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Octavia E. Butler - Imago (1989)

The third and final volume of the Xenogenesis trilogy, published by Warner Books. The cover is okay-ish. Blurb gives fair credit for previous work and awards.

First sentence: "I slipped into my first metamorphosis so quietly that no one noticed."

This is Butler's second novel written in the first person; the first was Kindred. I wish I could say that this one had Kindred's power, but it doesn't, although it has its moments.

We've skipped over fifty years since the end of Adulthood Rites. The dilemmas and challenges of the first two books are history. Lilith and other members of her family, from Dawn, are minor characters; Akin, from Adulthood Rites, is referred to in passing. The action is set in an unnamed area of South America, and there is some local colour and sense of place. There's a lot of touch, and some sex. The personal rewards and costs of association between Humans and Oankali are explored in some detail.

The story takes the main character, Jodahs, Lilith's youngest child, from the brink of adulthood to some kind of maturity. We learn more about the Oankali, their drives, and their family relationships. We meet humans who have survived without interference from the Oankali, and learn about the cost of their survival. Once again the Oankali focus on the main character, and weigh risk against the hoped-for prize. Once again, the Humans are the pawns in the Oankali game. Once again, there is a resolution.

What there is not is a strong idea carrying the story. Jodahs proves that the Oankali are not in control of everything, that they and their creations are at risk from what they do, that the future they desire is not inevitable. This could be a powerful idea, as powerful as the original idea of the Oankali engineering their own future. But somehow there is no tension in it, no power to drive the story. We follow Jodahs' journey, we sympathise with him and his family, but the impetus for the story is the personal experience and the family-making. Somehow the idea of the risk that Jodahs represents is not developed, becomes an afterthought to the happy ending for the characters we have come to know and sympathise with.

In the end I'm in two minds about this trilogy. I wanted some kind of completeness of ideas across the three books, but I don't feel I found that. The Oankali's survival strategy is a powerful idea, but we're focussed on the Dinso, the Oankali/Human hybrids remaining on Earth, and learn little of either the Toaht, the hybrid group that will take the original Oankali ship onwards to another star or the Akjai of either race who will remain unhybridised. We learned all we needed about that idea in the first two volumes; and with its focus on Jodahs' personal experience Imago adds very little. Alternatively, if we look at the ideas of family and gender roles, we have the families comprising both races and three genders, and Imago adds a lot to our understanding of the family dynamics, but we learn little about the Oankali members of the families and there is curiously little detail of the aspects of the families that individuals are not happy with. So I end the trilogy wanting both more and less of it: less to appreciate the focus on the core idea; more to explore the details we are left lacking.

(Two asides: Both Lilith's and Akin's names had meaning in connection with their stories; if Jodahs' has I didn't notice, and though I wondered if the name is directs the reader to think of Judas, betrayer of Christ, and Jodahs is arguably a betrayer, I can't make that link quite fit the book. And there is a strong emphasis on the different and essential characters of the male and female genders, regardless of race, which I don't think you would find in a modern book focussed around ideas of gender and reproduction, but which I don't have time to explore here.)


Caroline M

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