QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: Imago by Octavia E. Butler

Imago is the third and final volume of Xenogenesis, Octavia E. Butler’s groundbreaking science fiction trilogy about alien contact and its consequences. I have already reviewed the first and second books, and now it is time to finish the series! I will also conclude this set of reviews by quoting from Butler’s own reflections on the trilogy, and taking a brief look at how it influenced her later work.

In Imago, the merging of humans with the alien Oankali, and the creation of “constructs” (Oankali-human hybrids) reaches a new stage. After the appearance of female and then male constructs—in this order—the time has come for the emergence of constructs who share the Oankali third sex, ooloi. Ooloi are neither men nor women, but have unique reproductive characteristics and a biological aptitude for healing and genetic manipulation. Oankali only develop their sex upon puberty, and this is true of constructs as well; though in the previous volume, we have seen that some Oankali and constructs both often have an idea of their future sex, and can influence it to an extent.

Construct ooloi are considered dangerous, because they potentially share the Oankali ability of genetic manipulation while inheriting some of the more alarming characteristics of humanity—like a tendency toward violent hierarchy-building. The protagonist Jodahs, one of Lilith’s children, is one of the first construct teenagers to start turning into ooloi instead of male or female, ahead of their time. Their parents and creators did not intend for this to happen so soon, but genetic manipulation only goes so far. Are construct ooloi really as dangerous as claimed?

We have seen in the first volume that some humans, even pre-Contact, are compared to ooloi by the Oankali based on their personality characteristics. But here, the merging is more biological—and we see it from the first person, from the perspective of Jodahs. Jodahs initially intended to be male, but also feels very close to Nikanj, its ooloi parent. (As I discussed in the first review, Oankali ooloi use the pronoun “it” in English.) Jodahs is not very attached to maleness, and is intrigued by having new sensory capabilities. The consternation that ensues is more social—previously, the Oankali had agreed that accidentally emerging construct ooloi must be sent back to the Oankali ship in orbit, but Jodahs’ parents do not want that to happen.

We have learned how Oankali genetic manipulation works in the previous books; now we also find out how it feels. Jodahs is growing a new organ for this purpose, and is intrigued by it—but Jodahs is also struggling with control. Jodahs tries to avoid hurting people and other living beings, but ends up enmeshed in another conflict with resister humans, forming the plot of the book after this intriguing setup.

Characters in Imago continually bash against biological determinism—this time with the twist that no one really knows what biology will dictate. Construct ooloi are new, and there’s only going to be more of them. In this volume, the issues stem more from the abilities and disabilities their sex confers on them rather than their sex or gender itself. While the previous book, Adulthood Rites, drew more from mixed-race and -ethnicity narratives, Imago can also be considered a disability narrative. Jodahs is undergoing changes that are disabling and restrict everyday life, at least until the young construct ooloi learns how to compensate for them. The changes do not go away—they are a part of who Jodahs is. (Butler was herself disabled: she had dyslexia and struggled with motor coordination issues, as well as chronic illnesses throughout her life.) The resisters Jodahs meets are disabled as well; many of them have a genetic disorder that spread among their small population as a result of inbreeding.

Yet another topic related to illness in Imago involves cancer. The Oankali are fascinated by cancer because it gives them the key to develop shapeshifting abilities. This has been an ongoing potentiality throughout the trilogy—we find out at the very beginning that Lilith Iyapo, one of the first humans to build a relationship with the Oankali, also has a “genetic talent” for cancer. In Imago, this thread becomes a major theme as Jodahs and other construct ooloi struggle with shapeshifting.

Now that the focus is on ooloi and their abilities, the final Xenogenesis book also engages with the topic of healing. While the potential for offering a simplistic “magical cure narrative” exists, Butler avoids it, and even manages to turn quasi-magical healing into something frightening. After asserting “We believe in life,” one of the Oankali characters says: “If I died on a lifeless world, a world that could sustain some form of life if it were tenacious enough, organelles within each cell of my body would survive and evolve. In perhaps a thousand million years, that world would be as full of life as this one.” (p. 642 in the first omnibus edition.) This is a continuation, a spreading of life…but also invasion, colonization at its utmost extreme. Yet the narrative doesn’t label it as such; it allows the reader space to consider the question, and be quietly terrified.

On this latest reread, I felt uneasy about how the resisters’ disease was named, identified as neurofibromatosis (p. 644). Butler was often inspired by specific biological details, both human and non-human, but usually she did not name the specifics, and instead let the reader notice the parallels (like in her short stories “Speech Sounds” and “Blood Child”) or came up with fictional disorders (as in her novelette “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”). What gave me pause, here, was that neurofibromatosis and specifically the connected disfigurement was often very bluntly portrayed as negative: “I remember reading about a couple of especially horrible prewar cases.” (p. 644) Even though the resisters were not dehumanized in the text, and the narrative engaged with cures and their tradeoffs in a multifaceted way, this still made me uncomfortable.

Butler herself was not satisfied with how she examined illness in the book, and specifically the role of cancer: “I use this idea in the third Xenogenesis novel, but I haven’t really done what I want to with it. Probably it’s going to evolve the way shape-shifting did from Wild Seed to Imago. I’ll do something more with it.” (p. 24 in Conversations with Octavia Butler, edited by Conseula Francis; henceforth, all page numbers are from Conversations.) After Imago, she went through a lengthy period of not producing published work, and discarding her initial drafts of the book that later became her near-future dystopian novel Parable of the Sower. She said that she was “trying to rewrite Xenogenesis” (p. 41) and also had difficulty with the role of characters seeking power in her work. In the end, writing poetry enabled her to revise successfully—those pieces are also included in the Earthseed books.

I think that in this past decade, there has been so much discussion over disability in speculative fiction that simply wasn’t there before, that now writers have much more of an apparatus to tackle these topics—and also to return to previous narratives to critically engage with them. (Yet I haven’t found detailed readings of Imago that specifically use a disability-centric approach…but eventually that will come, too.) It is crushing to contemplate the fact that if Butler had not passed away so prematurely, she might well have been the first to examine her own work in this way, similarly to how she further elaborated on her themes of consent, nonconsent, and dubious consent later in Fledgling, her last published novel.

And to return to the issue of nonconsent: Imago has a lot of that too, and we are never quite sure how much is biological imperative. Leaving it open reads as very deliberate, and when we read Butler’s interviews, we can see that it indeed was a thoroughly planned authorial decision: “Don’t worry about the real biological determinism. Worry about what people make of it.” (p. 108)

We have already found out in previous volumes that Oankali ooloi often mate with a male-female sibling pair, but it is very different to hear about it in theory and see it play out with Jodahs and a pair of human siblings. Is it incest? Is it not? It certainly makes everyone involved uncomfortable, including the reader. Butler explains in another interview (p. 131) that her preoccupation with incest-like themes across multiple of her books has a Biblical inspiration that goes back to her upbringing in a very strict Baptist family: “Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had sex and produced two whole new ethnic groups. I thought, ‘Wow–instead of getting struck by lightning, they get a reward. They get to be the mothers of whole new people!’”

Imago tackles a lot of disparate topics, interweaving them with great depth, but I felt like some pieces did not click into place along the disability/illness axis, even though I found myself rereading the novel with continued intense interest throughout. The plot also took some conventional turns, especially near the end with some prison-escape scenes. As far as it’s possible to look ahead toward Butler’s later work from the end of Xenogenesis, while the two Parable books continue this trilogy’s exploration of power, many other themes from Xenogenesis also reappear in the standalone Fledgling; not just around consent—as I mentioned above—but also concepts relating to biological hybridity and determinism. Butler did not manage to finish her Parable series, and she discussed the ways in which her illness and especially her medication regimen constrained her productivity. Still, she produced some of the most thought-provoking work in speculative fiction even to this day, encompassing multiple complex topics and their interactions, including sex, gender, disability, and mixed cultures. We honor and uphold her legacy by continuing the discussion, and I hope that my brief reviews here could contribute to this, at least a little.

I am hoping to return to some of Butler’s other work—especially Fledgling—in this column, but in our next installment, we will be looking at something very different (but likewise multifaceted and complex): a translated graphic novel that also examines intersections of gender, disability, and even biological determinism in a science fictional context. Until then, enjoy the end of season!

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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