Lilith’s Brood contains the three novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, which form Octavia Butler‘s Xenogenesis series. As a whole, the series resonated most with The Mote in God’s Eye, a science fiction novel written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and published in 1974. Both works focus on an utterly alien species and the destructive natures of civilization.
In Lilith’s Brood, the aliens are Oankali. They have sensory tentacles sprouting all over their bodies and make humans very uncomfortable at first. The Oankali are an incredibly old, space-faring species and view themselves as traders. However, what they trade in is life. The Oankali crossbreed with alien life they meet, incorporate it, and consume the previously existing life-form. They don’t view this as killing per se, because components of that life live on within the Oankali. What precipitates the meeting between Oankali and Humans is a nuclear war. Humanity is on the verge of extinction and the Oankali rescue the survivors. The choice given to humans is breed with us or die. Some people choose to breed, while others resist.
The aliens in The Mote in God’s Eye, are called Moties by the humans who discover them. In this novel, it’s humans who make outside contact and the Moties are incredibly alien to human culture. I don’t want to go into details for fear of giving away surprising twists in the plot, but what Butler and Niven do in these books is create aliens that are so different from humans and so well-developed. These aren’t blue guys with antennae from Star Trek. They are unique, powerful, incredibly thought out. Both authors fully envision a form of life that is unlike anything I’ve encountered in science fiction.
Another interesting overlap in the books is the them of war and destruction. In Lilith’s Brood, Butler takes a very dim view of humanity. Humans basically destroyed themselves once, and the Oankali know humans will do it again. They call it humanity’s contradiction. Humans are intelligent and hierarchical. Humans cannot escape their destructive tendencies even though they are smart enough to recognize the problem. Reading Lilith’s Brood is an uncomfortable look in the mirror. Are we, as a species, doomed to cycles of war and alienation? Or, can we overcome our natures for the betterment of humanity?
In The Mote in God’s Eye, war is a given with the Moties. Due to biology and lack of resources, they have destroyed their advanced civilization hundreds of times. Faced with this dilemma, the Moties have created a kludgy counter-measure. It’s easier to view the Moties and recognize their violence as a stand-in for human violence, than to view people through Octavia Butler’s eyes. One thinks, it’s not us, but it could be. With Butler though, the reader is unflinchingly faced with the worst of humanity.
I don’t think the individual novels do a great job standing on their own; but, the series as a whole is a compelling read. Butler ends the novels in questions, which the following books answer. It’s a deft move for a series.
Overall, I enjoyed Lilith’s Brood and recommend it for readers interested in aliens, dystopia, genetic engineering, and oddly enough, anthropology. However, be prepared for the series’ depressing tendencies.