By: Angie Haddock
Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.
I read this with my online book club, as our last selection for our #DiverseSFF reads. I couldn’t let a whole six months go by without tackling some Octavia Butler – and I had never read her, myself! She is considered by many to be the mother of afrofuturism – or, black authors writing black and African stories and main characters in science fiction.
This one was not one of her earliest, although it is the first book of a trilogy. It was first published in the late 80s, and members of my group saw similarities to Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” series. I also thought it reminded me of the TV series LOST at some points. So, it’s probably safe to say that it influenced various things that came after it.
The story begins with Lilith waking up alone in a room. She goes through this scenario multiple times, with slightly different results. She has captors, who she can talk to, but she can’t see them initially. At one point, she is given a companion for a short period. She always ends up being put back to sleep, and being awakened again.
In the next portion of the book, Lilith finally gets to meet her captors – the Oankali. Earth was ravaged by a large scale war, and these interstellar travelers have taken many survivors onto their ship while working on rehabilitating the planet. While the humans have been in stasis, the Oankali have been studying their genetic code. Their species trades in this information, and has survived by integrating bits of other genetic code with their own – and vice versa. They tell Lilith that she had a genetic predisposition to cancer, which they have cured for her. While she eventually learns to communicate and live with them, she never fully trusts them – and sometimes thinks they did other experiments on her.
While she is living among the Oankali, Lilith learns that she has been chosen to train a group of humans to return to Earth. She does not want this position, but has no choice in the matter. And, of course, she does want to return to Earth herself. So, she learns what she is supposed to do.
In the next part of the book, she starts awakening other humans, and trying to teach them what they need to know to return to Earth. They don’t trust her, thinking she is too tight with their captors. The humans fight and break into factions – and it’s at this point that I start feeling the LOST vibes.
Those carry over into the last part, where the humans inevitably have to fend for themselves in a jungle environment to prove that they’re ready to go back to a wild and uncolonized version of Earth.
So, I’ve mentioned a lot of the major plot points here without going into the interior struggles and ethical debates that these events bring up. And those are really the things that make you think, even after you set the book down.
One of the key ideas that my fellow readers latched on to was the idea of consent… Lilith and her fellow humans are entering into a relationship with the Oankali in which they will be expected to trade their own genetic code. And, in reality, the Oankali have already taken it. So, how much agency do these humans have over what happens next? The Oankali think of themselves as saviors more than captors – the Earth was rendered inhabitable, after all. But the humans pretty much have to play by their rules if they ever want to see Earth again.
These are just a few of the concepts that are ripe for debate within this story. At roughly 250 pages, it’s succinct and effective. If you are a fan of science fiction, you will probably find a lot here to chew on.