‘Imago’ by Octavia E. Butler

Title: Imago
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Published: 1989
Genre: Science Fiction


Child of the Earth and Stars, Jodahs can create, shapeshift, heal the maimed, cure cancer, create contagion with every breath, or mutate the ground with a touch. Jodahs is an ooloi, a being beyond gender, born with the alien Oankali power to mix pure DNA within its body. But the child is the first ooloi born to a human mother, and its destiny is unknown. The futures of both humans and Oankali rest in one young being’s successful metamorphosis into adulthood.
Jodahs can become a mad, living plague — or a bridge of peace. Its challenge is to reconcile its galactic heritage of gene trading with the rage of a people facing a terrifying dilemma. For human children will inherit the universe only if they lose all that makes them human.

My Biggest Takeaways: What is the essence of humanity?

In Dawn, we followed Lilith Iyapo as she led the recolonization of Earth and union of Humans with Oankali. Adulthood Rites followed her son Akin, the first male Human-Oankali hybrid who struggles to reconcile the dual aspects of his identity. In Imago, the final installment in the trilogy, we get a third perspective from another of Lilith’s offspring, Jodahs, the world’s very first Human-Oankali ooloi. (Ooloi are genderless beings who are genetic engineers, with the power to shapeshift, cure disease, and manipulate living matter on a molecular level.) The Oankali are worried about the boom-bust potential of a being like Jodahs, who has powerful abilities but also has what the Oankali refer to as the Human Contradiction — the genetic characteristic that describes how humans’ intelligence is suppressed by hierarchical tendencies.

The story mainly follows Jodahs’ metamorphoses and its journey to find human partners, who help temper its destructive power. This leads to an encounter with two siblings from a colony of fertile humans — essentially the only ones left on Earth (the others are on Mars). We later learn that this colony is the product of almost two hundred years of inbreeding, in which they have avoided all contact with Oankali ooloi, whom they deem “devils.” The result is a population of humans that are all fertile and mortal (and in essence, very “human”), but suffers from numerous diseases, deformities, and high mortality rates.

In Adulthood Rites, I had said that the main question that Butler was asking the readers was a question of salvageability: humans are inherently flawed, but are they redeemable? However, through the resister colony and the lengths they have gone to sustain their “humanity” (and to a greater extent, the amount of effort that so many human resisters throughout this trilogy have put into avoiding contact with the Oankali and retaining their “humanness”), I think Butler is taking that question a step further: Is humanity even worth redeeming? What exactly is humanity?

The lives of the humans who have mated with the Oankali appear to be much better than the lives of the resisters: they live longer, healthier, more sustainably, more democratically, and more peacefully, but they have to sacrifice their “humanity” (since their offspring have both Human and Oankali genes). The resisters, on the other hand, have to contend with illness and shorter lifespans, and their colonies are characterized by all kinds of violences and discrimination; however, their genetic “purity” remains intact, since they don’t mate with Oankali. Octavia Butler might be asking, is the resisters’ fight even useful? What is humanity, and why is its “purity” even worth preserving? Can humanity even be “pure” if, according to the Human Contradiction, it will always submit to violence and bigotry, and eventually destroy itself?

Imago is an interesting conclusion to Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis series. It’s the shortest novel, and probably my least favorite of the trilogy, but it wraps up a very interesting exploration of the nature of humanity and the concept of the Human Contradiction.

Rating: 👽👽👽 (3 Oankali out of 5)

Read also: “Dawn” by Octavia Butler
Read also: “Adulthood Rites” by Octavia Butler

Did you read this novel? If so, did you enjoy it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?


Published by Bryan-O

Nigerian-American | Dallas, TX

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