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Xenogenesis explores some of the problems of human intelligence and how we might overcome them. Though intelligence is a trait that has helped humans survive, humans have warped their intelligence by using it toward maladaptive ends. This has created certain problems within human society and has limited humans' ability to...

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Xenogenesis explores some of the problems of human intelligence and how we might overcome them. Though intelligence is a trait that has helped humans survive, humans have warped their intelligence by using it toward maladaptive ends. This has created certain problems within human society and has limited humans' ability to further evolve. These problems include: the human tendency toward racism and xenophobia, our hierarchical social structure, and our reluctance to change. The alien race, the Oankali, provide an outsider's prospective on these problems. They help us see that these limitations, while deeply entrenched, can be lifted. Humanity can choose to use its intelligence in a manner that is more socially harmonious. Indeed, things may have to change if humanity is to survive and continue into the future.

The Oankali often point out that humanity's traits can lead to self-destruction. Jdayah, an Oankali friend of Lilith's, tells her: “You have a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics. Either alone would have been useful, would have aided the survival of your species. But the two together are lethal. It was only a matter of time before they destroyed you.” These two traits are intelligence and social hierarchy. Indeed, it is hinted that humanity's hierarchical social structure has already caused its near-destruction once, in a massive extinction-level nuclear war.

The problems of intelligence are many. Intelligent beings can trick themselves and hide information from themselves. It takes Lilith months to come to terms with her new reality, partly because she is deep in denial. Such strong denial is made possible by human intelligence, which allows us to manipulate and question the facts. However, denial does not serve humanity's continued evolution. The Oankali have settled planet Earth. The old world is gone and in order to survive in this new world, Lilith and the other humans have to face their new reality as soon as possible, and adjust their behavior to this new set of circumstances.

The new situation requires that the humans lean into their other traits: curiosity, adaptability, and flexibility. Lilith is successful because she leans into those traits more often than she succumbs to xenophobia and rigidity: “She had learned to keep her sanity by accepting things as she found them, adapting herself to new circumstances by putting aside the old ones whose memories might overwhelm her.” This adaptability allows Lilith to become close with the Oankali and eventually procreate with them. Lilith personifies the positive traits of humanity. She uses her intelligence in a manner that is flexible and open.

Ultimately, Xenogenesis can be read as a positive take on the possibilities of human nature. Indeed, the Oankali consider humans to be “beautiful. Biologically interesting, attractive . . . fascinating.” The Oankali are intensely attracted to the human race for our capacity to love despite our deep flaws. As one member of the alien race notes: “You are horror and beauty in rare combination. In a very real way, you've captured us, and we can't escape.”

The Plot

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By definition, xenogenesis is the derivation of one species from members of another species. Such is the mission of the Oankali, an extraterrestrial race of genetic engineers whose activities link the three novels composing this trilogy. In the course of ensuring their own survival by interbreeding with other species and thereby bringing varieties of life to thousands of worlds, the Oankali found and captured a few human survivors of Earth’s devastating wars. As gene traders characterized by their extraordinary sensitivities, their abhorrence of violence, and their profound appreciation of all life-forms, the Oankali thereafter sought to make Earth habitable once again. In so doing, they confront what they perceive as the Human Contradiction: the high intelligence of human beings countered by their inherited hierarchical behavior, a combination that, if left unaltered, ensures the ultimate wastage of all the planet’s life, humans included.

Dawn, the opening novel of the trilogy, recounts the Oankali’s genetic manipulation of Lilith Iyapo. This proceeds under the aegis of an Oankali named Jdahya, who to Lilith is initially a horrific creature. Nevertheless, through 250 years of transforming Lilith, the Oankali offer her and her partially human offspring a lengthier life, free of disease and with self-healing capacities, and rich in diversity, either on Mars or aboard a spaceship.

Lilith appears in all three novels both as a pioneer in the Oankali experiment and, transformed, as an earth mother to a new breed. Lilith’s and her Oankali family’s offspring, principally Akin and his siblings, are the focus in Adulthood Rites.

Resolution of the emotional and intellectual strains faced by the new, partly human Oankali race, their interactions with resisting humans on Earth, and their ultimate decision, despite its dangers, to replant life on Earth are the subject of Imago. In this third novel, Octavia Butler describes the maturation of the Oankali-bred race, which nevertheless incorporates elements of Lilith’s original human qualities: adaptability, a sense of adventure, and the need to quest.

Dawn, 1987

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Lilith Iyapo

Lilith Iyapo, a survivor of a nuclear war that almost completely destroys Earth. Terrified to learn that her captors are aliens, Lilith gradually becomes used to the Oankali, but her fear is renewed when she realizes that they intend to breed with humans in a genetic “trade” and will no longer allow humans to breed among themselves. Lilith reluctantly agrees to awaken other humans and acclimatize them to their fate. Although she eventually cares for the Oankali, Lilith feels guilty and wonders whether she has betrayed humanity.


Nikanj, an ooloi (the Oankali third sex) specifically bred to live with humans. When Lilith’s human mate, Joseph, is killed, Nikanj uses Joseph’s sperm to impregnate Lilith with the first human-Oankali child.

Tate Marah

Tate Marah, the first human awakened by Lilith. Initially Lilith’s friend, Tate does nothing to prevent Joseph’s death when the humans rebel against the Oankali, thus choosing to side against Lilith.

Gabriel (Gabe) Rinaldi

Gabriel (Gabe) Rinaldi, a human awakened by Lilith. Gabe distrusts the Oankali and convinces other humans to rebel against them.

Curt Loehr

Curt Loehr, a human who is unable to accept the Oankali. Believing that Lilith is Oankali rather than human, Curt irrationally kills Joseph, reasoning that Lilith’s mate also must be an enemy.


Jdahya, the Oankali male who makes initial contact with Lilith. Jdahya helps Lilith overcome her fear of the Oankali.

Joseph Shing

Joseph Shing, Lilith’s lover and mate, who is killed by Curt Loehr.

Adulthood Rites, 1988

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Akin, the first human-Oankali male born to a human mother. When Akin is kidnapped by Resisters because he looks like a human baby, he begins to understand the Resisters’ motivation in fighting the Oankali. Akin eventually speaks on the Resisters’ behalf, asking the Oankali to restore the Resisters’ fertility and allow them to settle on Mars, even though he believes humans are genetically predisposed to destroy themselves.

Tate Marah

Tate Marah, a Resister in the village of Phoenix. Tate encourages the village to buy Akin from his kidnappers and becomes the child’s closest friend. When Akin’s family comes for him, Tate is tempted to join the Oankali but chooses to go to the Mars colony out of loyalty to Gabe.

Gabriel (Gabe) Rinaldi

Gabriel (Gabe) Rinaldi, a Phoenix Resister who treats Akin with kindness but who continues to hate the Oankali. When Tate is severely injured, Gabe only reluctantly allows Akin to heal him because the healing necessitates intimate contact with the Oankali.

Lilith Iyapo

Lilith Iyapo, Akin’s mother. Although she has borne and loved many human-Oankali children, Lilith still experiences moments of tremendous bitterness toward the Oankali.

Augustino (Tino) Leal

Augustino (Tino) Leal, Akin’s human father and a former Resister. Although Tino feels guilty about leaving his Resister village, he believes it is better to have children with the Oankali than to live a sterile, pointless existence.


Tiikuchahk, Akin’s paired sibling. Because Akin and Tiikuchahk are deprived of the sibling bonding process, Tiikuchahk develops as a male instead of a female as expected, and he and Akin are not able to mate, as do most Oankali siblings.

Imago, 1989

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Jodahs, the first human-Oankali ooloi. Jodahs is considered dangerous by the Oankali because it has trouble controlling its shape-changing and regenerative abilities. Jodahs finds its own human mates, proving that it has a special ability to win over humans, even those who have resisted the Oankali for more than a century.


Aaor, Jodahs’ paired sibling, who also becomes ooloi. At first unable to find the human mates it needs so desperately, Aaor becomes disconsolate and almost dies, but with Jodahs’ help it eventually finds human mates.


Jesusa, Jodahs’ human female mate, who is part of a small hidden group of still-fertile humans. Jesusa believes that it is her duty to bear human children, even though she is afflicted with a dangerous genetic condition and most of her children will die horribly. Jodahs and its family convince Jesusa that her people’s suffering can end if they accept the Oankali.


Tomás, Jesusa’s brother and Jodahs’ human male mate. He is almost blind and crippled from his genetic afflictions until Jodahs heals him. Tomás accepts Jodahs more readily than does Jesusa.

Lilith Iyapo

Lilith Iyapo, Jodahs’ mother. Lilith longs to warn Jesusa and Tomás that their mating with Jodahs will be permanent whether or not they want it to be. She keeps silent, however, because she loves Jodahs and knows that unless he finds human mates he will face exile or death.


Nikanj, Jodahs’ ooloi parent, who is dismayed when Jodahs becomes ooloi. Nikanj fears that its own desire for a same-sex child has caused it to turn Jodahs into an ooloi before the Oankali are ready to face this challenge.


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Beal, Frances M. “Black Scholar Interview with Octavia Butler: Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre.” The Black Scholar 17 (March/April, 1986): 14-18. A crucial interview in which Butler denies that her fiction is utopian, since she does not “believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society,” stressing their lethal combination of intelligence and hierarchical behavior. Butler comments extensively on the recent emergence of women as science fiction writers and also cites examples of the prejudice with which a black science fiction writer must deal.

Bonner, Frances. “Difference and Desire, Slavery and Seduction: Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis. ” Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 48 (Spring, 1990): 50-62. Although this essay has a feminist emphasis, it is a thorough and thoughtful analysis. Bonner discusses each theme of the series at length, comments on the relative importance of gender and race in the works, and argues the rape/seduction question intelligently and fairly. Includes helpful endnote references. Essential reading.

Newson, Adele S. Review of Dawn and Adulthood Rites, by Octavia E. Butler. MELUS 23 (Summer, 1989): 389-396. Comments that the works are important reading for African Americans, since the primary theme is the results of prejudice. Lilith is a prototype of the admirable African American woman, surviving in a situation not of her making. Unlike the first novel, Newson notes, Adulthood Rites has serious flaws such as weak characterization and prosiness.

Schwab, Gabriele. “Ethnographies of the Future: Personhood, Agency, and Power in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis. ” In Accelerating Possession: Global Futures of Property and Personhood, edited by Bill Maurer and Gabriele Schwab. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Discusses the relationship between race and agency in Butler’s world, as well as the relationship between that world and the real one.

Shinn, Thelma J. “The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. A good essay on the feminine archetypes in Butler’s early work, arguing that her African American women provide hope for the future of humankind. Through them, society can learn to change its attitudes toward differences and toward power and politics.

Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17 (July, 1990): 239-251. Disagrees with Butler’s denials of feminism and utopianism made in the 1986 interview with Frances M. Beal and argues that there are both utopian and, admittedly, dystopian elements in Butler’s fiction. Her feminism differs from that of female science fiction writers who are not black; at times her works seem more a critique of most feminist utopian science fiction than an affirmation of it.

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Critical Essays