Imago – by Octavia E. Butler

Here I go again. I’ve just finished reading the third and last book of Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series. I want – no: I need – to talk about it, and also to share some reasoning about the entire series now that I can see it as a whole.

Title: Imago

Author: Octavia E. Butler

Original Publisher: Warner Books

Publication Date: 1 May 1989

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 220

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

Synopsis: Imago tells us the story of Jodahs, another child of Lilith. Originally supposed to be just another human-Oankali hybrid, Jodahs however turns out to be an ooloi – the first ever born to a human mother. Such a revelation is as shocking for the protagonist as it is for its community, who consider it potentially dangerous. Jodahs goes into exile in the forest, where it stumbles upon the last surviving group of independently fertile humans, who are however severely inbred and plagues by genetic diseases. Jodahs uses its newfound abilities to heal two siblings and mating with them, leading to yet another attempt of interaction between Oankali and resisting humans.

Analysis: Unlike other books of the series, Imago is written in first person, thus fully immersing the reader in Jodahs’s unique point of view. The style is otherwise unchanged: as usual Butler employs an unassuming, straightforward prose to effectively deliver inherently alien and disquieting concepts.

The novel brings to a completions what the previous volumes had started, both in terms of themes and plot. The story shows us yet another unavoidable step in the cultural and genetic assimilation between humans and Oankali. Dawn had dealt with Lilith’s reluctant cooperation, and Adulthood Rites had shown us all the tensions and conflicts stemming from such a forced coexistence, as well as the rising relevance of constructs; now, Imago focuses on a deeper level of merging, since for the very first time a half-human hybrid endowed with the advanced skills of genetic manipulation to which only the ooloi have access.

Which also means: we have a main character who’s neither male nor female, instead belonging to a uniquely alien third gender (by the way, I am using “it” to refer to the ooloi because that’s Butler’s choice, even though I am well aware it sounds off for modern standards). Imago not only features a third-gender protagonist, but deals with the unexpected reveal of Jodahs identity and its ripercussions. Had I read it back in the day, would have I been tempted to read it as a significant trans experience, as a better-than-nothing case of nonbinary representation? I can’t really tell. From my current perspective, I mostly see as an example of fictional alien sex – and a fine one at that for what matters. True, there are some lines about Jodahs questioning its own identity and being variously misgendered by others, and even a hint to the chance of favouring a different sex – but at the end of the day Jodahs’s story is less about discovering its true self and more about embracing its reproductive destiny.

Which brings us back to my already mentioned dissatisfaction for the treatment of gender identities in this series. Now, having read the entire trilogy, I can say it’s less a case of Butler not exploring the subject well enough, and more of her personal convictions on the matter, and possibly her brand of feminism, not aligning very much with my worldview. Which is a matter of fact and not a judgment on the book’s literary quality – unless you’re the kind of critic that would blame Shakespeare for not really understanding Marx or something along those lines.

Now, I am not familiar with the entirety of Butler’s work, but at least in this series gender identities do appear to be tied to their biological function and little more. It’s not crude, ham-fisted reductionism as Butler can indeed handle nuance, and we do not see all characters brought down to their simplest stereotypes (well, in the few cases when they’re allowed a smidge of characterisation, at least); most notably, Lilith herself is sometimes described as possessing traditionally masculine qualities, being strong and physically imposing; however, as the narrative doubles down on the theme of genetic traits – human or otherwise – it can’t escape a good measure of bioessentialist determinism in singling out each gender’s typical traits. If anything, “masculine” characteristics are portrayed in a negative light instead of being celebrated, men are often regarded as a potential danger while nurturing roles are exalted. It’s a shift in value judgment that leaves traditional assumptions otherwise untouched.

As the series moves from a mostly human to a mostly alien point of view, genetic determinism comes across more and more as an unquestioned assumption. If in previous works the somehow underdeveloped portrayal of interpersonal relationships may have been ascribed to a classic sci-fi tendency to neglect proper characterisation, here it’s explicit that bonds between characters are built on physical drives first and foremost, with no cultural or psychological superstructure; secondary characters are even more devoided of personality, what matters is their biological potential, and how easily they can be converted to the Oankali’s cause.

Since we are at it, the portrayal of both humans and Oankali does deserve some additional note. As I mentioned in my reviews of both Dawn and Imago, both species are problematic to say the least. However, I couldn’t help but notice how, at least on surface, the narrative appeared to me more lenient with the Oankali, while openly depicting humans as violent savages with very little redeeming qualities. Sure, the Oankali have no regard for personal freedom, have no qualms forcing sterility or pregnancy on helpless people, and ultimately plan to ransack Earth for all its useful material – but their creepiness is largely inferred, and a superficial reader could even mistake them for benevolent, especially if we accept their view that humankind is genetically doomed, to the point that no ideology or good intention could save them from self-destruction. On the other hand, humans who don’t submit to the Oankali are regularly represented in the most brutish way, apparently raping, kindapping, or trying to murder everything they see. Humans are granted some kind of freedom on Mars, to respect their equally inherent tendency to independence, however the bleakness of their ultimate fate it’s never questioned.

While part of it it’s certainly due to the chosen point of view, once we take a step back we can’t help but wonder how much of what we’ve read should be taken at face value: is humanity really so flawed that it’d be better off under the yoke to a “superior” species? Or is the Oankali’s paternalistic prejudice a metaphor for our attitude for different groups of people, and a cautionary tale on our own hypocrisy? If humankind’s inborn nature mustn’t be taken at face value, what about the discourse on sex and gender? In the end, this series left me with very little answers, and with a lot to think about.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Ok, just in case you hadn’t noticed, this series was something. My appreciation for specific scenes, styles, messages has been quite fluctuating for the reasons that I have mentioned, but this doesn’t change the fact that these books are not only recommended, but a must read for anyone who loves science fiction in its nature of literature of ideas.

Content Warning: Rape – Violence – Death – Infertility – Incest – Terminal Illness – Body Horror

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