I love the works of Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), one of the greatest science fiction writers of all times.
In Butler’s masterpiece Lilith’s Brood, the survivors of a third world war are gathered by aliens, the Oankali, and placed in suspended animation for centuries on the living alien mothership while the Oankali heal the Earth. Eventually the humans go back to repopulate the Earth, but not as pure humans – the Oankali, able to do sophisticated genetic engineering within their bodies, blend themselves with the next human generations. Hybrid children, “constructs,” are born in families with five parents, two humans, male and female Oankali, and one Ooloi, the third Oankali sex that does the in-body genetic modding. Much of the story is told from the perspective of a construct.
This is one of the books that I often re-read, and always find something new – the novels (this is a collection of three books) have incredibly rich textures. We watch the Oankali society on the ship, the mixed society on Earth, and witness the inevitable tensions and conflicts. The shape-shifting Oankali, that looked like giant armored caterpillars only a few generations ago and then took a “remembered” bipedal shape to interact with humans, are among the most vividly detailed aliens in science fiction. They are peaceful but ruthlessly committed to “trading” genetic material with others, as committed as humans are to sex – in fact, genetic mixing is part of their form of sex, mediated by the Ooloi. In their long history, the Oankali have blended with many species among the stars, and humans are next. But some humans resist merging with the aliens, and look for ways to be left alone.
Lilith’s Brood can be read as a cautionary tale of “benevolent” authoritarianism and forced help. The Oankali aren’t bad guys, not really, and they save humanity from self-inflicted extinction, but what they do is interstellar, inter-species rape.
Vampires among us
Fledgling, Butler’s last novels published shortly before her death, is a vampire story à la Anne Rice. Fledgling is not Butler’s best novel, but it’s a page turner that keeps you hooked until the end. Though Fledgling is very different from Lilith’s Brood, some themes are common. In particular, symbiotic relations and sex between different species. The vampires (they call themselves Ina) are a different species, perhaps arrived from the stars long ago according to one of their legends. They live among us since ages, but have ways to stay hidden below the radar. It’s evident that Fledgling is meant as the first novel in a series, but sadly Butler died short after the publication of the book.
The main character Shori, a vampire child (well, she is over 50, but vampires grow up slowly and live long), wakes up in a cave, badly hurt and with no memory. She discovers her nature, finds human friends who rapidly become her addicted symbionts, then finds others of her kind and learns that most members of her extended family (vampires and symbionts) were killed in the attack that left her almost dead. Contrary to most vampires, dark-skinned Shori tolerates sunlight – she is the result of genetic engineering experiments to enhance the Ina race (wow, transhumanist vampires!). Perhaps that’s why her family was murdered? Find out by reading until the end (the book is addictive like Shori’s bite). To establish truth and punish the guilty, a vampire clan is put to trial by a “Council of Judgment.”
See also: Octavia Butler’s fictional religion of ‘Earthseed’ inspires real religious movements – “Earthseed” is the futuristic religion found in Butler’s novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.
Watch this Democracy Now video interview with Octavia Butler (2005) on Fledgling, and the Parable series.