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Erika Nelson

Playing Human in Octavia Butler’s Imago

This post marks my third and final visit to Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood. I’ve written about colonization, desire, transformation and negotiation in Dawn and Adulthood Rites. Imago ups the ante on all these, raising questions about identity and the performed self.

The human-Oankali breeding program begun a century earlier with Lilith and the events of Dawn reaches a critical turning point in Imago. To everyone’s surprise, one of Lilith’s hybrid children enters its adolescent metamorphosis indicating that it will become ooloi, the third sex. Jodahs is the first ooloi with genes from both species. Uncontrolled, flawed ooloi have the capacity to do massive genetic damage to everything they touch, and an ooloi with a human side poses even greater danger. Lilith and her family move to the deep woods to be isolated during Jodahs’ metamorphosis, awaiting possible exile on the Oankali ship orbiting Earth. Jodahs gains the ability to regrow limbs and change shape. But without human mates it’s unable to control its changes, and there is no chance of finding human mates on Earth before being exiled. Jodahs becomes isolated and silent. Beginning to lose its sense of self, it changes erratically with the weather and environment. Aaor, Jodahs’ closest sibling, follows suit, becoming ooloi. It then transforms into a sea-slug-like creature and nearly physically dissolves in its loneliness.

[Spoilers, alien sex, and possible academic jargon below the fold …]

Negotiating Difference in Octavia Butler’s Adulthood Rites

As the title of Octavia Butler’s Adulthood Rites indicates, this novel is part coming-of-age story. Yet like its predecessor Dawn, it occurs in the context of colonization, complete with a tangled web of desire, xenophobia and hybridity. (I recently wrote about Dawn, the first volume of Lilith’s Brood, the trilogy formerly known as Xenogenesis.) Dawn is seen through the eyes of Lilith, a human woman faced with impossible decisions when the alien Oankali colonize what’s left of a post-apocalyptic human race. The sequel is the story of Akin, Lilith’s half-human, half-Oankali son, born thirty years after the first novel takes place.

Life isn’t easy when you have five parents representing three genders and two species. Akin is a human-Oankali “construct,” belonging culturally and physiologically to neither group and yet to both. He is precocious, fully verbal, and prodigiously intelligent. He lives in one of Earth’s “trade villages.” In these communities humans were successfully coerced into participating in the Oankali interbreeding program, building mixed families in which they experience both love for and resentment toward their alien mates and hybrid children.

Growing up in a mixed-species village with a deeply embedded power imbalance makes reasonable sense for Akin until he is captured by a group of human resisters. The resisters have refused to join with the Oankali, but are allowed to live in their own communities. The catch, of course, is that the Oankali have sterilized them, so they resort to abducting construct children who look “normal” (sans Oankali tentacles), which Akin does. His captors sell him to a small resister town called Phoenix. As Lilith was imprisoned by the Oankali, now Akin must suffer at the hands of the humans. Yet like his mother, he finds the other both horrifying and compelling, resists his imprisonment yet learns from it, and comes to love some of his captors. He begins to connect with his human side, and to see the value in preserving human culture.

[More inter-species negotiation below the fold …]

Sleeping With the Enemy: Octavia Butler’s Dawn

I first read Octavia Butler’s Dawn almost (oh, gods) 10 years ago for an undergraduate course called “Science Fiction? Speculative Fiction?” It is the first in the Xenogenesis trilogy which was republished as Lilith’s Brood. It is also a gateway drug. Dawn introduced me to the troubling and compelling universe of Butler’s mind, populated with complex, defiant, intelligent woman leaders, consensual sex between humans and aliens, and heavy doses of every social issue under the sun.

Dawn‘s Lilith Iyapo is a young black woman who awakens 250 years after a nuclear holocaust on an enormous ship orbiting Earth. The alien Oankali have rescued/captured the few remaining humans and begun regenerating the planet so it can again be habitable. These humanoid, tentacled higher beings intend to return the humans to Earth, but it wouldn’t be a Butler novel if there weren’t some sort of tremendous sacrifice involved. The Oankali are gene traders. They travel the galaxy improving their race by joining up with the races they encounter. They’ve saved humanity in order to fulfill their biological imperative to interbreed. Lilith will be a leader in one of the new human-Oankali communities on Earth. Her children will have fun tentacles. And she has no say in the matter. Lilith reacts to this with more than a little skepticism—she almost kills herself.

[More on creepy alien breeding programs below the fold …]

Book View Cafe: New Adventures in Online Publishing

I am frequently possessed by the irrational fear that technology has made our lives worse and not better. Yes, Twitter and Facebook are bringing us ever closer to the inevitable robot uprising. (Repent! The end is nigh!) And yet, occasionally something occurs to remind me that we can use our powers for good. Online publishing is one of those things (which is why I blog for this site, after all). More good reads to more people more easily—this is what our ancestors worked so hard for us to achieve, kids.

The folks at are relatively new among the clever individuals using the Interwebs for (gasp) cultural enrichment, by offering free literature in all shapes and sizes. The website, which launched in November, has sizeable sections for science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction. BVC’s 20-odd authors offer serialized novels, short stories and even poetry, by gum. The site includes heavyweights like Ursula Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre, and they’re exclusive: right now they’re not accepting new members, but adding applicants to a waitlist. Think of it as an online collective/bookstore made up of professional, published authors, most of whom write SF/F. It’s a place where established authors hope to build a Web presence, promote their printed works, and connect directly with readers.

I caught up with some of these word peddlers on Sunday at, where they discussed their work, tips for new writers, and the future of the printed word. In attendance were: Maya Bohnjoff, Brenda Clough, Laura Anne Gilman, Sue Lange, Nancy Jane Moore, Pati Nagle and Sarah Zettel.

[More below the fold …]

Benjamin Button: Curiously Compelling

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has earned a heap of Golden Globe nominations and critical acclaim. I’m on break between semesters, so I took time out—from playing WALL-E for PlayStation2 and re-watching BSG 4.0—to see what the fuss was about.

The film follows the life of one unusual man and his lover around the globe and over the better part of a century. There’s romance, drama, war, dancing, and, oh yes, the guy ages in reverse. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it is an expansive film, moving slowly and artfully. I loved the New Orleans setting and all the historical details (beginning in 1918 and continuing to present day). It’s a sad and charming movie—sort of a Southern fairy tale. Do people make movies like this anymore? It was like watching Gone With the Wind or Forrest Gump … but with fantastic, mythological themes.

[Musings and spoilers below the fold.]

Supermom Returns

Even a really bad science fiction movie can have something to say, stumbling on critical issues as it strains for coherence.

I love old school science fiction films for this reason. Sometimes they’re a guilty pleasure (think Invaders from Mars). Other times not so guilty—The Thing from Another World, Them! or War of the Worlds. At their worst, they’re funny as hell. At their best, they make clever commentary on the cold war, suburban living, the American family, etc. The phenomenon extends to recent sci fi movies, as well. I found it with, I kid you not, The Invasion, which I rented on a quasi-academic lark. This latest in a series of remakes of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a gross, uneven, blandly acted film. It also, somehow, taps into the contemporary woman’s struggle juggling career, romantic love and motherhood.

[Spoilers and completely unbiased feminist analysis follow.]

A Super-Geeky Christmas List

Not like you need any suggestions, right? You’ve been compiling your Christmas list (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, atheist-hedonist-capitalist-“holiday” list, whatever) for months. Probably since you saw Iron Man in the theater last May and decided that you were going to have to watch it over and over and over again. But if you’re undeservingly lucky like me, your sweetie has one of those abundantly generous Polish-Catholic families who expect Christmas to be a blowout American gorge-fest of food, drink, unnecessary napping, living room wrestling…and a pile of presents that actually crosses the threshold of one room and goes into another. Having grown up without this sort of decadence (with no idea how incomplete your life was) you may send this loving family a short Christmas wish list upon request, and they may retort that it is not long enough. Or perhaps you just happened upon this blog, because you’re not a geek, but you’ve started dating this amazingly hot fangirl and you just don’t know what to get her.

[Well, in the interest of the post-Thanksgiving official launch of the holiday shopping season, here are my picks for the geek on your list]

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