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Literature / Lilith's Brood

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Lilith Iyapo awakens to find that most of the Earth has been destroyed by nuclear war, and the surviving humans have been kept in suspended animation by an alien race called the Oankali. The Oankali are driven to travel the universe in search of other intelligent species to breed with in order to share their genetic code, altering both species. They have reconstructed Earth in order to make it habitable for what is left of the humans, but in order to rebuild humanity, the Oankali must change it forever.

Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler, previously published as Xenogenesis, is the compilation of three novels. The first in the series follows Lilith after she awakens to her new world, while the sequels are told from the point of view of her genetically altered children.

This series contains examples of:

  • Actually, I Am Him: In the second book, Lilith introduces herself to a human who had run away from the Oankali. He remarks that she has an unfortunate name, since it's the same as the woman who betrayed humanity by allying with the Oankali, before she explains she is that woman.
  • Aerith and Bob: Family names start getting strange when the Oankali aliens start having children with humans; for example, Lilith and Tino have children named Jodahs and Aaor. Lampshaded when an all-human village takes in a half-Oankali girl named Shkaht and questions what sort of name that is.
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  • After the End: The first book opens after nuclear war, which the Oankali almost interpreted as a collective suicide by humanity. It took centuries for the Oankali to repair the Earth's biosphere afterwards.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: The Oankali generally mean well, as they see themselves making humanity better by creating a new, unflawed race. Many of the humans, however, don't see it that way.
  • Big Good: The ooloi Nikanj guides most of humanity's resurrection and fusion with the Oankali over more than a century.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Oankali are very alien, even the ones that are specifically modeled to look more human, so much so that the humans have a hard time accepting them, and many never do.
    • The Dinso Oankali we see onscreen have been altered to make communication and cross-breeding with humans even possible. The Akjai Oankali are unaltered, and resemble enormous, deaf pillbugs that communicate via chemical clouds.
  • Bizarre Alien Reproduction: The Oankali have an "ooloi" third sex who collect DNA from male and female parents, genetically engineer a blastocyst in a specialized organ, and implant it into the female through their skin. On their own, Oankali children are born to those three parents, but their Half-Human Hybrid children add a human father and mother to the mix.
    • One other quirk of Oankali reproduction is that Oankali females don't have a dedicated birth canal; an infant emerges from a bespoke orifice that seals up after birth.
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    • Another oddity is that Oankali and Construct children don't become mature at puberty, they actually develope their sex entirely. Juvenile Oankali and Constructs are sexless, though most Construct children bear a superficial resemblance to one human sex or the other (down to the fact that Akin has the equipment to have sex with human women, though neither participant is fertile in such a union). Much drama comes of whether Akin's sibling will become female (as would be expected of the paired sibling to the obviously male Akin) or male (forbidding the two of them as two-thirds of a mating group as is normal for Oankali, illustrating how deeply their childhood separation has subverted their bond).
  • Bizarre Alien Senses: The Oankali sense of smell is acute enough to detect genetic conditions from a distance. More importantly, their sensory tentacles can extrude microfilaments that let them detect the composition of substances — down to the subatomic level in some cases — and analyze and modify any living tissue they touch.
  • Bizarre Alien Sexes: Oankali have three sexes: female, male, and ooloi. Ooloi have "sensory arms" which they use during sex (and also for microsurgery/healing/taking DNA samples).
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Oankali are peaceful vegetarians who either don't understand or don't care what's wrong with rape.
    • Additionally, they find the concept of leadership to be inherently troubling. The Oankali have no leaders, instead using the neurochemical linking allowed by the ship and its children (Oankali towns in Earth) to debate and arrive at consensus. Human tendency to appoint leaders is, to the Oankali, a sign of humanity's chronic instability.
  • Boldly Coming: The Half-Human Hybrid Akin looks almost completely human and tries to act as a diplomat to human resister communities. This generally involves sleeping with a few of the local women who hope that they'll be able to conceive a child with him. He does tell them that human sterility doesn't work that way, but hope springs eternal...
  • Brother–Sister Incest: The default and ideal mating group ("coupling" is inaccurate by 33%, as explained above) for Oankali is a brother and sister plus an ooloi from a different familynote . They tend to encourage values in humans, which means that hybrid families involve TWO EACH of males and females, plus ooloi.
    • Imago features an entire human village who are all descended from a rape victim and her son rather centrally.
  • Childless Dystopia: The "resister" villages are full of long-lived, exceptionally healthy humans with no children save those they can kidnap from human-Oankali settlements.
  • Covers Always Lie: Given that the series is over thirty years old, it's had a number of covers, and all but one of them is rather creative in its depiction of the story within. The original cover is on this page and is mostly notable for prominently displaying the Oankali male Shtaya, who only plays a minor part and then only in the first book (his relatively human-like countenance is why he does what he does in-universe and also likely why he's depicted alongside protagonist Lilith). The first edition of the paperback is somewhat infamous for giving Lilith a Race Lift, making her look more like Sigourney Weaver in Alien than the African-American woman that she is described as on-page. Finally, a cover version depicting Lilith emerging from a hibernation plant doesn't really get anything wrong, though that sequence was never illustrated in the book (Lilith academically knows she was preserved in one of the plants, but doesn't recall emerging from it).
  • Cthulhumanoid: Oankali sensory tentacles are described as making them look a bit like anthropomorphic sea slugs.
  • Cursed With Awesome: The Oankali consider humans uniquely blessed and genetically very attractive because we have... cancer. It turns out the same genes that can go so horribly wrong also can be used for regenerative abilities they've never seen before.
  • Death by Despair: The third act of Imago is spent by Jodahs and its mates trying to keep this from happening to Aaor, whose loneliness is causing them to dissolve.
  • Dehumanizing Insult: The more unpleasant resisters refer to humans who reproduce with Oankali as "animals".
  • Demoted to Extra: The proganist of each novel has a very minor role in the following.
    • Lilith barely appears in Adulthood Rites past the first few chapters. Her role is slightly larger in Imago.
    • Akin is referred to in Imago, but only as "one of my brothers." His name is never mentioned.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Turns out the Oankali aren't that nice after all — they're basically strip-mining Earth to make more spaceships because of their drive to genetically merge with other species, hence they can't just let a society of fertile humans alone.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Akin spends the middle of Adulthood Rites studying under an Akjai Oolio (an Oankali in the form they held before contacting Earth, unlike the Toat and Dinso Oankali, who were altered to make communication and interbreeding with humanity possible). It is referred simply as "the Akjai."
  • Exposed Extraterrestrials: Oankali only wear clothes when they're deliberately trying to put humans at ease. Justified since they have sensory tentacles across their bodies, are tough enough not to need the protection, don't have (or need) genitalia, and come from a Planet Spaceship that maintains a safe environment for them.
  • Extra Digits: Oankali have sixteen fingers and two thumbs, thanks in part to their ongoing genetic manipulation of themselves as a species. Humans tend to find the arrangement creepy, but not nearly as much as their Eyeless Faces and anemone-like tentacles.
  • Extra Parent Conception: Oankali children are born to a male, female, and ooloi, the latter of whom does not contribute its own genes but combines the other parents' genes and implants the blastocyst into the female. When they start cross-breeding with humans, they add a human male and female to the mix.
  • Eyeless Face: Oankali have no eyes, ears, or noses; instead, patches of short tentacles on their scalps, foreheads, throats, and bodies provide equivalent senses. They have to learn to face humans when speaking with them, since their species' equivalent is just to point some tentacles in their conversation partner's direction.
    • Inverted by some constructs. The ooloi who mix constructs will often do so with their human mates' comfort in mind. This leads to some constructs having eyes, ears, or noses that are purely decorative for their human parents' benefit, with the corresponding senses actually supplied by their sensory tentacles.
  • Face Full of Alien Wing-Wong: The Oankali solution to humanity's "flaw".note 
  • Fair for Its Day: The series ideas on sex and gender seem very current thirty years after its publication, with the exception of Ooloi using "it" pronouns rather than singular "they."
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: The form that humans associate the name "Oankali" with have been heavily altered to make them capable of interacting (and interbreeding) with humans. The Akjai in Adulthood Rites shows off their form prior to reaching Earth, which are enormous, deaf caterpillars.
    • Partially subverted in that even the "human-like" Oankali are almost intolerably alien and take most humans several days to become comfortable with.
    • Later books elaborate that the deciding factor of whether something is or isn't Oankali is an organelle in all of their cells that is the source of their ability to manipulate genetics.
  • Generation Ships: The Oankali travel on colossal Living Ships as they travel the galaxy in search of genetic trade.
  • Genius Loci: Oankali villages on earth are grown from the same type of organism as their ships, making them sentient and able to respond to chemical signals. They can also awaken to full sapience when the occasion calls for it.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The children of Lilith and the other humans who breed with the Oankali.
  • Healing Factor: Oankali can use their abilities on themselves to regenerate their injuries. Simple healing happens subconsciously, but some injuries are severe enough to require their conscious attention.
  • Hidden Elf Village: It turns out that the Oankali's sterilization of humanity wasn't entirely perfect; by the time of the third book, there's one settlement that's inhabited by the (extremely inbred) descendants of the two remaining fertile humans.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The Oankali extend human lifespans to around 250 years, cure most hereditary diseases, and render them resistant to most perils of living in the Amazon basin. That said, human resistors face massive casualties caused by other humans. It gets worse as ennui over the Childless Dystopia they live in mounts; by the end of Adulthood Rites, most resistor villages have fallen into disrepair as even the most industrious humans give up.
  • Humans Are Flawed: According to the Oankali, the "Human Contradiction" is that they possess both advanced intelligence and an animalistic drive to form social hierarchies, which will inevitably lead humanity to destroy itself again.
  • Humans Are White: Averted. Justified; the nuclear war that destroyed human civilization had the most damage done to the Northern hemisphere, meaning most survivors are from the global South. At one point, it's mentioned that the most commonly spoken languages post-apocalypse are English, Spanish, and Swahili.
  • Hypocrisy Nod: Akin gets the Oankali to acknowledge the hypocrisy of retaining an Oankali faction that won't interbreed with humans while denying humans the same option. He convinces them to relent and allow a pure human colony to be founded on Mars.
  • Immortality Begins at Twenty: Oankali extend the lifespans of humans from before the apocalypse to approximately 250. Most stay whatever age they were when the Oankali found them, but Tino was only a teenager; he exhibits this trope, and implies it's the norm.
  • Incest Is Relative: The Oankali's preferred family grouping is between brothers and sisters, and they encourage humans to do the same. Also, the Hidden Elf Village of fertile humans is incredibly inbred as a result of this. All its inhabitants are descendents of a single woman and a random man who raped her and was never seen again.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: The Oankali believe that humanity is doomed to destroy itself because of its contradictory traits — intelligence and hierarchical social structures.note  The only solution is to correct it by breeding with the Oankali, removing the hierarchical instincts by genetic manipulation of the next generation.
  • Intimate Healing:
    • The ooloi use their sensory arms both for healing (by transmitting commands to the body) and for the Oankali version of sex (by transmitting pure pleasure), and like to add a bit of the latter to the former.
    • In an intimate but starkly non-sexual instance, Lilith helps Nikanj heal the loss of a sensory arm with some naked spooning, so he can use all of his sensory tentacles to copy helpful genetic information from her. He's in no condition to make it pleasant, so she has to endure the feeling of being perforated by hundreds of needles.
  • Interspecies Romance: The Oankali really seem to genuinely love humanity.
  • Involuntary Shapeshifting: After its first metamorphosis, Jodahs' body changes based on its subconscious. It doesn't gain control until it finds himself some mates to stabilize it. Aaor has trouble for considerably longer, and would have fallen into a Shapeshifter Swan Song without the intervention of Jodahs and its mates.
  • It's What I Do: The Oankali in regard to interbreeding, genetic manipulation, and space travel. It's just something they're as compelled to do as humans are to breathing.
  • LEGO Genetics: The Oankali have been collecting genetic information from species across the galaxy for untold millions of years and have a truly amazing ability to mix-and-match various traits.
  • Living Ship: Oankali ships are living organisms grown for the purpose.
  • Longevity Treatment: The Oankali can extend human lifespans to several centuries with a Biomanipulation session, though it's less effective the later in life the human is treated. By the second book, all humans have received it.
  • Malevolent Mutilation: When a human village acquires two young half-Oankali girls, Neci is very persistent in wanting to cut off the small sensory tentacles that indicate their non-human ancestry — and that help them breathe, see, hear, and taste. She's prevented from doing so, but it's presented as a sign that she's even more prejudiced against Oankali than the others, and dim-witted and vicious besides.
  • Malfunction Malady: Aaor's depression in Imago leads them to regress into more biologically simple forms. Without intervention from Nikanj and Jodahs, they would have died.
  • Meaningful Name: Lilith occasionally references her Biblical namesake, and how fitting it is that she should have it, given that she's demonized for "betraying" humanity.
  • Metamorphosis: The Half-Human Hybrids shift into a final form upon reaching adulthood, which generally makes them look less like their birth mother's species. Akin is annoyed when he shifts from looking almost entirely human to entirely Oankali, since it will make his diplomatic work harder.
  • Mind Rape: Of a sort. Lilith mentions in a later book that if someone goes through the transformation stages of an Ooloi with them, they can't choose to leave them afterward.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Lilith Iyapo is the source of the name's ominous in-universe connotations, thanks to human "resisters" calling her the betrayer of humanity for being the first to cooperate with the Oankali's crossbreeding strategy.
  • Nigh-Invulnerable: Oankali Healing Factor is high enough that they mostly consider injuries like machate wounds and gunshots an irritation with no true threat to their lives. By Adulthood Rites, most resistor villages don't even bother to shoot at anything that looks Oankali.
    • Jodahs explicitly states it has redundant organs for just this reason.
    • The only serious injury an Oankali endures in the entire series is when Nikanj nearly loses one of its sensory arms to a resistor's machete.
    • The most dangerous part of fighting with humans for the Oankali is their sting reflex, where sufficient distress will cause an Oankali to lethally sting their attacker. The chief danger is that the Oankali will kill one of the few surviving humans, rather than that the Oankali will itself sustain permanent damage.
  • No Biological Sex: Oankali and construct young are completely sexless before metamorphosis at the end of adolescence. Which is not to say genderless, as the sex they develop during metamorphosis is chosen by the Oankali in question. The "eka," (pre-adulthood Oankali) will generally have chosen and begun living as their chosen gender well before metamorphosis. This goes awry for Jodahs and Aaor, who assume that they will be male and female, respectively, but have subconsciously pushed themselves ooloi without realizing that was a possibility for constructs. Young ooloi straddle the line; they have two metamorphoses, and are infertile but in possession of many ooloi secondary sex characteristics between them.
  • Non-Humans Lack Attributes: Oankali have no breasts or genitals, which confuses one human who makes several attempts at a Groin Attack before realizing she's not kicking anything. Justified since they create and implant fetuses without any need for gametes, then grow a temporary orifice to give birth; also, their digestive systems only produce trace amounts of dust as waste, which they secrete through their skin.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Since the Oankali read body language, pheromones, and other physiological things, they claim to "understand" what humans "want" even though said humans have not actually explained what they want — or even if they're explicitly saying they don't want something.
  • Only You Can Repopulate My Race: The human race, in this case. One hidden community is willing to take desperate measures to keep "pure" humans reproducing.
  • Organic Technology: Practically everything the Oankali make is alive, from their suspended animation pods (which were engineered from carnivorous plants) to their villages on Earth.
  • Our Humans Are Different: By Adulthood Rites, the human race is Long-Lived on the order of centuries, resistant to disease, and sterile, thanks to genetic manipulation by the Oankali. All children that are born are human-Oankali hybrids.
  • Parental Incest: One remote human village is populated by the descendants of a woman who wasn't made sterile and was able to have a child. The father ran off, so the villagers bred the woman with her own son.
  • Planet Spaceship: Oankali bio-engineer titanic, intelligent living "great ships" that transport entire planetary populations from world to world. Since they host entire ecosystems within their mass, including Arboreal Abodes for the Oankali, visitors often need to be convinced that they're not still on a planet. Growing a new one consumes enough mass to strip a planet to its core.
  • Polyamory: Oankali relationships involve a human male and female, an Oankali male and female, and an ooloi, a third Oankali gender.
    • Beyond that, trade villages (communities organized by the Oankali and their human collaborators) assume human men to be rootless wanderers by default. At one point, the village of Lowe has only five permanent male residents, among dozens of families.
  • Power Incontinence: Jodahs is the first human-Oankali hybrid to be born an "ooloi" and inherit the Oankali's full ability to control DNA and living tissue. For a while, it's stuck inflicting random mutations on itself and everything it touches, including the buildings of the Organic Technology village it lives in. Its abilities stabilize once he finds mates.
    • Throughout the series, the Oankali reflexive sting is a source of drama during tense encounters with humans. An Oankali in distress will lash out with a jellyfish-like sting from any of their sensory tentacles. Ooloi have fine control over their sting and can use it as anesthesia, but the sting is always fatal when delivered by males, females, or children.
  • Puny Earthlings: Compared to humans, the Oankali are stronger, tougher, and longer-lived; have superior senses and vastly more efficient metabolisms; are more mentally stable; and are much more technologically advanced; to say nothing of their ability to Heal, kill, or perform comprehensive genetic engineering with a touch.
  • Race Lift: The cover of the first paperback edition of vol. 1 (Dawn) depicted Lilith as white (but the other character in the scene exactly as described).
  • Rape as Drama: The Oankali are essentially raping humanity, and a lot of the humans don't take kindly to this.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: : Defied by the Oankali. Before returning them to Earth, they deliberately raze and bury any old human settlement that survived the final nuclear war, in order to discourage them from repeating their predecessors' mistakes and force them to form a new social order.
    • Merely downplayed in Adulthood Rites. While the cities themselves have been destroyed, a resistor community has sprung up around a pre-war landfill. Many artifacts of the old world are unearthed from the dump. The dump was spared because the Oankali organism that ate the rest of the ruins couldn't stomach that much plastic in one place.
  • Screw You, Elves!: The Oankali are very certain of themselves and extremely frustrating to argue with, which makes it something of a relief when they're proved wrong, even if that being wrong has horrible consequences, and more of a relief when they at last agree to let a small amount of humanity survive untouched to find their own fates.
  • Sex by Proxy: When Oankali mate with each other and/or with humans, the ooloi sex acts as intermediary, linking their nervous systems and transmitting pleasurable sensations to everyone involved. The other parties never touch each other and, in fact, are altered to experience profound disgust if they ever try to.
  • Shapeshifter Swan Song: The profoundly depressed ooloi Aaor loses control over its ability to manipulate its own DNA, causing it to shift into ever more biologically simple forms over several weeks. It regresses to a sluglike creature by the time it's rescued, and restoring its original form is an uphill battle against its body's urge to dissolve into single-celled organisms. They succeed in healing it.
  • Space Elves: The Oankali fit the trope to a T, being long-lived know-it-alls who use their genetic manipulation to ensure that they live in harmony with their environment.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: When the Oankali start interbreeding with humans, they form Polyamorous family units with two males, two females, and one ooloi. This proves to be a source of tension, since even well-disposed humans are weirded out at first by the idea of sleeping with an ooloi, and the less-well disposed accuse the Oankali of "making women of human men" by derailing stereotypical gender roles.
  • Shooting Superman: The Oankali have a Healing Factor that leaves them Nigh-Invulnerable in most circumstances, which doesn't stop certain humans from trying to shoot them. Repeatedly. Downplayed since they can get brought down after taking enough punishment, but this is not seen.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Nikanj manages to save the sperm of Lilith's first mate from the ship after he is killed, and impregnates her with it years afterward, despite originally telling her it would only last a few weeks. It's mentioned that another Ooloi figured out how to make it last indefinitely.
  • Squick: In-universe version. Even the Oankali who are specifically engineered to look as human as possible look so alien that Lilith can't help but recoil in horror from them initially.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Onakali are sort of humanoid in their current incarnation, but have had much more exotic forms in the past. One side character appears as a giant caterpillar-like being; it's also mentioned that they existed as Hive Minded schools of aquatic creatures for a while.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology: Oankali Organic Technology tends to look as little like technology as possible. One human visitor needs to be clued in that a village of primitive-looking huts is actually one living, intelligent organism that handles all utilities and long-distance communication and can grow into a spaceship if the need arises.
  • Superior Species: The series has quite a lot to say about how Oankali are better than the Puny Earthlings. In addition to their physical advantages, they can use their semi-telepathic abilities to participate in conversations involving thousands of them at once, with little confusion; coming to a consensus this way produces better solutions than electing a single leader.
  • Take a Third Option: A recurring trope in Imago, as a result of Jodahs turning Ooloi before any humanborn constructs were supposed to.
  • Transhuman: The Oankali modify the human species to be Long-Lived and resistant to disease; a few, like Lilith, also get Super Strength, a Healing Factor, and a limited ability to interface with their Organic Technology. Terms and conditions apply.
  • Unusual User Interface: Oankali can interface with any of their Organic Technology by touch alone, thanks to the same sensory filaments that let them perform microsurgery and genetic modification on living organisms through skin-to-skin contact. Allied humans need to be modified so they can do such minor things as signal a door to open, and are unable to use the technology in more sophisticated ways.
  • Weak Sauce Weakness: Oankali and their ships find plastic repellent and ultimately poisonous. The only source of Ruins of the Modern Age in the whole series is a garbage dump that had so much plastic in that the ship that ate the rest of the ruin left it alone.

Alternative Title(s): Xenogenesis


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