Title: Adulthood Rites
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Genre: Science Fiction
Lilith’s baby, Akin, looks human. He is not. The alien Oankali, driven by irresistible need, have genetically merged with us. But there are rebels who resist the Oankali tide. Childless humans desperate to regain their world, they seek to “cleanse” the “alien taint” by kidnapping hybrid children like Akin. The raiders are blind to the truth: Earth’s new children love all their parents. Babies destined to touch the universe, they are growing starships from the Earth that will eventually take the planet with them, leaving nothing behind.
Only an infant can make his despairing captors see that humankind’s future is already lost. And won.
My Biggest Takeaways: The Flawed Nature of Humanity: Are Humans Redeemable?
Adulthood Rites is the second installment of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. In the first book, Dawn, we followed Lilith Ayapo and her interactions with the Oankali, the race of aliens that rescued the remainder of humanity after nuclear war. She is chosen specifically by these aliens to lead humanity’s return to the Earth as well as spearhead their communion with the Oankali. She’s largely branded as a traitor by the humans, most of whom resist relations with the Oankali.
Adulthood Rites takes place nearly 30 years after the end of Dawn and follows Akin, one of Lilith’s many human-Oankali-mixed children and the very first human-born male. After he is kidnapped by some of the human resisters, he tries to survive while also learning a lot about the human side of his identity. He comes to empathize with the humans, which ends up leading him towards his life’s purpose.
Butler presents the reader with a myriad of topics that are still relevant today — toxic masculinity, reproductive rights, gun politics, the internal struggle of people with dual identities, just to name a few. Butler ultimately wraps these themes up into a central idea that can be explained in a two-part question. The first part of the question: is humanity inherently “bad”? The answer, based solely on the interactions of the characters of this novel, appears to be: yes.
“Human beings fear difference…Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status.”
Recalling from Dawn, the Oankali have sterilized humanity, making joining with the Oankali the only way for humans to bear offspring. Women and Oankali females can give birth to mixed children called “constructs” who have varying levels of “humanness” and “alienness.” For many years, Lility and other human women are only allowed to give birth to female constructs, until they allow Lilith to have a male one — Akin. We later learn that this was very intentional on the part of the Oankali, and has very much to do with their observation of toxic masculinity.
“[Human-born male constructs] must be given more Human characteristics than Oankali born construct males. Otherwise, they could not survive inside their Human mothers. And since they be so Human and still male, and eventually fertile, they must come dangerously close to fully Human males in some ways. They bear more of the Human Contradiction than any other [construct].”
The Oankali’s/Octavia Butler’s criticism of humanity is expressed through what is called the Human Contradiction. That human beings’ intelligence as a species is always superseded by its hierarchical tendencies (humanity’s propensities for tribalism and violence). I think the fact that the Oankali pinpoint men specifically as the most “contradictory” is a direct criticism of patriarchy — that men, historically, bear the brunt of humanity’s responsibility for the proliferation of war, the prevalence of discrimination, and the destruction of the environment.
“That’s what Humans are, too, don’t forget. People who poison each other, then disclaim all responsibility. In a way, that’s how the war happened.”
Butler also uses the human resisters to paint a picture of just how “evil” humanity can become. Just like in Dawn, the humans in this novel are the book’s only sources of violence, in contrast to the pacifist Oankali. With extended lifespans but no offspring, the resisters fill up what they deem “meaningless lives” by routinely raiding from each other’s villages, kidnapping construct children, raping and trafficking women, and proliferating gun violence and murder. A few of the humans plot to mutilate some of the female constructs to make them look more “human”; others drunkenly commit arson. In other words, humanity is f*cked.
But the second part of the question, though, seems to be: is humanity redeemable? This question doesn’t have as clear-cut an answer. It seems like Octavia Butler maybe had split feelings about this: the Oankali believe the answer to that question is a definitive NO — that human beings are genetically inclined to destroy themselves, and that letting humans procreate would be aiding their own demise. But Akin, however, believes that humans could potentially be redeemable, and even if they aren’t, they should have the freedom to choose their fate — even if their fate is inevitable destruction. With this Butler seems to bring up questions about the value that human beings place on self-determination and humanity’s potential to correct its own mistakes — What would that take? Will future generations be as inclined towards violence and discrimination as past ones? Will they reshape the future? Or is humanity’s grim fate already set in stone?
This was another great book, and Octavia Butler has got to be one of my favorite writers. The way she blends storytelling and socio-political commentary has been a treat to experience.
Rating: 👽👽👽👽 (4 Oankali out of 5)
Did you read this novel? If so, did you enjoy it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?