Friday, 30 January 2015

Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler


*Some Spoilers Ahead*

Much better cover than the first of the series I got out. It makes Akin look a lot less human than he does through most of the book, but still, at least this one isn't whitewashed.

This book starts years after the first one, as the humans and Oankali are established on Earth, and have been giving birth to Oankali/human construct children for quite a while now. I maybe missed the explanation of why they're called constructs, because aren't all children through the mediating influence of an Oankali ooloi (their third sex, masters of genemixing) constructed, whether part human or not? I mean, isn't that what makes the Oankali what they are?

Most humans have run to the hills, hoping that the Oankali's statement that they had made it so that humans couldn't procreate without an ooloi was false. They've had long enough to despair. And enough desire for children that they've turned to kidnapping construct children that look mostly human (although they will change dramatically at metamorphosis). Some threaten to cut off the parts of those children that make apparent their joint heritage, even though those are sensory organs for the children.

Akin is the first child who will probably become male (with the Oankali, male and female don't become determined until metamorphosis) born to a human female. There have been males born to Oankali females, but for some reason, it's considered more dangerous when the mother is a human. He is kidnapped when quite young, although he has been able to speak since days after he was born. During his time being kidnapped, he becomes convinced that the humans should be able to have children without ooloi intervention. With the Oankali, every time they meet a new species and "trade" with it (the reason for the quotation marks is something I want to discuss in a minute), they split into three groups. One mixes with the new species and stays for a long time. One mixes with the new species and departs into space. The third stays as it is, and moves on.

That way, any new changes have a safety buffer. Akin argues that human deserve the same consideration. Other Oankali believe that humans are too dangerous to give a legitimate second chance. Beside, they're going to use up Earth over the next few centuries and leave it a husk. Akin argues that they could be given Mars.

I liked the first book in this trilogy, but somehow, it didn't grab me the same way that Parable of the Sower did. I needn't have worried. Adulthood Rites got inside of me, made me uncomfortable, made me think. I'd put the book down and walk through the world in a daze for a while, trying to sort out what I thought, and why. What made me uncomfortable and why. The implications of Butler's writing and what that meant. This is a truly astounding book, with complex philosophical discussions being worked out through characters and their interactions. It's not preachy, and the philosophy isn't heavyhanded, or even in huge chunks. It's woven in so subtly that it has a much stronger impact. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a masterclass in writing.

One thing she takes on is something that bothered me about the first book (and indeed, I'm sure was supposed to bother me.) The ooloi can sense emotions, if not the thoughts behind them. That means that they will often do what the person they're with wants rather than what they consent to. In practice, that means that an ooloi drugs and initiates sex with a man who will not resist, because he does want it, but will not consent. It means that an ooloi impregnates Lilith without her consent because he can sense that she wants a child.

It's troubling, and in the first book, it's just left there as a disturbing undercurrent. And then in the second book, it gets crystallized into one moment, where the Lilith draws a clear line between the two, and, I think, between the concepts of desire and want. Or desire and consent. One may desire something without actually wanting it. And certainly without consenting. She says at one point that if she was strong enough not to ask the ooloi to impregnate her, it should have been strong enough not to do it.

That hit me with a ton of bricks, because I did carry around that discomfort with the issue from the first book, and in one sentence of anger and frustration, I understood why. The ooloi take desire to be consent, and then feel free to do whatever they like. And the ways that violates bodily autonomy are truly terrifying. It takes the issue of people thinking they have to right to do whatever they want to the body of another person, and takes this pinprick right to the center of it, to the idea that they want it, or are asking for it. Sure, the Oankali can say, and say truthfully, that they are doing what these people desire. But that is not enough. That is not consent. That is not even want.

That Butler can get at that, that issue, make that differentiation, and in circumstances in which it hits emotionally and strongly. I am in awe. That was the section that I meant when I said dazed. When I went out for my husband for lunch shortly thereafter, I was quiet and I think my eyes were focused somewhere very far away for most of the time we were out.

And that's just one small moment. There are more. It's a truly amazing, if disturbing, book. I really can't wait to see how the third brings this all together.

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