QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler

Usually when trilogies feature a coming of age story, it takes place (or at least begins) in the first book. The young, plucky hero goes through various trials to mature into an adult… and in speculative fiction, often saves the world in the process. Then in the following volumes, we see where things go from there. Adulthood Rites, and the whole of Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, turns this typical plotline upside down. In the first volume, Dawn—which I previously reviewed in this column—humans find themselves in a first contact situation with the extraterrestrial Oankali, and the book ends just as the Oankali-human coexistence on Earth is becoming a reality.

In Adulthood Rites, we see the first human-Oankali hybrid children, the so-called “constructs,” grow up. The title itself hints at the coming-of-age nature of the story… but for this novel to work, the previous book is clearly necessary. Dawn not only sets the scene for Butler’s portrayal of a simultaneously alien and human adolescence but is also a fascinating narrative in its own right. In the first volume of the trilogy, we’re able to observe both human and Oankali species characteristics and the ways in which they clashed; now we will see what happens when they merge.

Akin, one of the early construct children, is Lilith Iyapo’s child and a part of her family, which includes both human and Oankali members. The story starts with his birth —narrated from his own perspective, as the construct children have the rapid intellectual maturity of Oankali. For a good portion of the book, Akin is a nigh-helpless toddler who appears human for the most part, save for his Oankali-like tongue, a sensory organ that shares both human and Oankali capabilities. Akin learns to speak at a very young age, but often has to hide this ability, as he gets caught up in conflicts between human factions. Not everyone wants to cooperate with the Oankali and produce construct children, and while the aliens allow humans to live independently of them, the humans they permit to leave their settlements are all sterilized.

Reproduction and sexual maturity are core themes of this book as well as the entire series. In Adulthood Rites, we find out more about Oankali and construct reproduction, and see how Oankali children do not have a sex, though they often know what sex they would like to be after puberty—a choice between three options: male, female, and ooloi. (Akin knows he will become male, and he already uses male pronouns to refer to himself as a child.) Family structures are also in flux, especially the role of men, as human and Oankali males have quite different characteristics. And Akin is himself an experiment, deliberately created to look as humanlike as possible before his puberty. He understands this, but doesn’t know his part in a larger plan—and then he is kidnapped by humans who resist the Oankali and hope Akin will be able to give them human children…

Adulthood Rites is not just a gender and/or masculinity narrative. It is also a mixed-species narrative that takes its cues from mixed-race and -ethnicity narratives. Butler deftly avoids the aggravating tropes: Akin is not “half” anything, he is both human and Oankali and one of the first members of a new group. He’s also not a tragic character. He’s inquisitive, and the narrative affords him agency from the moment of his birth; he’s not written as the mysterious Other either. This is science fictional familiarization at its best: We see the world from Akin’s close perspective, as it is natural to him.

Akin does suffer in one sense, however. The kidnappers separate him from his sibling very early in the book, and prevent the two of them from building an Oankali-like sibling bond (which, as we’ve seen in the first book, plays a part in reproduction). This bonding is a biological process whose lack cannot quite be rectified—it can only be mitigated. Akin is lonely, and ends up relating to one of the resisters: a human who’s already played a pivotal role in Dawn.

In Adulthood Rites, we find out how the various characters from Dawn have handled the transition to a very different social context. Some we meet among the resisters, who are themselves split on how best to proceed. Here I must warn the potential reader that some of the more extreme resisters propose mutilating construct children in order to make them look more humanlike. This is presented as both similar to and different from how mixed-race Black/white children can be forcibly pushed into a white mold. The story echoes Black natural hair discussions when it comes to Oankali tentacles, for example, but does not simply restate them in a science-fictional context. Among a variety of parallels, the situation also reminded me of how nonconsensual and harmful cosmetic surgery is forced on many intersex children to this day. This topic might have been an inspiration too, though a wave of criticisms of these procedures started shortly after this book was published.

(Butler’s narrative itself generally condemns very little, and allows readers to draw their own conclusions even about extreme subjugation, nonconsent, and more. But the book is extremely unambiguous about presenting even the possibility of child mutilation as a horror.)

Without spoiling major details, I can still say that the classic coming-of-age plot arc comes to a point of closure: Akin is able to help the Oankali understand humans, and vice versa, but the personal cost to him is high. Yet the situation is not mined for tragedy: The book is more interested in offering a thoughtful portrayal of how being a bicultural or multicultural person can come with additional understanding, but also with additional stress. And yes, some people will inevitably instrumentalize the person in such a situation, as happens to Akin.

While this is a book about coming of age emotionally, physiologically, and intellectually, it was not written or published for a young adult audience. It’s not because of the heavy themes; young adult novels can encompass heavy themes too. It’s more about its general approach to storytelling—the complexity and subtlety of Butler’s technique had the effect of making me feel that I needed to become even more of an adult myself to fully appreciate the details.

By this I mean that on my first read of this book, many years ago, I was just taking it all in, wide-eyed. Everything that could potentially happen was amazing, and I was stunned that books like this trilogy could exist, books capable of so much subtlety and nuance about minority experiences of different kinds in a science-fictional context. But on my second read of Adulthood Rites, I was slightly frustrated: Why do we spend so much time on humans? Can we get back to the aliens already? However, this feeling passed on subsequent rereads. Maybe I myself also needed to mature, and on this latest reread of the trilogy, this second volume was my favorite. Part of that shift relates to my realizations about Tate’s gender and personality—see my previous review for more on this—as she is a key character in this book too. Part of it was having a deeper awareness of the overall structure of the trilogy. Yet some of the reasons I felt so connected to the book might remain ineffable: Not every emotion can be disentangled and analyzed.

The humans and the Oankali continue to merge, and in the final volume, we will reach the story of the first construct ooloi, who appear sooner than planned…

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

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