men as opposed to women, not men as a generic for humanity. That Jodahs's male lover and the male village elder are able to take ooloi mates means they are able to suspend the human conflict. Or so I gathered.

    It was a fantastic series. I have dwelt on the questions the book raised for many days after reading it and I'm sure I will continue to contemplate them.

  11. #11
    Registered User Chipacabra's Avatar
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    Jumping In A Bit Late

    I was familiar with Octavia E. Butler since my late teenage years. As the only African American woman writing science fiction, she was something of a role model for me. I think that what I appreciate the most in her Xenogenesis Trilogy is their overall, philosophical similarities to her short story "Bloodchild." In Bloodchild, we are introduced to remnants of humanity, in contact with an alien species that has the upper hand. Sort of. I rather enjoy that theme in science fiction and the way the she handled it in Xenogenesis and in Bloodchild, because there's a certain measure of ambivalence in it. She doesn't present black/white issues at all...they're more akin to shades of gray, and for a while, Butler's science fiction was the only science fiction (that I was exposed to) that presented that adult form of ambivalence. Her interspecies relationships were complex and complicated, driven more by mutual need than any other tangible thing, and I suspect that one of the more disturbing elements of her writing (to some, at least) might be that very take on human/alien interactions. If we enter a co-dependent relationship with aliens, how much like them will we become and how much like us will they become? If such a blending takes place, then what happens to our long-cherished notions of "race?" (Especially in terms of race chauvinism!) What happens to our perception of "the stranger?" Indeed, what happens to our concept of "self?" I might be wrong, but I think these are some of the fundamental questions that unify Butler's works. It's rich territory, after all, and admittedly, too few science fiction tales have explored such themes with such compassion, whether that compassion extends toward humans, aliens, or most gloriously, both.

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