Imago: Finally, we see the Ooloi perspective

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Imago by Octavia Butler science fiction book reviewsImago by Octavia Butler

Imago (1988) is the third book in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy. It concludes the story begun with the human woman Lilith in Dawn (1987) and continued with her Oankali-human ‘construct’ son Akin in Adulthood Rites (1988). Imago takes the bold but logical next step by shifting the perspective to Jodahs, an Ooloi-human construct. The Ooloi are the third, gender-less sex of the Oankali, the alien race of ‘gene traders’ that saved the remnants of humanity on the condition that humanity share its DNA with them and be forever transformed in the process.

Once again Butler doesn’t hesitate to plunge us into the unknown, this time exploring the strangest aspect of the Oankali, the psychically-powerful Ooloi who can manipulate the DNA of living creatures directly, serving to help the Oankali continuously evolve as they combine with new lifeforms throughout the galaxy. Until now we have had the perspective on Lilith in Dawn, a human woman forced to come to grips with the Oankali and try to convince other humans that accepting their offer is the only viable option for humanity. Subsequently in Adulthood Rites we shifted to the story of Akin, a human-Oankali construct sympathetic to both sides, though he struggled to reach this understanding.

In Imago we go far beyond this, for to see the world as an Ooloi is to experience directly the feelings, emotions, and genetic structures of both Oankali and humans. Though conventional Ooloi shape the genetic material of their male and female Oankali mates to create children, Jodahs has human DNA as well, so it finds itself not fully suited to Oankali society, and wants to avoid the fate of being forcibly returned to the Oankali ship to find mates there. Instead, as Lilith’s children Jodahs and Aaor are truly something new, and once again face the struggles of not fitting into any group fully.

Moreover, the Ooloi themselves wield great power to genetically alter living things around them, and before they learn to control this they can be a danger to everyone around them, causing random mutations in themselves and others. Because of this, even other Ooloi shun their company. As a result, both Jodahs and Aaor isolate themselves in the jungle. When Jodahs encounters two human siblings, Jesusa and Tomas, it is attracted to them sexually. These humans are from a hidden human settlement that escaped the sterilization program imposed on human resisters that refused to merge with the Oankali.

Much of Imago centers on the evolving relationships of Jodahs, Aaor, the human siblings, and this remote human community that has evaded the notice of the Oankali. As in the previous two books, the sexual and emotional ties are complicated, unsettling, and very alien. This is particularly so in Imago, since we see things as an Ooloi does, where physical and emotional attraction takes the form of irresistible scents, and the almost uncontrollable urge to find a compatible mate.

Once again, the issues of consent, coercion, enslavement, and power are explored unflinchingly. It has been very difficult to pin down exactly what Butler thinks of these subjects, because she consistently refuses to clearly moralize or tip her hand overtly. It can be somewhat frustrating not to be given any clear cues as to which side she thinks is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, whether it be the forced enslavement of humanity by the Oankali, the repeated sexual coercions that occur between and among both species, or the eventual human-0ankali hybrid race that is bound to emerge. Is humanity better off in the end? Did the end justify the means? How many parallels about colonialism and cultural domination are we meant to draw, if any?

The Oankali are driven by the biological imperative to mate with other races and create new DNA combinations to further themselves, so morality as humans understand it is not really their concern, though they always claim it is for the benefit of mankind. But that assertion is questionable when we understand that no real choice is being offered, only the illusion of choice. Can the Oankali offer truly be benevolent when ‘conventional’ humanity is sterilized, essentially a protracted death sentence? Why cannot humans remain on the Earth as they were before? What are the ultimate plans of the Oankali, whose gift of survival has so many strings attached?

I won’t reveal the ending of this series, but it wasn’t what I was expecting based on the hints scattered throughout the series. In fact, I felt Butler pulled her punch at the end, as though she was leading up to a Childhood’s End-like denouement. I felt this final volume was more difficult to follow than the first two books, but that largely has to do with the fact that it is told from the perspective of a genderless Ooloi, utterly different from humans and yet desperately needing them at the same time. Because it is such as alien viewpoint, it was hard at times to connect with its emotions, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Overall, the XENOGENESIS trilogy has been a uniquely unsettling and challenging piece of SF storytelling. There are few stories that plunge you into such unfamiliar and morally ambiguous territory, not to mention many unpleasant situations involving sexual coercion and control, which means that some readers will definitely not find it to their liking. But if you are willing to forge ahead, you will find that Octavia Butler was one of the most unique and uncompromising writers in the genre, continually exploring gender, power and dominance, physical and cultural coercion, and frequently taking a pessimistic view of human nature, but always leaving it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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One comment

  1. If Butler hadn’t provided an Ooloi perspective for one book, or at least part of a book, I think her fans would have been really upset.

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