The basic plot of the first novel is this: The humans (the US and the USSR; the book was written in 1987) have made the planet uninhabitable. The specifics aren't given, but it is later mentioned that the ozone layer has been destroyed or at least damaged to the point that the planet can no longer sustain life. Fortunately, some helpful aliens have come along to save what's left of humanity. For a price.
OK, pretty standard fare, there. You can do good things and bad things with such a premise. And this is where the story becomes both fascinating and horrifying: The aliens in question, the Oankali, propagate and improve themselves through merging with other races using genetic engineering that comes as naturally to their third sex as breathing. They call this process Trading. Each race takes on genetic improvements from the other.
Of course, the chilling part is that this Trade takes place whether the "trading partner" agrees to the Trade or not. The reader isn't privy to any detailed info on prior Trades, but humanity isn't given any option other than: Participate in the Trade, become an alien sex slave, or stay in stasis and be experimented on.
Enter Lilith: She's carefully chosen to be the "Judas goat" for Humanity. She is awakened, acclimated to the aliens (who incite irrational terror due to their weird appearance, something I don't buy as presented), and tasked with awakening her choice of 40 out of 80 candidates to repopulate an Earth that's been restored by the Oankali. They'll live in Amazon jungles, with no technology other than simple tools. She is manipulated, and knows she is, and resents it. Humanity will be wiped out within one generation through interbreeding with the Oankali. I suppose an explanation of Oankali mating is in order:
The Oankali family group consists of three units: First, there is a male and female pair that are closely related, usually brother-sister pairings that have formed a close (as in on a biological process) bond in childhood. (BTW, this isn't the morally repugnant part at all, I'm getting to that.) The pair is joined by a member of the third sex, an ooloi, which is unrelated. The ooloi mixes the genetic material of the male and female, ensuring that bad traits aren't passed on (guess they don't have the chicken line breeding chart
) and inserts the fertile egg in the female, who carries the baby and has it in sort of the usual way. Aside from being the mixologist of the group, the ooloi also provides all of the pleasure
. In fact, once a male/female couple bonds to an ooloi, they develop an aversion to touching each other. There will be no cuddling unless an ooloi is in the middle. There is a physical connection: the ooloi inserts filaments into the bodies of the male and female, which allows it to manipulate their biology, including healing, making design tweaks to DNA, and giving pleasure by making the body create endorphins or the alien equivalent.
Humans are simply added as a second male/female pair in the typical Oankali group. That's after they're drugged with pheromones, then chemically addicted to an ooloi against their will. This happens to Lilith: she's bonded to an ooloi, Nikanj, against her will. But hey, he's a nice guy, so she learns to live with it.
Later, she's given a present by the same ooloi, a male who will become her lover among the group of candidates for awakening and recolonization (and breeding; you only go to Earth if you want to breed). Her lover is later introduced to Nikanj. Who proceeds to engage him in alien pleasure-giving (sexual stimulation, and conditioning) against his will. Later, the ooloi comes back for round 2, which will involve Lilith, Joe and Nikanj. Joe refuses, and here's how it goes:
He pulled his arm free. “You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!”
“You have, yes.” It opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. “You see. Your body has made a different choice.”
He struggled violently for several seconds, then stopped. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.
Ah, your lips are saying no, but since I've drugged you, your body is telling me yes!
And the part where the male and female gain an aversion to touching each other? Nikanj lets them find that out for themselves.
Aside from being a rapist, Nikanj is a pretty good guy. He actually loves both of his
new partners. He's not violent. (He uses chemicals, not clubs.) He has a very strong sense of family, and wants what's best for the greater good (of his species). He doesn't rob them of their free will (just lets Stockholm syndrome take care of that over time.)
Eventually, all of the humans who are awakened are paired off and each pair given over to an ooloi. They're then sent to train to live off the land in the jungle. Many of the other humans view Lilith as a Judas and hate her. Those that don't quickly develop Stockholm syndrome and resent their addiction to their monstery new lovers become increasingly violent. One of them commits murder and a couple of really good attempts at murder. He's sentenced to life in stasis. The rest of the rebellious humans are allowed to colonize earth. Except Lilith. She'll be used to prep more groups before she's allowed to go to Earth. Of course, once they do so, many of them promptly leave the Oankali, and are allowed to. They'll not be able to reproduce unless they mate with an alien group, but they'll be allowed to live and die without too much interference from the aliens.
The first book ends with the news that Lilith will be stuck training more groups. Who will likewise grow to resent and hate her. It doesn't mention the groups splitting off, but this is what Lilith wants in the first book. She urges the people she's training to learn how to live off the land, and to escape at the first chance they get once they're on Earth.
At this point, I thought I had read a really good set up for a series. I thought perhaps we'd get to see some more of Lilith's friends, who might form a meaningful (or futile) resistance movement. What I got was more of a validation of the alien viewpoint. Which could have been OK had two things happened: one, that both sides of the conflict were explored meaningfully, and two, the aliens learned that rape is rape. It doesn't matter if it's "nonviolent" or not.
This didn't happen. The humans were portrayed as miscreants throughout. The men tended to form rape gangs, and women became trade commodities. When salvaged metal was used to make guns, it was implied that guns caused violence. Sure, they had machetes and axes, but guns made killing so much more convenient that people became killers because of the guns. Hybrid children became a hot black market commodity because humans couldn't have children, so hey! let's steal some! And every human group was on board with this.
Humanity can be bad. It can be especially bad in groups. If you want to see just how bad humans can be, read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
. But there are internal logic problems to boot:
1. The aliens are utterly terrifying to humans because they're roughly humanoid (two arms, two legs a head and a torso) with masses of worm-like or snake-like sensory appendages that wave around. OK, that's just a walking snack tray for my bearded dragons. But apparently, it's enough to make every single rebel human completely xenophobic and to also fill their hearts with hatred and give a good number of them the urge to also treat their fellow humans like trash.
2. Not that many humans survived, but the numbers were in the thousands. Lilith was carefully selected to not be a xenophobic asshole. Then she was given a sample of 80 carefully selected humans to pick from. All of Lilith's picks (she seems to have a talent for it) show that the psych profiles she was given by the Oankali were accurate. And yet she ended up with a huge number of xenophobes (hey, you can pick from eighty out of several thousand, but we forgot to weed out the xenophobes!), murderers, and rapists. Even if she was given a huge portion of xenophobes, having so many murderers and rapists doesn't follow logically. Which leaves authorial intrusion suggesting most men are rapists and we're a murderous lot by nature, neither of which is true. Shallow.
3. Humanity's fatal flaw is that we have Intelligence and Hierarchical Thinking. This combination is deadly because we can create a means to destroy ourselves and our hierarchical thinking pushes us to then use that means. This is shown on a macro level with the (presumably nuclear) holocaust, and with guns causing violence among the human resister (book term) villages. Of course, our peaceful (they only kill you on accident) aliens also constantly exhibit hierarchical thinking. Remember, the ooloi give all the pleasure. In the first book, it's strongly suggested that the ooloi have more influence in group decision making (major decisions require a consensus among all the Oankali). In later books, the author backpedals on this, essentially turning the aliens into date-raping Mary Sues who can do no harm.
4. You can apparently build a functional family with strong long term (centuries long) bonds by addicting the new additions to sex/stimulation and then relying on the Stockholm effect and the illusion of freedom to manipulate them in to compliance. The entire concept is just fucked up. Yet that's how the core family group -- Lilith's -- is formed. The second book has about a thirty or so year time skip, and the next about a hundred year time skip. Each one is told from the first person POV of one of Lilith's hybrid children. Lilith is just as happy with her situation in the second as in the third. She only makes a token objection to one of her hybrid ooloi offspring pulling the same shit that Nikanj pulled on her to trick a couple into mating with it. Even the ooloi date rape isn't completely free of physical violence, as the victims are restrained while the physical connection (penetration analog) is made, though in some cases, time is taken to let pheromones lull the victim. But if expedience is required, the ooloi will just grab 'em. Kind of like a male lizard.
5. One issue not touched on at all is that the Oankali are looking for breeding groups, which means that homosexuals are presumably doomed to an eternal slumber in suspended animation. The aliens seem to value family bonds and also seem to want the male/female pairs to be two people who love each other, which leaves out pairing up someone who isn't attracted to the opposite sex. Since only breeding groups are taken to Earth (at least potential breeding groups), I'm assuming any homosexual humans found are simply kept in suspended animation. There are a few cases of individual humans living among the Oankali in the first book, but the impression is that they are doing so as early steps in learning how to deal with humans so that the breeding groups can be set up. So, one angle on the situation is left unexplored. That's not an internal logic problem, though, so I guess my list here has its own internal logic problem.
Overall, the trilogy was very readable, and is probably worth reading, but it missed some major beats for me. It could have been much better.
The big question on my mind is whether I wasn't satisfied with the story due to execution or authorial bias. If the latter, I'll have to stop reading her work, if the former, then it's either just me (the series gets really good reviews in general) or she just fumbled things a little bit, which happens to everyone.
I'm looking forward to reading her Patternist novels and the short story collection I have sitting on my Kindle and finding out. Ms. Butler's stories do have the ability to draw you in quickly and keep you reading.