Monday, February 12, 2007

Adulthood Rites, by Octavia Butler

Monday, February 12, 2007
Now I know why the three volume Xenogenesis series was collected in a single volume titled Lilith's Brood. Adulthood Rites is the second entry of three in Xenogenesis and the focus has shifted from Lilith Iyapo to her part human / part Oankali son, Akin. In Dawn we were introduced to an Earth that had all but been destroyed by humanity before the remnants of humanity were rescued by the alien race Oankali. The Oankali survive and adapt by finding new species and civilizations to "Trade" with. In the rescue of humanity, the Oankali will Trade with humans and help humanity repopulate the newly restored Earth. But at a cost. Humanity will no longer be what it once was because a Trade involves both parties giving up something and receiving something in return. Humanity will get another step on the evolutionary scale but will be far more and less than what they once were. Lilith Iyapo was chosen by the Oankali to seed the first colony and awake the remnant from their slumber and teach them to accept the Oankali. In many ways she failed with that first group she was given, but by the end of Dawn Lilith was to found her first community while those who would not accept what had occurred were isolated and left sterile. Breeding could only happen with the permission of the Oankali. At the very end Dawn we learn that Lilith was pregnant.

When Adulthood Rites opens, the story is focused on Akin, one of Lilith's hybrid children and her first son. Because he is part Oankali, Akin is aware in the womb and if he were fully human one would consider him unnaturally precocious. As it stands he is not fully human, though as an infant he looks human enough (except for his tongue). The focus of Adulthood Rites remains squarely on Akin with brief flashes of events surrounding Lilith, but only to a point. I would suggest that 95% of the story follows Akin as he grows and as he is kidnapped by raiders who seek to have children the only way they can, which is by theft. This theft, or kidnapping, of Akin is the event that drives how the rest of the story will play as it shapes Akin into something different than he might otherwise have been had he been left to bond with his siblings.

A major theme of Butler's work here seems to be of the nature of identity. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be different? What does it mean to have an identity in a particular culture and embrace that of another? Or be embraced by another? Butler's fiction, in particular the Xenogenesis trilogy, addresses these issues in such a way that it fits a science fiction story with aliens and tentacles, but it is really a story that addresses what can go on in our society as well. There is a depth here once one looks beyond the surface of an interesting story. Make no mistake, Adulthood Rites is an interesting story.

With all of that said about what the novel is about and what it is talking about, I do need to confess that like Dawn, I found Adulthood Rites to be less engaging and gripping than some of Butler's other fiction. In particular Kindred and the two Parable novels seem to me to be stronger works of fiction than Xenogenesis. What does that mean for the casual reader? Not much. Adulthood Rites would only be considered a "lesser" work of fiction when it is being compared to Butler's own work. Otherwise, I would suggest that Adulthood Rites (and Dawn before it) is a creative look at science fiction and how actually meeting an alien race could and would change humanity irrevocably. To be blunt, Butler tells a damn good story and keeps taking that damn good story in directions that were not necessarily apparent when the story began. She keeps it interesting and she keeps it authentic (as authentic as aliens changing the genetics of humans could be, but it feels real, and that's important).

Bottom Line: Octavia Butler need to be read by more people. She was a top shelf talent with a powerful creative voice and Adulthood Rites is a good novel that suffers only, only in comparison to her own work. In comparison to others, she stands tall.


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