Some books that are so unfathomably awesome that you wonder how on Earth it took you so long to discover the writer.

Lilith’s Brood (by Octavia Butler) is one of those books.

In a nutshell

Humanity has almost destroyed itself in a war, when an alien race (the Oankali) arrives and takes the survivors to their ship. The Oankali are driven by the need to trade with alien races. They perceive that a destructive contradiction lies at the heart of human nature, something that only they can fix. But at what price for the human race?

Thoughts

Immersive narrative

Once I started reading the book, I couldn’t put it down.

Butler used short chapters and divided her books into parts, which helped drive the story forward. There weren’t many “edge of your seat”, or action type scenes, it was more a journey of discovery.

  • Are the aliens good or bad – can we even define them that way? Maybe they just are what they are.
  • Is Lilith a heroine, a victim or the villain?
  • Is humanity (as described in the book) worth saving?
  • Can you accept people, even growing to like or love them, despite them being so different to you? Or will you avoid, or attack them?

These are just some of the questions and themes in the books.

Characters

I could relate to all the characters in the books, even the alien ones. Butler does a great job of showing things from the alien’s perspective, as well as the human one.

There are some powerful characters in the book who aren’t main characters, but Butler describes their actions so well that you feel like you know them already.

The books are set over hundreds of years. The first book (Dawn) establishes a human female, Lilith, as the main character, and we spend the whole book seeing her new life from her perspective.

The second book (Adulthood Rites) focuses on Lilith’s son, Akin, as he tries to find his place in the new world – and reconcile his genetic and cultural heritage. In the third book (Imago), one of Lilith’s other sons, Jodahs, is the main character.

The books don’t just focus on the individual characters. The Oankali (and their ships) are a kind of conglomerate, and they need to achieve consensus. As each individual learns more about humanity, they feed it back into the collective memory of the species. Over the course of the books, the attitude of the Oankali as a species changes. They adapt their actions to reflect what they have discovered.

Timeless

I thought the books were written a few years ago, but they were written in the late 80s – during the final years of the Cold War. Nothing about the books is dated.

Environment

The first book focused on a completely alien environment, but the other two took place on an Earth that the Oankali had changed. Many animal and plant species were extinct after the war, and the alien race introduced new plants and wildlife.

The environment was both familiar, and foreign – to the characters and the reader. Butler managed to describe everything in a way that didn’t bog down the pace of the story, in fact these descriptions added to the overall story arc.

Apart from a few pages at the start of the book, where the writer had Lilith reading through dossiers on people’s backgrounds (information I don’t think we needed), not one word was wasted. The Lilith’s Brood trilogy are some of the best books I’ve read.