ADULTHOOD RITES by Octavia E. Butler (BOOK REVIEW)
“Human beings fear difference,” Lilith had told him once. “Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior.” And she had put her hand on his hair. “When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.”
Adulthood Rites (1988) is the second book in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. Set some years after the end of Dawn (1987) when Lilith and the other Humans who have mated with the Oankali have returned to Earth, Adulthood Rites tells the story of her son Akin, the first male construct born to a human mother. This change in perspective demonstrates Butler’s approach to writing sequels: Adulthood Rites does more than merely continue the story of how the Oankali came to Earth, rescued the surviving humans and mated with them set up in Dawn, it provides a fresh perspective that throws the complexities of the Human/Oankali relationship into new light. Structured as Akin’s coming of age tale, Adulthood Rites shows us deeper nuances in the Oankali, their Human partners, and the Human resisters who don’t want anything to do with them. It is this that makes Adulthood Rites such a bold and satisfying sequel.
As the first male construct born to a human mother, Akin looks almost indistinguishable from a human baby except for his Oankali tongue, which he can use to sense his environment. This will change once he enters his metamorphosis to become an adult, but for now, he appears to be a healthy male adult child, something none of the Human resisters have seen on Earth since the Oankali took away their ability to reproduce without the Oankali. Despite appearances, he has the enhanced cognition, awareness and sensitivity of all Human/Oankali construct children, so when Akin is stolen from Lilith’s village by resisters, he is acutely aware of his precarious situation. Forced into a situation where his hidden alienness is a source of fear and disgust to his Human captors, Akin nevertheless forms bonds with the Humans around him, and comes to understand and sympathise with their plight. When he eventually is returned to the Oankali/Human village of his family, he finds himself in the unique position of understanding both his Oankali and his Human inheritance. Akin can see what the Oankali can’t – that their treatment of the resister Humans is patronising and cruel. Akin must go among his Oankali forebearers and advocate for the Humans, if he can get them to understand the wisdom and insight brought to him by his unique perspective.
Following on from Dawn’s rather bleak ending, Adulthood Rites embraces hope by engaging with one of the trilogy’s key themes, hybridity. In doing so it hints where Butler will take the final book in the series, Imago (1989). Akin, not only as a descendent of both the Humans and the Oankali, but culturally from his experiences of life with the resisters, has a foot in both the Oankali world and the Human world. Lilith’s advice to Akin to choose the Oankali way and embrace difference is all the more poignant given her continued attempts to resist the Oankali. Akin shares the Oankali’s attitude towards the natural world, seeing himself as a part of it rather than something to be overcome. His attitude is starkly contrasted with the hierarchical, paranoid resisters who are terrified of anyone different to them and quick to respond with violence. However, even given many of the resisters’ hostility and resentment towards them, he succeeds in making himself part of their community and understanding their plight in a way the other Oankali, even those like Nikanj who have mated with humans and formed family units with them, cannot. He understands the importance to humanity of being in charge of their own destiny, even if their inherent biological contradictions will lead them to destroy themselves again, as the Oankali believe they will.
Once Akin returns to his village, he is sent to the Oankali ship to get in touch with his Oankali side. Adulthood Rites gives us some amazing sequences of worldbuilding where we get to see the Oankali’s organic tech from their own perspective, something hinted at in Dawn but given full rein here. The Oankali ships are living beings, created through their master genetic engineering, able to support and sustain life in the vacuum of space. We learn that the Oankali settlements on Earth are also living beings, ones that will eventually metamorphose into ships when the time comes for the Human/Oankali constructs’ descendants to leave Earth and continue the Oankali’s quest for new life. Similarly, whilst the young Akin can pass for human, at least until his metamorphosis, and the Oankali on Earth have multiple tentacles but a body plan that largely mirrors Humans, the Oankali adapted for life on the ship have completely different shapes, resembling giant centipedes or sea-slugs, and are possessed of a range of beyond-human sensory perceptions to help them run the ship safely. Butler takes inspiration from insect biology and single-celled organisms to create the alien complexity of Oankali biotech. The end result is both fascinatingly strange yet biologically plausible.
Akin’s radical solution, to give the Humans who do not wish to merge with the Oankali a second chance at forging their own destiny, comes as a surprise to both Humans and Oankali. It demonstrates that the Oankali, for all that they have a greater sensitivity and are less destructive than Humanity, are neither omniscient nor infallible. In fact many of them become ensnared by their own prejudices about Humans. But by being able to bridge the gap between the two species, Akin shows that there are alternatives to both Human and Oankali ways of thinking, and the different restrictions that characterise both. The book ends with Akin going through his final metamorphosis to become his imago, or adult sexually mature stage. However, the disruption caused by the first male construct born to a human mother only hints at the disruption caused by the first ooloi constructs, something Butler would explore in the final volume of the trilogy.