Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis #1-3)
by Octavia Butler (1987)
It has all the hallmarks of a Butler classic: a lone, black female outsider as protagonist; the evolution of humanity in the most expansive sense imaginable; vague misanthropy; horrendous dialogue; atypical pacing complete with jarring chronological leaps; compulsive readability leaving you wanting more at the end; thin characters and terrible, terrible dialogue. Did I mention the dialogue is bad?
I find myself responding to Butler much like her human characters did to the irresistible alien ooloi in these books — part of me is utterly repulsed by the bizarre pacing, embarrassing dialogue, absolute pessimism and formulaic narratives that all seem like variations on a theme (this, Fledgling, many Bloodchild stories and the Parable books have essentially interchangeable plot elements, and I understand that the Patternmaster series follows suit). But still, I inhale her works and almost always finish them deeply satisfied by her overarching empathy, compelling scenarios/narratives, fearless explorations of humanity’s future, and brilliant inventiveness. It’s a strange mix and deeply flawed, but I won’t be ultimately satisfied until I’ve read everything she’s ever written.
So about that dialogue: I diagnosed it in an earlier review as, “Butler was so intelligent that she was unable to convincingly portray less intelligent people in her dialogue,” and that still feels like the main problem. All of her characters use the same vocabulary and have the same level of insight, no matter their other characteristics such as education. They all sound like Butler herself. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it can be annoying. Worse is when the dialogue is too opaque to understand character motivations or decisions. Butler has difficulty lowering her discourse and logical leaps to the level of her readers.
As for the similar themes throughout books, let me just say that if you want to see a vision of humanity destroying itself only to be saved by some deus ex machina in the form of technology/alien species that will nonetheless require humanity to cease being solely human, then yeah, you can pick up pretty much any of Butler’s books except Kindred. The repetition of theme is a little annoying, but more disturbing for me is the utter hopelessness this theme betrays about Butler’s faith in humanity. She’s fundamentally misanthropic in her pessimism, and it’s not something I can get on board with.
For instance, there’s a point near the end of the third book, Imago, after the Oankali have “graciously” offered human resisters a colony on Mars in which they can reproduce free of aliens, where a human character responds, “This is our world. Your people can go to Mars.” Butler never explains why the Oankali don’t, especially given that they could have terraformed Mars in the same amount of time it took Earth to become habitable after the global war. Instead, Butler seems almost gleeful about punishing humanity by destroying Earth and exiling humans to Mars. Despite our severe flaws, I love humanity more than that.
In conclusion, I would recommend this collection to any fan of sci-fi, but only together as apart the three volumes would feel incomplete. If you’re a fan of sci-fi but haven’t read Butler yet you’re missing out big time. Even her literary flaws aren’t egregious by sci-fi standards — of those I’ve read, only writers like Le Guin, Atwood, Dick and Vonnegut are literarily better IMO. And she makes up for her flaws with her utter originality and boldness of vision.