Review: Imago

Imago (Xenogenesis #3), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Popular Library, 1989 (Link is to a current, in-print edition).

Summary: The concluding volume of this trilogy explores what happens when human-Oankali breeding results in a construct child that is not supposed to occur.

Jodahs is one of Lilith’s children with both human and Oankali parents. Up until now all of these “constructs” mature to be males or females with a blend of human and Oankali traits. This appeared to be the case with Jodahs and its paired sibling Aaor until they began to metamorphose. They didn’t smell right to the others. They were changing into ooloi, the third sex of the Oankali (referred to as “it”). This was not supposed to happen and was potentially dangerous. Ooloi could alter DNA at a touch, indeed the structure of anything, and an imperfect ooloi could unleash organic destruction on the planet.

The sensible thing was to transport to the mother ship. The family takes the riskier course of leaving the settlement of Lo to an isolated place to allow both Jodahs and Aaor to complete their metamorphoses. In the process, Jodahs encounters a brother and sister, Tomas and Jesusa, afflicted with painful tumors that will kill them and much of their settlement–but they are also fertile humans. Using its ooloi powers, which are not flawed, it heals them and bonds with them. They become mates and help it complete its metamorphosis. Aaor is less fortunate. It needs mates too, and lacking them, it goes formless with despair, and is danger of dissolving, not a good thing

This leads to a daring action. The settlement the brother and sister came from had kept its existence hidden. This could not continue. The shuttles would come for them. Jodahs realizes he can play a key role in helping them end resistance, choosing either breeding with the Oankali or joining the human-only colony on Mars. The settlement also offers hope of mates for Aaor. But they religiously hate Oankali, and especially ooloi. There is a good chance Jodahs, Aaor, Tomas, and Jesusa could all end up dead.

Butler explores the unanticipated consequences of colonizing a race. The settlement of Tomas and Jodahs represents the human passion for self-determination, which clashes with a more powerful race that neither succeeded in keeping them sterile, nor could let them, exist as they were. Is benevolent intent from one’s own worldview sufficient when it violates the self-determination of others. Is using one’s power to shape the decisions of others so that they will accept what they need to do to survive acceptable when their self determination will kill them?

The capacities of the ooloi also raise questions for humanity as we are witnessing the dawning of new genetic technologies such as CRISPR, capable of possible healing of genetic disorders, but also “optimizing” human genetics or even changing our genetic codes, giving us new capacities. The ooloi seem capable of making perfect changes. Would this be so for us, and would there also be unforeseen consequences?

I came to the end of this book wondering why the trilogy ended here. To say much more would be to leave spoilers, but I thought this series could go further. Others see the emergence of construct ooloi as the culmination of the process that began in Dawn. I can’t help but think this may have opened possibilities the Oankali haven’t anticipated. But we’ll never know…

3 thoughts on “Review: Imago

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2021 | Bob on Books

  2. Thanks for reviewing this! The Parable of the Sower is the only Butler I’ve read so far. If you’re interested in these sort of themes (colonisation, sex/gender, culture, geopolitics), I highly recommend the White Queen trilogy by Gwyneth Jones, a top UK sf author and critic

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