I really want this book to be a 4, because it is an excellent, well-written book. I recommend it highly, and it is more than worth the time to read it. I cannot rate it at 4, however, because I do not think I will feel compelled to re-read it. There are certainly a few scenes that I will return to, since I already own this copy, but a borrowed copy would otherwise suffice.
Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it (collected edition))
After further consideration, I will definitely be re-reading this book at some point. I do not know that I was sufficiently taken with Lilith to feel compelled to return to her story, but the story is worth another read at some point. It is a compelling tale that weaves alienation and fatalism without leaving the reader in despair. [/end edit, original review follows]
An aptly named Lilith awakens on a starship after a great war has devastated Earth. An alien race has saved the remnants of humanity, one that uses the genetic code the way humans use tools. These Oankali want Lilith to prepare the awakening humans for a return to Earth, along with a plan to inter-breed their two species into a new one.
With the recent death of Octavia Butler, I saw several commentaries on her work that focused on the word "outsider." Lilith certainly fulfills that role, a human alone amidst an alien race, returned to humanity when she is sufficiently alienated to be an outsider to them. (There is surprisingly little culture shock, given that whole "devastation of the planet, near-extinction of all life on it, utterly controlled by aliens" thing. Way to adjust, humanity!) Lilith is useful as a newcomer to the Oankali, so that they can explain everything to her, and hence the reader, and then as a sounding board for the variety of human reactions as the others awaken. Lilith gets to be immersed in everything, so that it affects her, but separated enough to give us some perspective.
Also, she is bitter. I like that. It especially seems appropriate, given that whole global holocaust-extinction thing I alluded to earlier. This is not necessarily humanity's best day. I suppose being short-sighted is a natural reaction for many of the characters, given the horrors of the broad view.
The Oankali are interesting, opaque yet attempting to teach. They feel alien, not like humans in makeup. They are not just one facet of humanity taken to its logical extreme; Butler has given us a uniquely separate perspective, and any failings in developing or explaining that alien mindset are at worst the shortcomings of a difficult and worthwhile project, done well. One downside: we see relatively little of the failings of the Oankali as a people, outside of a lack of respect for humanity (which they should have why?). They make few mistakes, although you might expect a few more to be acknowledged given that people would be looking for them and they mistakes they do make are pretty severe. Maybe it all just got rolled into one, "Oops, we'll do better next time."
The plot is relatively simple. The structure allows us space to explore the aliens, humanity, and assorted emotions and ideas. The Oankali have a straightforward plan; the humans have none. I tend to like a bit more reason and less emotion, but the Oankali need not share their reasoning and the humans do not seem to be engaging in much. They are just reacting to a fait accompli. Author's choice, and it works perfectly well in the story.
Hmm, should I dispute that one? Our characters exhibit almost no sense of agency, and to the extent that they do, they are self-destructive at best. Humanity seems to be trying to prove that it deserves to die. The range of agency is naturally limited, as they are in a controlled environment and in ignorance. It is unclear how much anyone could do outside of violence to self or others, but it might have been more clear if anyone had thought to do anything else. The Oankali want human culture too, but they seem to have effectively eliminated anything beyond sex and violence.
We could also use a bit more about the Oankali, and luckily there are more books to follow. They are good; I read through all of them before stopping to write this, which is as strong an endorsement as I can gather at present.
Amazon link (collected edition)