Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313

In the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler, there are three novels telling stories of different characters in Lilith's Brood (the main title of the trio): Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago . Lilith is a human woman who has survived an apocalyptic war on earth, and is brought to...

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In the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler, there are three novels telling stories of different characters in Lilith's Brood (the main title of the trio): Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Lilith is a human woman who has survived an apocalyptic war on earth, and is brought to live on an alien planet where the inhabitants try to determine how best to save humanity. In the course of considering humanity's survival, many of human histories flawed legacies are exposed.

Being named Lilith, after Adam's second wife, this character's name suggests an alternative race of humans, a sort of parallel world of existence, separate from the notion that Adam and Eve gave birth to the descendants of the human race (based on the Bible's creation mythology). Because humanity has a chance to reinvent itself and do things differently, one major theme has to do with the behaviors that have led to humanity's downfall, and how it may be impossible, after all, for human beings to learn to become more enlightened and compassionate. This includes an exploration of impulses like greed, arrogance, anger, and fear, and the way they are expressed in behaviors of social dominance like enslavement, patriarchy, and exploitation of the weak or poor. The novel suggests that such behaviors have been direct causes of humanity's destruction.

The alien race sheltering Lilith is very different from humans in many ways and these differences offer alternative perspectives. One interesting difference is the presence of a third gender, and how normal this is. This sheds light on how human beings have often engaged in bigoted or oppressive behavior related to gender, partly due to the insistence on observing gender as a binary system that is expected to conform to rigid social norms. The novel's theme of the redemption of humanity from its past mistakes is addressed through the exploration of these kinds of differing social norms.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

In Xenogenesis, the author’s ideas are stated explicitly, in the form of instruction to the uninformed, either by Oankali characters or by informed humans such as Lilith who agree with the Oankali point of view. The central theme of the trilogy is the existence of a flaw in human nature. This flaw is defined as possession of two irreconcilable characteristics, intelligence and a passion for hierarchy. Because they are hierarchical by nature, humans always try to exert their authority. Because they are intelligent, they are capable of doing great damage.

This drive for domination makes humans a violent people. Butler illustrates this human habit throughout the trilogy, for example in Paul Titus’s physical attack on Lilith; in the raids, vandalism, and shootings; even in the sounds of threats and blows that are always heard in human villages. Despite the fact that violence destroyed Earth, humans do not seem to have changed. In sharp contrast is the Oankali’s reverence for all living things.

The aggressiveness of humans also explains their dislike of anyone or anything that looks or acts different from them. Their answer to difference is either to destroy it or, like the would-be mother who wishes to cut off girls’ tentacles, to force it into conformity. In Adulthood Rites, Akin recalls Lilith’s explanation of a basic difference between humans and Oankali. Humans, she told him, fear difference, while Oankali search for it and embrace it. As a result, it is implied, humans stagnate while the Oankali constantly improve themselves and their lives. Their use of human cancer cells illustrates the Oankali method of absorbing the defects of others and putting them to positive use. Instead of rejecting the cancer cells they found in humans such as Lilith, the Oankali channeled them into a healing function, the reconstitution of destroyed or damaged body parts.

As conservative as they are, it is not surprising that humans are shocked by the three-gender sexual system of the Oankali. Butler’s ingenious invention has important thematic implications. In her system, there is no male sexual domination. Instead, an enlightened ooloi controls both the male and the female, making impossible the manipulation, intimidation, and rape so common among humans. It is also notable that the Oankali family system, in which five adults serve as parents, provides the same kind of shared responsibility and emotional stability that is now often found in extended families in one location.

Finally, the author makes it clear that even the most considerate, least violent humans could learn intellectual flexibility from the Oankali, who are always willing to consider new suggestions, to modify their ideas, even on occasion to reverse their decisions. Their flexibility is illustrated by their agreeing to the colony on Mars. Even though they fear that humans will once again destroy themselves, the Oankali would rather give them another chance than close out the possibility of good. In a similar position of power, Butler’s humans would hardly have been so generous.

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