Wednesday, 25 February 2015
Imago by Octavia Butler
Part of the issue is how complex and disturbing these books are. So much of my reaction is a vague uneasiness, and trying to sit down and pull that out and see why is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Of the three in the trilogy, I think Adulthood Rites was my favourite - but is that because it's the most familiar, the most, shall we say, human?
The first book came from the perspective of a human female, the second, from an Oankali construct male. The third, then, should be no surprise that it comes from a construct ooloi, and yet it was. I'm so used to thinking in gender binaries, even thought I know better, that remembering that there are three sexes in these books still surprised me. It shouldn't have, but it did.
Further to that, if Akin in Adulthood Rites came to sympathize with the resister humans and their cause, bringing out, as I argued in the review, the issues with the Oankali idea of consent, taking this book inside an ooloi and seeing why they have the version of consent they have is, again, deeply troubling.
They feel it like a hunger, that they need these humans, that they could die without them, and so they withhold information from the humans until it is too late. They conceal how joining with an ooloi will mean a physical addiction, of a sort, that they will never be able to break. The ooloi want it, and so they justify it as an ethical thing. They can read what humans want in their bodies, but more than that, it is the desire of the ooloi themselves that seems to be the self-justification for their actions. Jodahs, the main ooloi in this book speaks passionately about his love for his human mates, and his need for them, but always, always, niggling in the background is the cold worm of how troubling that is, how it would feel if it were me.
I stand by my assertion that I think these books are supposed to be troubling. It is interesting that while Akin was fully interested in the humans, Butler turns back with this book to the emerging human/Oankali hybrid community. In that, however, she does some audacious things. She doesn't make it okay. She doesn't demonize it. It feels like in the hands of a lesser author, there would either by some denouement that made all this coercion okay or acceptable. Or conversely, that this would be a story that shows how humans end up in slavery, a very negative and dark ending. She gives us neither. She leaves us with unease, but not hatred. With interest, but not joy. It's a fine line to tread, and she does it beautifully.
Of course, beautifully means that I still get a upset feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I think about it in depth, which is perhaps why this review took so long to write. Yet I keep coming back to it, challenging myself to engage with these ideas. It's troubling, and fascinating, and I am impressed with how much she squeezed into relatively few pages. This is not science fiction for those who want heroes, neat stories, or a tidy resolution.