Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lilith's Brood, Octavia Butler

Lilith's Brood
Octavia Butler
Review Date:
Oct 03, 2009

Lilith's Brood is a collection of three separate novels in one volume:
  • Dawn
  • Adulthood Rites
  • Imago
Butler died back in 2006, and she was something special and unusual: a female, black, science fiction writer. It was an replay of an interview I heard on NPR with her shortly after her death that lead me to get some of her work.

These three books discuss what happens to humanity and earth after a nuclear war between the superpowers. (The actual combatants aren't named but it's a fair bet the US and the USSR were among those tossing bombs around.) In the aftermath of the war a very different space faring race arrives and starts picking up the pieces, but their purposes and intentions are less than clear to the few survivors they find.

The aliens - and these really are alien - are radically different from humans, but are DNA based and are driven to find life of all kinds, learn from it, and "trade" for it. The use of the word "trade" there is one of the ways these aliens are so different from us, and I'm not entirely sure I understand how (or if) anything described in these novels can be a trade in any sense I understand.

The first novel - Dawn - sees humanity being restored so they can return to an earth that has been repaired and changed. But the aliens clearly want things from us, and we have no real way to chose to accept or reject their offer. Lilith - the human chosen to lead those who will go back to earth - isn't thrilled about the role forced upon her, nor about what is being done to humanity in the process. In fact, the book ends rather cryptically overall, and left me wondering what Butler's intent was. Was this supposed to be a happy ending, or tragic? In truth I don't think it's that simple, but that possibility wasn't made as clear as it could have been.

The second book - Adulthood Rites - takes place some time later and follows some of the same characters (they live a long time now) on earth itself as a new generation of human/alien constructs is growing up. In this case the story is a bit more directed and the intent is a bit clearer. I think Butler had a specific thing she was driving at in this case and it comes through in the writing. For me this was the strongest of the three books, probably as a direct result.

Imago - the last in the series - was the most disappointing. It started out reasonably well, but snowballed to a conclusion I didn't believe. We have another iteration of humanity appearing in this book, and initially things look pretty tough for them. Then, too quickly, things get easy. The last 75 pages or so seem a rushed ending to just wrap things up and get it over with. I think the characters get a free pass as a result, and I found it frustrating.

Overall, the concepts presented here - having to do with race and sexuality - are interesting and challenging. I suspect, though, that this isn't Butler's greatest work.

Still, it's different from a lot of science fiction in that it is mostly character based, rather than being driven by technology or environment. There is a fair bit of biology that drives the narrative, but it also drives the characters themselves, so it feels mostly right.

Recommended with some reservations.