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The futures of both humans and Oankali rest in one young being's successful metamorphosis into adulthood.
About the Author
Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was considered one of the best science fiction writers of her generation. The Patternist series (including her first novel, Patternmaster) established her among the science fiction elite. But it was Kindred, a story of a black woman who travels back in time to the antebellum South that brought her mainstream success. For years the only African-American woman writing science fiction books, like Parable of the Sower, Butler encouraged others to follow in her path.
Read an Excerpt
I slipped into my first metamorphosis so quietly that no one noticed. Metamorphoses were not supposed to begin that way. Most people begin with small, obvious, physical changesthe loss of fingers and toes, for instance, or the budding of new fingers and toes of a different design.
I wish my experience had been that normal, that safe.
For several days, I changed without attracting attention. Early stages of metamorphosis didn't normally last for days without bringing on deep sleep, but mine did. My first changes were sensory. Tastes, scents, all sensations suddenly became complex, confusing, yet unexpectedly seductive.
I had to relearn everything. River water, for instance: when I swam in it, I noticed that it had two distinctive major flavorshydrogen and oxygenand many minor flavors. I could separate out and savor each one individually. In fact, I couldn't help separating them. But I learned them quickly and accepted them in their new complexity so that only occasional changes in minor flavors demanded my attention.
Our river water at Lo always came to us clouded with sediment. "Rich," the Oankali called it. "Muddy," the Humans said, and filtered it or let the silt settle to the bottom before they drank it. "Just water," we constructs said, and shrugged. We had never known any other water.
As quickly as I could, I learned again to understand and accept my sensory impressions of the people and things around me. The experience absorbed so much of my attention that I didn't understand how my family could fail to see that something unusual was happening to me. But beyondmentioningthat I was daydreaming too much, even my parents missed the signs.
They were, after all, the wrong signs. No one was expecting them, so no one noticed when they appeared.
All five of my parents were old when I was born. They didn't look any older than my adult sisters and brothers, but they had helped with the founding of Lo. They had grandchildren who were old. I don't think I had ever surprised them before. I wasn't sure I liked surprising them now. I didn't want to tell them. I especially didn't want to tell Tino, my Human father. He was supposed to stay with me through my metamorphosis since he was my same-sex Human parent. But I did not feel drawn to him as I should have. Nor did I feel drawn to Lilith, my birth mother. She was Human, too, and what was happening to me was definitely not a Human thing. Strangely I didn't want to go to my Oankali father, Dichaan, either, and he was my logical choice after Tino. My Oankali mother, Ahajas, would have talked to one of my fathers for me. She had done that for two of my brothers who had been afraid of metamorphosisafraid they would change too much, lose all signs of their Humanity. That could happen to me, though I had never worried about it. Ahajas would have talked to me and for me, no matter what my problem was. Of all my parents, she was the easiest to talk to. I would have gone to her if the thought of doing so had been more appealingor if I had understood why it was so unappealing. What was wrong with me? I wasn't shy or afraid, but when I thought of going to her, I felt first drawn, then...almost repelled.
Finally there was my ooloi parent, Nikanj.
It would tell me to go to one of my same-sex parentsone of my fathers. What else could it say? I knew well enough that I was in metamorphosis, and that that was one of the few things ooloi parents could not help with. There were still some Humans who insisted on seeing the ooloi as some kind of male-female combination, but the ooloi were no such thing. They were themselvesa different sex altogether.
So I went to Nikanj only hoping to enjoy its company for a while. Eventually it would notice what was happening to me and send me to my fathers. Until it did, I would rest near it. I was tired, sleepy. Metamorphosis was mostly sleep.
I found Nikanj inside the family house, talking to a pair of Human strangers. The Humans were standing back from Nikanj. The female was almost sheltering behind the male, and the male was making a painful effort to appear courageous. Both looked alarmed when they saw me open a wall and step through into the room. Then, as they got a look at me, they seemed to relax a little. I looked very Humanespecially if they compared me to Nikanj, who wasn't Human at all.
The Humans smelled most obviously of sweat and adrenaline, food and sex. I sat down on the floor and let myself work out the complex combinations of scents. My new awareness wouldn't allow me to do anything else. By the time I was finished, I thought I would be able to track those two Humans through anything.
Nikanj paid no attention to me except to notice me when I came in. It was used to its children coming and going as they chose, used to all of us spending time with it, learning whatever it was willing to teach us.
It has an incredibly complex scent because it was ooloi. It had collected within itself not only the reproductive material of other members of the family but cells of other plant and animal species that it had dealt with recently. These it would study, memorize, then either consume or store. It consumed the ones it knew it could recreate from memory, using its own DNA. It kept the others alive in a kind of stasis until they were needed.
Its most noticeable underscent was Kaal, the kin group it was born into. I had never met its parents, but I knew the Kaal scent from other members of the Kaal kin group. Somehow, though, I had never noticed that scent on Nikanj, never separated it out this way.
The main scent was Lo, of course. It had mated with Oankali of the Lo kin group, and on mating, it had altered its own scent as an ooloi must. The word "ooloi" could not be translated directly into English because its meaning was as complex as Nikanj's scent. "Treasured stranger." "Bridge." "Life trader." "Weaver." "Magnet."
Magnet, my birth mother says. People are drawn to ooloi and can't escape. She couldn't, certainly. But then, neither could Nikanj escape her or any of its mates. The Oankali said the chemical bonds of mating were as difficult to break as the habit of breathing.
Scents...The two visiting Humans were longtime mates and smelled of each other.
"We don't know yet whether we want to emigrate," the female was saying. "We've come to see for ourselves and for our people."
"You'll be shown everything," Nikanj told them. "There are no secrets about the Mars colony or travel to it. But right now the shuttles allotted to emigration are all in use. We have a guest area where Humans can wait."
The two Humans looked at one another. They still smelled frightened, but now both were making an effort to look brave. Their faces were almost expressionless.
"We don't want to stay here," the male said. "We'll come back when there's a ship."
Nikanj stood upunfolded, as Humans say. "I can't tell you when there'll be a ship," it said. "They arrive when they arrive. Let me show you the guest area. It isn't like this house. Humans built it of cut wood."
The pair stumbled back from Nikanj.
Nikanj's sensory tentacles flattened against its body in amusement. It sat down again. "There are other Humans waiting in the guest area," it told them gently. "They're like you. They want their own all-Human world. They'll be traveling with you when you go." It paused, looked at me. "Eka, why don't you show them?"
I wanted to stay with it now more than ever, but I could see that the two Humans were relieved to be turned over to someone who at least looked Human. I stood up and faced them.
"This is Jodahs," Nikanj told them, "one of my younger children."
The female gave me a look that I had seen too often not to recognize. She said, "But I thought..."
"No," I said to her, and smiled. "I'm not Human. I'm a Human-born construct. Come out this way. The guest area isn't far."
They did not want to follow me through the wall I opened until it was fully openas though they thought the wall might close on them, as though it would hurt them if it did.
"It would be like being grasped gently by a big hand," I told them when we were all outside.
"What?" the male asked.
"If the wall shut on you. It couldn't hurt you because you're alive. It might eat your clothing, though."
I laughed. "I've never seen that happen, but I've heard it can."
"What's your name?" the female asked.
"All of it?" She looked interested in mesmelled sexually attracted, which made her interesting to me. Human females did tend to like me as long as I kept my few body tentacles covered by clothing and my few head tentacles hidden in my hair. The sensory spots on my face and arms looked like ordinary skin, though they didn't feel ordinary.
"Your Human name," the female said. "I already know...Eka and Jodahs, but I'm not sure which to call you."
"Eka is just a term of endearment for young children," I told her, "like lelka for married children and Chka between mates. Jodahs is my personal name. The Human version of my whole name is Jodahs Iyapo Leal Kaalnikanjlo. My name, the surnames of my birth mother and Human father, and Nikanj's name beginning with the kin group it was born into and ending with the kin group of its Oankali mates. If I were Oankali-born or if I gave you the Oankali version of my name, it would be a lot longer and more complicated."
"I've heard some of them," the female said. "You'll probably drop them eventually."
"No. We'll change them to suit our needs, but we won't drop them. They give very useful information, especially when people are looking for mates."
"Jodahs doesn't sound like any name I've heard before," the male said.
"Oankali name. An Oankali named Jodahs died helping with the emigration. My birth mother said he should be remembered. The Oankali don't have a tradition of remembering people by naming kids after them, but my birth mother insisted. She does that sometimesinsists on keeping Human customs."
"You look very Human," the female said softly.
I smiled. "I'm a child. I just look unfinished."
"How old are you?"
"Good god! When will you be considered an adult?"
"After metamorphosis." I smiled to myself. Soon. "I have a brother who went through it at twenty-one, and a sister who didn't reach it until she was thirty-three. People change when their bodies are ready, not at some specific age."
She was silent for some time. We reached the last of the true houses of Lothe houses that had been grown from the living substance of the Lo entity. Humans without Oankali mates could not open walls or raise table, bed, or chair platforms in such houses. Left alone in our houses, these Humans were prisoners until some construct, Oankali, or mated Human freed them. Thus, they had been given first a guest house, then a guest area. In that area they had built their dead houses of cut wood and woven thatch. They used fire for light and cooking and occasionally they burned down one of their houses. Houses that did not burn became infested with rodents and insects which ate the Human's food and bit or stung the Humans themselves. Periodically Oankali went in and drove the non-Human life out. It always came back. It had been feeding on Humans, eating their food, and living in their buildings since long before the Oankali arrived. Still the guest area was reasonably comfortable. Guests ate from trees and plants that were not what they appeared to be. They were extensions of the Lo entity. They had been induced to synthesize fruits and vegetables in shapes, flowers, and textures that Humans recognized. The foods grew from what appeared to be their proper trees and plants. Lo took care of the Humans' wastes, keeping their area clean, though they tended to be careless about where they threw or dumped things in this temporary place.
"There's an empty house there," I said, pointing.
The female stared at my hand rather than at where I pointed. I had, from a Human point of view, too many fingers and toes. Seven per. Since they were part of distinctly Human-looking hands and feet, Humans didn't usually notice them at once.
I held my hand open, palm up so that she could see it, and her expression flickered from curiosity and surprise through embarrassment back to curiosity.
"Will you change much in metamorphosis?" she asked.
"Probably. The Human-born get more Oankali and the Oankali-born get more Human. I'm first-generation. If you want to see the future, take a look at some of the third- and fourth-generations constructs. They're a lot more uniform from start to finish."
"That's not our future," the male said.
"Your choice," I said.
The male walked away toward the empty house. The female hesitated. "What do you think of our emigration?" she asked.
I looked at her, liking her, not wanting to answer. But such questions should be answered. Why, though, were the Human females who insisted on asking them so often small, weak people? The Martian environment they were headed for was harsher than any they had known. We would see that they had the best possible chance to survive. Many would live to bear children on their new world. But they would suffer so. And in the end, it would all be for nothing. Their own genetic conflict had betrayed and destroyed them once. It would do so again.
"You should stay," I told the female. "You should join us."
I wanted very much not to look at her, to go away from her. Instead I continued to face her. "I understand that Humans must be free to go," I said softly. "I'm Human enough for my body to understand that. But I'm Oankali enough to know that you will eventually destroy yourselves again."
She frowned, marring her smooth forehead. "You mean another war?"
"Perhaps. Or maybe you'll find some other way to do it. You were working on several ways before your war."
"You don't know anything about it. You're too young."
"You should stay and mate with constructs or with Oankali," I said. "The children we construct are free of inherent flaws. What we build will last."
"You're just a child, repeating what you've been told!"
I shook my head. "I perceive what I perceive. No one had to tell me how to use my senses any more than they had to tell you how to see or hear. There is a lethal genetic conflict in Humanity, and you know it."
"All we know is what the Oankali have told us." The male had come back. He put his arm around the female, drawing her away from me as though I had offered some threat. "They could be lying for their own reasons."
I shifted my attention to him. "You know they're not," I said softly. "Your own history tells you. Your people are intelligent, and that's good. The Oankali say you're potentially one of the most intelligent species they've found. But you're also hierarchicalyou and your nearest animal relatives and your most distant animal ancestors. Intelligence is relatively new to life on Earth, but your hierarchical tendencies are ancient. The new was too often put at the service of the old. It will be again. You're bright enough to learn to live on your new world, but you're so hierarchical you'll destroy yourselves trying to dominate it and each other. You might last a long time, but in the end, you'll destroy yourselves."
"We could last a thousand years," the male said. "We did all right on Earth until the war."
"You could. Your new world will be difficult. It will demand most of your attention, perhaps occupy your hierarchical tendencies safely for a while."
"We'll be freeus, our children, their children."
"We'll be fully Human and free. That's enough. We might even get into space again on our own someday. Your people might be dead wrong about us."
"No." He couldn't read the gene combinations as I could. It was as though he were about to walk off a cliff simply because he could not see itor because he, or rather his descendants, would not hit the rocks below for a long time. And what were we doing, we who knew the truth? Helping him reach the cliff. Ferrying him to it.
"We might outlast your people here on Earth," he said.
"I hope so," I told him. His expression said he didn't believe me, but I meant it. We would not be herethe Earth he knew would not be herefor more than a few centuries. We, Oankali and construct, were space-going people, as curious about other life and as acquisitive of it as Humans were hierarchical. Eventually we would have to begin the long, long search for a new species to combine with to construct new life-forms. Much of Oankali existence was spent in such searches. We would leave this solar system in perhaps three centuries. I would live to see the leave-taking myself. And when we broke and scattered, we would leave behind a lump of stripped rock more like the moon than like his blue Earth. He did not know that. He would never know it. To tell him would be a cruelty.
"Do you ever think of yourself or your kind as Human?" the female asked. "Some of you look so Human."
"We feel our Humanity. It helps us to understand both you and the Oankali. Oankali alone could never have let you have your Mars colony."
"I heard they were helping!" the male said. "Your...your parent said they were helping!"
"They help because of what we constructs tell them: that you should be allowed to go even though you'll eventually destroy yourselves. The Oankali believe...the Oankali know to the bone that it's wrong to help the Human species regenerate unchanged because it will destroy itself again. To them it's like deliberately causing the conception of a child who is so defective that it must die in infancy."
"They're wrong. Someday we'll show them how wrong."
It was a threat. It was meaningless, but it gave him some slight satisfaction. "The other Humans here will show you where to gather food," I said. "If you need anything else, ask one of us." I turned to go.
"So goddamn patronizing," the male muttered.
I turned back without thinking. "Am I really?"
The male frowned, muttered a curse, and went back into the house. I understood then that he was just angry. It bothered me that I sometimes made them angry. I never intended to.
The female stepped to me, touched my face, examined a little of my hair. Humans who hadn't mated among us never really learned to touch us. At best, they annoyed us by rubbing their hands over sensory spots, and once their hands found the spots they never liked them.
The female jerked her hand back when her fingers discovered the one below my left ear.
"They're a little like eyes that can't close to protect themselves," I said. "It doesn't exactly hurt us when you touch them, but we don't like you to."
"So what? You have to teach people how to touch you?"
I smiled and took her hand between my own. "Hands are always safe," I said. I left her standing there, watching me. I could see her through sensory tentacles in my hair. She stood there until the male came out and drew her inside.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
IMAGO is a decent finish to a worthwhile series. My only criticsm is the rather hurried and somewhat contrived resolution of the story line -- it seemed that Butler wanted to end the novel quickly during the final several chapters. Nevertheless, IMAGO is a very good read and almost as good as DAWN and ADULTHOOD RITES, both of which were superb. ------- Leonard