Review: “Imago,” Octavia E. Butler

Pros: Stunning look at complex alien/human relations
Cons: End resolved a little quickly
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Octavia Butler’s Imago (Xenogenesis Series book 3), the small human/alien colony thrives, largely through the efforts of Lilith, Tino, and Nikanj. The situation changes when two of of the ‘construct’ children (those created out of both human and alien DNA by the ooloi) become ooloi, non-gendered aliens meant to be part of a larger joining involved in mating. That means both children need to go through metamorphosis, prove that they can be in control of their ability to modify themselves and others through the use of DNA alteration, and then find human mates. All of this is about to make Jodahs’ life very difficult.

 

A portion of Jodahs’ family accompanies him away from their settlement, so that he has time to learn to control his metamorphosis without harming anyone. Exile is talked about as a possibility, or sending him back to the ship. As it is he’s been making dangerous changes to himself and the things he touches without even realizing he was doing it. As they travel, Nikanj teaches Jodahs control. But what it (‘it’ because ooloi have no gender) really needs is to find a pair of people to mate with, to help stabilize it. It meets up with Jesusa and Tomas, brother and sister. They’re fertile, even though humans who were sent back to earth were sterilized (cue “Life will find a way” quote). They’re also suffering from very noticeable tumors. Jodahs heals them, and they begin to care about it. Amongst the Oankali there’s nothing wrong with brother and sister becoming mates with an ooloi, because the actual DNA mixing happens in the ooloi, who can make changes to the DNA to prevent birth defects.

Jodahs is an interesting character–closer to human than some of the other biracial children. It’s still young, but in the process of becoming an adult, and it’s interesting to watch it change and grow, and develop a relationship with Jesusa and Tomas. It uses some of the physically pleasurable abilities it has to try to bind Jesusa and Tomas to itself. It’s one of the core conflicts in the series–at what point are the Oankali giving humans what they want but don’t know they want, and at what point are they mind-controlling or coercing them? It puts the concept of consent in stark relief, and doesn’t provide any easy answers. It’s up to individual readers to figure out where they stand.

I loved this series of books and recommend it to someone looking for a thoughtful science fiction novel that explores sexual taboos and the hot-button topic of consent.

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