Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What I’m enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it’s very best, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of wild speculation. It’s post-apocalyptic and full of invading space aliens but it’s not grim, fatalistic or even swashbuckling. It’s about relationships, about potential, about sex and gender and adaptation and growing up. It’s about change. Change happens all the time, Butler points out, but can we—as humans—ever really embrace it?
Compared to Dawn, I kind of missed the presence of Lillith, who is relegated in this volume to a supporting role. Instead we mostly follow her son, Akin, the first male construct (hybrid oankali/human—basically the new generation of oankali) and the first to look almost completely human, at least in his larval stage. Lillith and the other human survivors introduced in the last part of Dawn have been transplanted to a repaired Earth and though some humans are working and breeding with the oankali, others have splintered off into human-only villages. They are bitter at being sterilized, at being at the mercy of the aliens, and early on Akin is kidnapped by a group of them. Fortunately, Akin is a wonderful character in his own right, and is absolutely the right person to see this chapter in the broader story through.
He spends enough time among the humans to develop a fascination with them, which informs the bulk of the book’s conflict. Oankali direct their evolution by “trading” genes with species they encounter. The constructs like Akin will be a merging of the two species but will call themselves oankali. Older branches of the oankali are allowed to continue as part of the alien society, but what of the humans? They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.
The brilliance of Butler’s work is that despite there not being a ton in the way of action or obvious tension, there is a gripping quality to the story. Much of the driving action is a series of small calamities and momentary dangers. But the underlying concerns are as big as they come, full of the sorts of thought exercises the very best SF can ignite. I loved thinking about this book. Did I sympathize with the Resisters? Would I be the sort of person to see the larger vision of the oankali? What would Akin’s solution near the end of the book mean to the people who were almost convinced but couldn’t get over the hurdle of being forced into breeding themselves out of existence? What did it say about humanity that the people originally selected to be re-awoken by the oankali in Dawn were potentially amenable to re-integration and so many of them chose to be Resisters?
As with Dawn, the set-up is deliberate but fascinating. The ending where things happen is a bit rushed and a lot of the relationships don’t develop in a comfortable way, which is to say it unfolds in an unpredictable manner and not all readers are really going to cheer for how it shakes out. Unlike Dawn, which felt like it had room to continue but was complete in itself, Adulthood Rites has a much less self-contained feeling. It’s book two of a trilogy, though, so I can forgive it that. Put another way, there’s no scenario in which I won’t read book three. I’m all in with the series at this point.