Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Since the publication in 1976 of her first novel, Patternmaster, Octavia Butler steadily gained in readership and in reputation. Venturing into a genre that, as she commented in an interview, originally was directed to adolescent white males, Butler used her works to make serious statements not only about male-female relationships but also about power, slavery, and the African American experience.

Inevitably, the Xenogenesis trilogy has been compared to Butler’s earlier Patternist series, which included Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984). The works have a number of themes in common; however, in Xenogenesis the mutations of the Patternist works are replaced by deliberate genetic alteration. Critics disagree about the implications of this difference. It may be related to what most agree is Butler’s pessimism about the future of humanity, which seems doomed by what she admits is its inborn tendency toward hierarchical systems.

Feminist critics are also troubled with what they see as an approval of rape in Xenogenesis, pointing out that Lilith is invaded by the ooloi. In fact, she is also impregnated without her consent. The entire Oankali mating system is so exotic, however, that it is hard to classify the ooloi’s function. It may well be that it is meant to substitute for assertive human males. In the sexual context, there is also some discussion of the absence or presence of homosexuality in the trilogy, but again, the unusual nature of the system Butler has invented makes it difficult to make any good argument on that matter.

Critics do agree that Xenogenesis is an admirable work. Its characters are memorable, and its themes are thought-provoking. It presents an experience not unlike a real visit to an unfamiliar culture, which one leaves as a somewhat different person.