‘Lilith Iyapo is in the remote Andes, mourning the death of her husband and son, when nuclear war destroys the world. Centuries later, she revives, held captive aboard a starship.
Miraculously powerful and hideously grotesque galactic beings, the Oankali, have rescued the planet and the war’s victims out an irresistible need to heal and a greater need to change all they touch. For the Oankali survive by merging genetically with primitive peoples – without their permission.
Lilith’s children will inherit the Earth and stars, but they will be more – and other – than human.’
Blurb to the 1997 Aspect (Warner Books) paperback edition.
Butler here moves away from her millennia-spanning history of the Patternists and Clayarks to a new trilogy, again exploring themes of possession and control, involving in this case threats to the genetic integrity of the human race.
The Oankali, a starfaring gene-trading race, have rescued the few survivors of world-wide nuclear war. In return for their lives, the rescued are expected to trade their genes with the Oankali, becoming the parents of a hybrid race due to inherit a healed and revitalised Earth. As in other of her novels, Butler creates complex moral issues for which there are no easy solutions.
Lilith, despite the kind attentions of the Oankali, is conscious that she is little more than the property of the aliens, even to the extent that they have retained a ‘print’ of her entire genetic structure and may, a thousand years hence, recreate her to be brought up as an Oankali, further adding to their gallimaufry genetic mix.
She is allowed certain freedoms, but only within the terms proscribed by her captors, as when one day, desperate for sight of someone human, she decides to go to the next ‘village’ in order to try and find one:-
‘…if they met and spoke and all went well, the Oankali might decide to punish her. Solitary confinement again? Suspended animation? Or just closer confinement with Nikanj and its family? If they did either of the first two she would be simply relieved of a responsibility she did not want and could not possibly handle. If they did the third, what difference would it really make? What difference balanced against the chance to see and speak with one of her own kind again, finally?
None at all.’
Cleverly, the Oankali ship (a vast living organism which supplies all the race’s needs) is portrayed as a beautiful and seductive place, and even the reader is tempted to find the prospect of life with the Oankali – masters of psychological as well as genetic manipulation – somewhat attractive.
Lilith is genetically altered, firstly without her knowledge to rid her body of a cancer-producing gene, and later – unwillingly – to enhance her memory and implant scent-glands which give her a limited control of the doors within her home. By now, however, she has been bonded with a young Ooloi – the ruling neuter sex of the tri-sexual aliens – and is destined to become part of its family.
There is an understated attitude of contempt on the part of the Oankali for Humanity. They see Humanity as a dangerously tangled mix of genes, two traits of which (our intelligence and a genetic predisposition toward hierarchical systems) have convinced them to label Humanity as a destructive race. They have encountered other intelligent species who have committed racial suicide and long ago decided on a policy of non-interference until after the event, when they would feel free to mop up the genetic remains.
Lilith and the other humans (who are for the most part kept apart) are denied writing materials, an action which carries overtones of cult indoctrination, with the subjects isolated and gradually acclimated to the presence of the grotesque aliens. This turns out to be an extended process of seduction and superficially seems to be a metaphor for one race’s control of another, but things are far more complex than that.
The novel is about Lilith more than anyone else, a young Afro-American widow, mourning the death of her son and husband, who has challenge after challenge thrown at her and somehow manages to keep her personal integrity intact.
It’s also a novel about lack of understanding and communication, not merely between species, but between individuals of the same species. Although we, like the humans in the novel, tend to see the Oankali as arrogant superior creatures, we are judging them on human terms.
Near the end of the novel, Lilith’s Ooloi ‘mate’ Nikanj, attempts to let her experience a flash of ‘its’ thought processes. She can understand very little of the experience, but for a sense of illusive profundity.
Lilith is told that she is to take charge of a group of forty awakened humans, who, along with their Oankali partners, are to form the nucleus of a new Earth settlement. Just as the humans fail to understand the Oankali, the Oankali fail to understand human nature, and miscalculate the human capacity for rebellion and violence.
There are deaths within the human group which affect the Oankali possibly more deeply than their human counterparts.
Butler has been so skilful in creating a book that is in no way a tale of ‘humans versus aliens’ that one could argue the justification of the Oankali’s actions. But then nothing is black and white here. Profound issues of personal choice and individual free will are raised and left for the reader to ponder over.
Has Lilith been so changed by the Oankali that her basic status as a human has been compromised? Is she really making her own choices now that she is bonded to the Ooloi Nikanj who can directly stimulate her pleasure centres and produce chemically-realised illusions within her mind? How can we judge the pacifist Utopia of the Oankali against the moral bankruptcy of a planetary society which has destroyed itself?
Sequels: “Adulthood Rites” “Imago”
The backstory is that Earth has established a colony on a planet around a nearby star. A hardbitten female officer, Shan – on the verge of retirement – is suddenly pulled in for an interview with a high ranking Minister and put in charge of a mission to the colony planet. The journey will take seventy five years so the crew will be frozen.
It appears that colony – a vegetarian devout Christian settlement – is thriving. However they did have help from an alien whose people live on another planet in the system.
Another (aquatic) alien race lives on the human-settled planet beneath the sea, and yet another race wants the humans gone so that they can settle on the planet themselves.
Back home, Earth is at the mercy of Biotech multinational corporations who have patented all of the world’s manufactured crops. They are looking for new material and this planet appears to be the motherlode.
Shan, the reluctant leader of the survey team, finds herself having to mediate between all parties and begins to forge a relationship with Aras, the guardian alien who has become an accepted member of the human colony. However he holds a secret which could lead to war between the various alien races.
The style is reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell and Sheri S Tepper in that there is an intensity in the relationships between various characters that is seldom found in the work of male genre writers.
The central story is the relationship between Shan and Aras, one which starts awkwardly and yet deepens into something if not sexual then of deep mutual respect. Traviss employs some cunning devices in that (a) the alien race is a matriarchal one and Aras is to a certain extent hardwired to kowtow to women in authority and (b) he is hosting a parasite which not only imbues longevity but incorporates useful alien DNA into the host’s metabolism. Thus he has become partly human.
The theme of an alien/human relationship is not a new one. Julie Czerneda employed it in her Web novels recently. It tends to be avoided in SF literature generally although TV Scifi find it almost obligatory for reasons of ratings and demographics. It is not employed here however as a cheap trick and has not so far descended to the level of a romance.
The novel makes very strong points about Genetically Engineered Crops and the Capitalisation of the world’s gene pools. This is paradoxically contrasted by Aras, who to all intents and purposes appears to be genetically engineering himself, or had at least initiated the process.
A fascinating novel that provokes much thought.
‘The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of the world. Humans and mutants and arcane races brood in the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the river is sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years the Parliament and its brutal militia have ruled here over a vast economy of workers and artists, spies and soldiers, magicians, junkies and whores.
Now a stranger has arrived with a pocket full of gold and an impossible demand. And inadvertently, clumsily, something unthinkable is released.
AS the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions lies with a clutch of renegades and outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of uncanny architecture. And a reckoning is die at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station’
Blurb from the 2000 Pan edition.
A masterful piece of work which to a certain extent defies genre classification. I’d call it Science Fiction but the style is fantastic, gothic and not a little weird.
The independent city-state of New Crobuzon is situated at the junction of two rivers on the planet of Bas-Lag, whose moon has two moons of its own.
Home to a variety of races, but dominated by humans, it’s a sprawling gallimaufry of diverse architectural styles, ruled by a corrupt government who run a lottery to determine who is eligible to vote.
Eccentric and grotesque characters abound. The style is reminiscent of Mervyn Peake, and redolent of the films of Jan Svankmaer and The Quay Brothers. Then there’s the Remade, criminals who are surgically and ‘bio-thaumaturgically’ transformed – often in grotesque and apposite ways – as punishment for their crimes.
The narrative follows Isaac – a research scientist, and Lin, an artist. They are conducting an illicit affair, since Isaac is human and Lin is a female of the insect Khepri race who has rejected her own culture to pursue her vocation.
They are both offered secret – and somewhat dangerous commissions; Lin to sculpt a three-dimensional portrait of Mr Motley the grotesque and aptly named crime-lord, and Isaac to find a way for Yagharek – a wingless garuda (a race of large intelligent avians) to fly again.
The commissions have repercussions not only for themselves, but for the entire city.
The linking narration is provided by Yagharek, a poetic and melancholy view of the city from the perspective of an outsider.
Throughout the novel runs the theme of transition and metamorphosis, represented at various points such as the metamorphosis of Isaac’s caterpillar into the dark and terrible slake-moth at the same time as his clockwork ‘robot’ (after an encounter with a virus) undergoes a data-metamorphosis and achieves a form of sentience.
Motley seems obsessed with the theme of transition, since he has commissioned the khepri artist Lin to sculpt a statue of his body. Like the city itself, his form is a mongrel construction within which various organic shapes and textures merge from one state to another.
Mieville has created a complex and completely believable society, colourful, exotic, decadent and dangerous, in which strange scientific processes are conducted with arcane and primitive equipment.
The author was the Socialist Alliance Party Candidate for North Kensington at the last election, and the cynical reader might have expected to find a certain amount of agitprop. It exists, but is used only as a backdrop to the main narrative.
The nature of the political structure is not clearly explained, although it is clear that New Crobuzon is not a democracy but has an entrenched political structure in which the right to vote is determined by lottery.
The Parliament enforces its rule via the Militia and its network of informers, either blackmailed or enticed into reporting on sedition and dissent. A dockworkers’ strike is at one point ruthlessly quashed, shockingly reminiscent of Thatcher’s treatment of mineworkers in the 1980s.
Mieville has been wise to leave certain aspects unexplained, such as how humans first came to Bas-Lag, or indeed, the exotic and brilliantly depicted mix of alien races, who are very much portrayed as the underclasses.
In some ways, New Crobuzon could be any modern city, divided along lines of wealth, cultural status or ethnic background. Small ghettoised areas of lawlessness exist, such as the Garuda sector which, tellingly perhaps, is in a tower-black on an abandoned half-built housing complex.
The book is also pervaded by images of decay and corruption, from the toxic effluvia of the rivers into which the factories dump their waste, to the abandoned houses upon which the Khepri have moulded their own form of organic housing.
Mieville manages to weave all of these elements into a deliciously rendered cityscape, conveying the vastness of the city body itself, its cultural architectural and financial diversity, and also focusing in on the characters as unique and well-rounded individuals with depth and flaws who inevitably pay the price for some of their actions.
It’s a wonderful inspired piece of work, and destined to be recorded as one of the first classics of the new century.