Adulthood Rites – by Octavia E. Butler

After my recent (and fairly enthusiastic) review of Dawn, I am once again talking about Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series. I’ve just finished Adulthood Rites, which is the second book of the trilogy, and, well, there is a lot to say about it.

Title: Adulthood Rites

Author: Octavia E. Butler

Original Publisher: Warner Books

Publication Date: 1 January 1988

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 277

Standalone or Series: Second book of the Xenogenesis series (a.k.a. Lilith’s Brood)

Synopsis: Several years after the ending of Dawn, humans and Oankali are living together on Earth, but their coexistence is anything but serene, and while some terrestrial survivors have begrudgingly accepted to cooperate with the aliens, others are still living in all-human villages. Since the Ooloi have made all humans infertile, and only able to reproduce with their intervention and by mixing their genes with the Oankali, the “resisters” are resorting to kidnapping babies from their neighbouring communities, trying to raise them as their own even though they’re aware they are actually Oankali hybrid constructs.

Akin, the main character of the novel, is Lilith Iyapo’s son, and the first male construct born to a human mother. As a small child, he’s mostly human in appearance, although he’s intellectually much more mature than his appearance would suggest. Kidnapped and traded by resisters as a baby, and later retrieved by his native village, Akin grows up with a complex understanding of both groups and their motives, but at the same time deprived of the deep connections his siblings were allowed to form. His unique perspective may help him see that a third way is available, and to offer humankind a new glimpse of hope.

Analysis: If Dawn was consistently told through Lilith’s point of view, here the third person narrator switches between Akin’s experience and that of a few secondary characters, thus providing us with more information on what’s going on at the same time. The writing style is nonetheless quite homogeneous, prioritising concepts over atmsophere; as a result, all relevant parts of the setting are described with clarity and efficiency, but with little emotion. Similarly, characters are explored with some sort of clinical detachment, that reduces them to little more than the sum of their biological attributes and philosophical beliefs.

The similar characteristics could also be noticed in Dawn, where they could be however easily ascribed to Lilith’s own personality, as well as to the largely artificial quality of the setting. Here, given the larger and more articulated cast, the same dispassionate tone stands out more, especially as the story touches upon a number of emotional topics and relationships. This isn’t necessary a flaw of the novel, but a sign of where its attention is unambiguously focused.

Not unlike the previous book of the trilogy, Adulthood Rites gives us a fascinatingly ambiguous portrait of the relationship between humans and Oankali; while the Oankali are disturbingly manipulative and paternalistic, in a way that remindful of colonialistic practices, and of the condescension of the powerful more in general, humankind is also depicted mercilessly in all its obtuseness, intolerance, and self-destructive tentencies. Although one can’t help but wondering – how much is humanity really hopeless, and how much is their diminished and subjugated state only exacerbating the very flaws the Oankali were meant to rectify? In the end, thanks to Akin’s mediation, a group of humans are allowed to build an independent colony on Mars; which is presented as a last, unexpected chance of freedom, but is also criticised as cruel by the Oankali, who take it for granted that humans won’t be able to take good care of themselves.

The novel also further expands on the nature of sex and gender among the Oankali, especially as it reflects on Akin’s coming of age: a subject that couldn’t escape my attention since I’m always interested in all non-conventional explorations of gender identities and roles. I must say, however, that while the topic works fine as a piece of sci-fi worldbuilding, it provides very little relatable insight that could be applied to our own world; and not so much for the obvious reason that it’s some very alien species that we’re talking about; but because it is entirely built on biological determinism, with gender characteristics and roles that may be different from what we’re used to, but are still strictly linked to one’s anatomy and reproductive role; for the Oankali gender might to some extent be a choice, but it still comes with a sexual function and a societal role that are irrevocably tied together. While some significant creativity is displayed in the description of the Oankali, the novel still seems to rely on some very cis- and heteronormative assumptions, especially as long as humans are concerned, and even on gender essentialism in the way the nature of men and women is described. Characters even describe life as meaningless if one can’t reproduce – granted, such a statement must be framed in the post-apocalyptic context described above, where the survival of our species is under threat, nevertheless I would have loved if at least someone had provided more nuance, instead of treating it as an unquestionable postulate.

Conclusions & Recommendations: While I had absolutely loved Dawn, Adulthood Rites left me with some mixed feelings. I am not saying it’s not a very valid book and brilliant piece of science fiction, I’m just saying that it shows more obviously its age. It’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a lover of classic sci-fi. If, however, this book ended up on your radar due to its exploration of gender, and you’re expecting some refreshing piece of queer literature, keep in mind it’s a 1988 book we’re talking about, and measure your hopes accordingly.

Content Warning: Kidnapping – Violence – Infertility – Xenophobia – Death – Rape – Child Abuse – Terminal Illness – Body Horror

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: