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Would YOU join the Oankali?

June 11, 2013

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:

You are one of the last remaining survivors on an Earth devastated by warfare.  Despite your best efforts, it is hopeless: resources have all but dried up, and neither you nor humanity as a whole stand a chance of survival.  You die alone, only to then wake up on an alien spacecraft.  The spacecraft’s occupants explain that they have rebuilt Earth and have revived as many humans as possible by collection DNA samples.  They intend to live on this new and unspoiled Earth and for humans to live alongside them.  Provided that you submit to them, they promise food, shelter and good health until the end of your days.

All they ask in return is that you breed with them and only with them, thus ensuring that humanity as you know it will go extinct within a generation.

This is the premise of Lilith’s Brood, a trilogy by Octavia Butler, in a nutshell.

In Lilith’s Brood, the dying Earth is encountered by a race of aliens called the Oankali.  Notably, the Oankali have three genders: in addition to the usual male and female genders, they also have a third called the “ooloi”.  The ooloi are capable of collecting genetic material from both of the other genders and then use this material to consciously design offspring, which are then inserted back into the female.  The Oankali wish for humans to breed the same way and sterilize any who refuse, with the promise that the procedure will be reversed if and when they change their mind.  Humanity, they argue, will inevitably destroy itself again if left unchanged; the hybrid offspring will be free of the hierarchical impulses which doomed their ancestors, thus ensuring the long-term survival of the human race.

Life under the Oankali often seems idyllic.  Resources are plentiful, ensuring that no-one is left wanting of food or provisions.  The ooloi are capable of healing sickness and injury and feel compelled to help anyone in need, thus keeping their humans at the very pinnacle of physical and mental health.  And that is not even getting into the physical sensations they induce: whether healing you or using you to breed, the sensations are consistently described in the text as being completely mind-blowing.   The “resistors”, meanwhile, are dogged by internal divisions and violence between their settlements is hardly unheard of.  Many of them are therefore frustrated and miserable, and not just over the Oankali’s presence.

Butler is careful to keep the situation ambiguous.  The Oankali’s casual disregard for the resistors is a cause of much unnecessary grief and is given a detailed exploration in the second book.   Furthermore, several of the oolois’ actions over the course of the series come across as, frankly, rapey.  The third book contains a particularly memorable scene in which an ooloi restrains a struggling human woman while its pheromones do their work on her,  leaving her unable to spend long periods away from it thereafter.  When she inevitable tries to leave, both her and the ooloi feel deeply troubled for the duration of the separation.

Oh, and the ooloi’s other desired human mate just so happens to be the woman’s brother.  Yeah.

Honestly, I think I’d jump ship to the Oankali pretty quickly.  When reading this series, I often found them to be far more sympathetic than most of the humans.  I’m not sure if Butler intended readers to take such a one-sided opinion, but that’s what I thought after reading through to the end.  Judging from the few online discussions I’ve seen on this series, I am at least not the only one to think this way.

So what, I ask, would you do in this situation?  Join the Oankali, or become a resister?  Feel free to leave your opinions below.

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4 Comments
  1. That’s a seriously shitty deal, regardless of coming gift wrapped. It shoves aside even the trojan horse. Excuse the language, but that is the kind of sentiment such a “deal” gives me in my gut 😛

    Still, considering the scenario, being human I would consider taking it. Not pass away into the night though. But at minimum to find ways to return the pain, perhaps even to turn the tables. Think of the difference between a man and an animal caught in a trap in the wild. Many an animal would chew off a leg to escape, or kill itself trying to. I’d like to think that the man would find a way to lie in waiting, to deal with what essentially is a threat to his kind.

    And if I were not alone, but had access to others of my kind in such a scenario? I’d try to apply a very human concept of division of roles. One to go inside, one to stay outside, andsoforth, to work together for a common goal. But yes, I know that our species is one not exactly good at teamwork ..

    I admit, I am curious though to see how this story plays out. One for the shopping cart as such 🙂

    • It’s certainly a very good series. The first book is a tad slow in places, but by the end of it I was utterly hooked. I ended up reading the entire trilogy in a fortnight or so.

      I imagine that teamwork would be possible if everyone involved is sufficiently motivated, which they presumably would be in this case. That said, the humans in this series tend to be really bad at working together for any length of time. I’ve always suspected the author to be a bit of a misanthrope, no matter how often she denies it in her author’s notes. Amnesty, a short story which appeared in her “Bloodchild” collection, is particularly bad in this regard (though it’s still an excellent story).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Haven’t read these, but I’d be pretty grateful to the aliens that saved everyone. If all I had to do in return is share some genetic inheritance with the clearly advanced race I’d happily do that.

    • Glad I’m not the only one to think so :). I’d recommend reading them sometime if you’re into science fiction: they’re very good books.

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