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Adulthood Rites by Octavia E. Butler

book cover of Adulthood Rites

I liked the first book in this trilogy, Dawn, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this book so much more. To give credit where it's due, this is probably because Dawn did all the grunt work laying the foundations for this story. It had to introduce the Oankali, their very alien biology, technology and social structures, as well as a large cast of characters which (many of them) remain relevant in this instalment as well. Now that the reader is already familiar with all of that, Adulthood Rites can move on and just tell the story. It also helps that, where the protagonist of the last book was the somewhat prickly Lilith Iyapo (not that you would blame her or anything…), the protagonist here is the somewhat more likeable Akin, her son. Akin is the product of the Oankali's plans for humanity: with two human parents and three Oankali ones, Akin is a hybrid of both species, uniquely placed to understand the outlooks and concerns of them both.

So, since the end of the previous book, the action has moved to Earth. On the one hand, there are villages of humans and Oankali living together, building the new kind of society the Oankali had envisaged. On the other hand, there are villages of “resisters”, who are determined to live without the Oankali. The Oankali have mostly left them alone, except that they have sterilised them, because they believe it would be immoral to allow humans to pass on the “gene” that makes them commit violence against each other.

Because the resisters can't have their own children, they have resorted to abducting hybrid children who look mostly human, which doesn't really make sense considering their entire goal is to have nothing to do with the Oankali, but you get the impression that Butler is making some commentary on how humans regularly try to “solve” problems with solutions that make no sense. (See: “our society is damaging the climate so badly that the long-term stability of our food and water supplies is in doubt… let's stick our finger in our ears and keep electing governments who pledge to keep on doing it!”) So, the real jumping-off point for this story is when a group of brutish resisters kidnap the very young Akin, intending to sell him for a high price to some resister family. He winds up in the care of Tate and Gabriel, who figured prominently in the last novel. They won't let him go home to his own village, and no one from his village comes to retrieve him, so he is left to grow up for a number of years among the resisters.

The beauty of this novel is the tenderness and emotional nuance with which it portrays Akin's situation. It pains Akin deeply to be separated from his family – especially from his closest sibling, who he is supposed to be near during a critical bonding period – and there are some residents of the resister village who are all kinds of nasty and terrifying. But Tate is always caring towards him, and through his bond with her he comes to empathise with – even if not agree with – the resisters' position. They don't want to live at the sufferance of the Oankali, who are so convinced they know better than humanity what's best for us that they treat humans with the same condescension that we might reserve for bratty children. They want to live free, including free to make mistakes if they want. Although Akin eventually returns to his home village and the Oankali, he does so in a unique position: he has the insight into the resisters' motives that the Oankali lack, and the ability to speak to the Oankali and be listened to that the humans (including non-resisters, like Lilith) lack.

Just like the first book, this is not a story about “goodies” and “baddies”. It's sharply critical of human society, and human nature itself (or at least human nature under capitalism…), and in many ways it makes you think humanity would be better off if it gave up and acquiesced to the will of the unbearably smug Oankali. But, as in many of her other works, Butler here seems to suggest it is better to be free, to not be under the control of any other party, than it is to act in your own self-interest.

So, what will happen in the third and final book, Imago? I would guess that some kind of conciliation will have to occur between the resisters and the Oankali, perhaps brokered by the growing generation of hybrids, but it remains to be seen. I'm sure I'll be picking up the next instalment to find out sooner rather than later.

Books in the Xenogenesis series

  1. Dawn
  2. Adulthood Rites (you are here)
  3. Imago

★★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.