Adulthood Rites
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 weโ€”as humansโ€”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/humanโ€”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 They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.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.

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It took me over nine and a half months to get through a single novel this year. To put that in perspective, I read 59 books last year, and 44 the year before.

To be fair, I did spend the first four months of the year unemployed and looking for work. Just as I began to zero in on a job prospect, my wife gave birth to our second daughter. So for a lot of the year I’ve been busy and somewhat sleep-deprived. And then there is the fact that I’ve been reading a ton of short fiction. Some has been for research purposes as I comb through samples of various magazines and sites that accept unsolicited submissions; some has just been because most of what I’m writing these days is short fiction and it feels worth it to study the form. And I recently became aware of a big gap in my literary headcanon as I have little to no exposure to poetry, so I’ve read a bunch of that lately, too.

But none of this quite explains my sudden decline in reading books.

I think a big part of it has been that I’m very routine-oriented when it comes to some things. Over the past few years I did a lot of commuting on public transportation, and it became a reading haven for me. Once I no longer had that job, reading needed to be carved out of different time periods. Other activities like writing, exercising, chores, they all competed with reading. It isn’t easy for me to adjust activities from one niche in my day to another, especially when a previous slot seemed to really work. Ask me how good I’ve done at exercising since I stopped being able to squeeze it in alongside my lunch break at work.

Another part of it may be that I tried to tackle two large novels right around the time my regular reading time disappeared. One was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which I picked up because I wanted to read a romance novel to expand my horizons and I thought some of the speculative elements I’d heard about in the series might make it easier to digest. And I was enjoying it, but it didn’t have that stay-up-all-night-reading hook to it. I gave it too long before dropping it. Then the other was the fourth book in the Song Of Ice And Fire saga, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. The first three books, despite being rather hefty in size, took me a month or so each. But this book is a slog. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s kind of a series reboot and it ignores a lot of my favorite characters from previous books and adds a bunch of new ones I have a harder time caring about. So it’s been tough to get into the groove with it, and I still haven’t quite given up on it, mostly because it’s hard enough to keep all the characters in my head when I read a chapter a week. I’m afraid if I tried to come back to it, I’d never finish.

And really that is the thing that has kept me from finishing books, and it’s a lesson I had learned a few years ago. The more aggressive I am at putting books down that don’t hold my interest, the more I read.

The book I finally finished was John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which I listened to on audiobook while I did chores around the house. It’s a neat trick, but it turns out it only works for a certain kind of breezily-paced book. I’ve been trying to do the same with Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay” and while I’m very much enjoying the book (and the narration!), its literary style and fairly somber tone and pacing makes it less effective at helping me simply pass the time.

Hopefully I’ve broken the seal, though. A couple weeks after finishing Redshirts I tore through Octavia Butler’s Dawn and decided to give A Feast For Crows one more push and I actually made pretty significant progress. Maybe I’ll finish it and somehow this year won’t be a huge reading disappointment after all.