Become their leader and there’ll be nothing to forgive.”
This was, by far, my favorite read of this semester. I have heard of Octavia Butler before but had never read anything by her. I really, really enjoyed this, and even though it is science fiction, I found it a lot more relatable than the magic realism in When the Moon Was Ours.
The book begins with the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo awakening in a strange room. She remembers that nuclear war has destroyed civilization and before that, her husband and child died from a car accident. She remembers the awakenings before. A disembodied voice asks her questions and eventually Jdahya, an alien creature, informs her that she has been asleep for over 200 years and his race are trying to save humans in order to send them back to Earth. Lilith is at first terrified at the appearance of the Oankali. They have these snake-like tentacles that move, and she can hardly stand the sight of Jdahya. But he informs her that I order to see more than her barren room, she has to get used to the sight of him. Eventually she does and leaves to see more of what she learns is a living ship and more of the Oankali.
The Oankali have three sexes; male, female and the Ooloi. The Oolio, Nakanj is assigned to Lilith and over time they form a bond. After a terrifying experience with a human (I had an increasing sense of dread reading this part. I just knew something bad was going to happen), she is tasked with ‘awakening’ more humans. The first human she awakens is Tate, a headstrong female. She eventually awakens others, some who become allies and some who become enemies. Joseph, an older Asian man, eventually becomes her lover and Lilith, Joseph and Nakanj have sexual encounters (and if I am reading it correctly, in a way with Nakanj as a sexual intermediary between Lilith and Joseph).
The plan is for the humans to become self-sufficient and in return the Oankali want to fuse their DNA with human DNA in order to ensure survival. Of course, as with human nature, there is conflict in this. Lilith is eventually viewed as a traitor (she has been given enhanced gifts from Nakanj).
First, I LOVE that the protagonist is a Black woman. I also enjoy how Butler plays with the ‘strong Black woman’ trope. I don’t know if that what she intended, but historically, Black woman have been viewed as so strong, and able to shoulder everything. Lilith has been chosen by the Oankali because they saw something in her, but she has trouble with the responsibility of teaching the humans that will be sent back to Earth. They soon resent her and even violently attack her. I did get a bit miffed that sometime the Oankali left her hanging out to dry. They left her to shoulder a lot of the crap from Peter and Curt.
Also, I found it a little ironic that Jdaya (I think it was either him or Nakanj) said the two negative qualities in humans are their intelligence and their desire for hierarchy. But I see these very qualities in the Oankali as well. Maybe because the Oankali aren’t as emotional as human beings, they are able to handle their intelligence better.
I got a “Lord of the Flies” vibe off what happened between the humans once they were all awakened. I wasn’t surprised they began to resent Lilith and that their human-ness didn’t or wouldn’t allow some of them (Curt, Gabriel and eventually Joseph) to accept the Oankali. There’s a concept in Sociology called ‘mechanical solidarity’, Emile Durkheim’s concept describing social cohesion in pre-industrial societies. Since the world in which the humans exist is pre-industrial (the real Earth they will be returned too, plus the created rainforest the Oankali take them to), they should have social cohesion. But instead they form cliques and eventually resort to extreme violence.
I enjoyed the relationship between Lilith and Nakanj. There were times I thought Nakanj acted more human and was more kind and caring toward Lilith than any of the real humans were.
The book ended too soon for me! I had a couple theories on how the book would end. I thought Lilith was wrong and they were really on Earth the whole time. I am very interested to read about what happens in the next book.