Octavia E. Butler
Imago Cover



Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: Significant
Ace/Genderqueer characters: Yes (construct)
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing concepts and some sexual themes
Writing style: 4/5
Likable characters: 4/5
Plot/Concepts: 4/5

Jodahs is ooloi—not male or female. Ooloi are common among the Oankali—the race of aliens which have interbred with humans and saved them from their post-apocalyptic world—but there has never been a human-born ooloi before. Jodahs' power to assemble and disassemble the genetic structure of things could be the greatest danger Earth has ever known; or it could be the hopeful beginning of a new age and a new species.

Before I get too much further, let me give a disclaimer. Yes, I realized when I picked up Imago that it is the third book in a series, and technically I should have read the first and second book before reading Imago. However, it is a testament to Butler's skill that I was able to jump right in to this foreign future Earth and understand what was going on without much trouble. Butler's dialogue, descriptions, and pacing are all well-balanced…concise, with nothing important left out. The only thing I felt myself lacking was a solid description of what the Oankali look like in terms of similarity or difference to humans. I know that they have tentacles: sensory arms with which they feel and see and smell. They have some kind of head distinguishable from their body, seem to be grey or brown in color and probably stand upright, but I'm not sure beyond that what they really look like. It doesn't matter that much. Far more fascinating is the way Butler writes them as possessing feelings humans can relate to and yet being quite different in their approach to life. The Oankali are deeply emotional and yet rational—lovers of all life and experience and yet they seem to feel terrifyingly entitled to modify and absorb all forms of life into themselves. I kept expecting this to result in a critique of colonialism, but the Oankali are held up as beautiful and wise beings throughout the story, while humans are a dying species with a genetic flaw which ensures their eventual self-destruction unless the Oankali help them.

Jodahs has five parents… a male/female Oankali pair, a male/female human pair, and one ooloi. I'm not sure if this is how all such families are constructed, though I suspect it is. The ooloi uses its abilities to store, combine, and manipulate genetic material in order to create constructs like Jodahs, which (like their Oankali siblings) are sexless until their first metamorphosis, when their bodies choose a sex and become sub-adults. Jodahs, whose birth mother is human, expected to become male, but instead found upon first metamorphosis that "his" body was becoming ooloi. Apparently ooloi go by the pronoun "it". This was actually one of the hardest aspects of the book for me to deal with, as "it" feels dehumanizing and objectifying to me and I have never thought of it as an acceptable neutral pronoun. However, perhaps Butler felt that "it" would be less difficult for her readers than singular "they", considering how even now many people get hung up on its supposed grammatical incorrectness. In any case, being called "it" doesn't seem to bother the ooloi.

During and after first metamorphosis, Jodahs must turn for help to its same-sex parent, an ooloi named Nikanj. Nikanj does its best to guide Jodahs through the difficult process of learning to control the great creative and destructive gene-tampering abilities of Jodahs' newly awakened body, but things look pretty bad until Jodahs meets some humans who need healing. Ooloi are drawn irresistibly to anything which needs healing, and many of the humans who resisted union with the Oankali are in bad shape from wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside the safe, symbiotic (and sentient) Oankali towns and ships. Eventually Jodahs finds two fertile humans, a brother and sister, and begins trying to persuade them to be its mates, changing form in order to please them and healing them of their genetic infirmities. In the process its own powers stabilize. This process is the essence of the book. If someone summarized Imago as "hybrid alien child with tentacles seduces post-apocalyptic humans" I would have run the other direction, but I found Jodahs' identity fascinating enough that I wasn't bothered by the sexual tones of the book as much as I usually would be. Perhaps this was helped by the fact that sex for Oankali and constructs (and their mates) is a bit different from human sex, the pleasure and genetic exchange resulting from tapping directly into the nerves in the spinal cord. Still, it was a bit intense at times.

I wasn't sure what to make of the ooloi need to mate. This need is quite literal, and ooloi can apparently starve and die from lack of chemical bonding with a mate. Once bonded the human or Oankali and ooloi are chemically dependent on one another. This sounds a bit like a supernatural romance cliché, so I wasn't sure I liked it… and it also justified a certain desperation and underhandedness in Jodahs' dealings with potential mates. For example, Jodahs' human mates, Jesusa and Tomás, were unaware that if they stayed with Jodahs through second metamorphosis, they would never be able to leave Jodahs again—their minds and bodies would be fully dependent on regular contact with Jodahs. Jodahs didn't tell them this, and its parents didn't either, but later we see the effect of "starvation" on Jodahs' paired sibling and realize that their silence stemmed from a very real fear of losing their child.

I liked most of the characters, but especially Nikanj, Jodahs, and Jodahs' paired sibling Aaor. It was gratifying to see that Jodahs has extremely significant familial relationships apart from just its mates. Jodahs' relationships with its other parents was also important but Nikanj took center stage without a doubt. The humans Jodahs eventually mates with seemed rather bland at first but they grew on me. I also appreciated that they were exceptionally close as brother and sister. Jodahs compares them to paired siblings in Oankali families, like Jodahs and Aaor. I was also intrigued by the Oankali's superior intelligence being balanced with an oddly animal-like psychology… simple, instinctual, with little modesty or resistance to the natural progression of any situation. This made them simultaneously lovable and intimidating.

My favorite aspect was the beautiful handling of Jodahs' third-sex (possibly agender or genderfluid) identity. Ooloi are a well-accepted thing in Oankali/human families, and Jodahs gives up expectations of becoming male quite easily, realizing that although "he" had always assumed "himself" to be male, there was no particular compulsion toward maleness in "his" essence. Actually, because the story is told in first person, I thought Jodahs was female at first—probably because Jodahs' voice felt familiar to me in some way and, although I am not a woman, I am female but nonbinary, so I am more likely to read characters outside the binary as being female if I identify with them. It's a bit like when I watch or read something and just get this feeling that a character seems familiar somehow—I identify with them—and then realize it's because they can be read as asexual. Jodahs has moments of coming off to people as more male or female in appearance, but not really in behavior. That was an excellent decision on Butler's part. Jodahs is Jodahs no matter what its outward form is, and quite unapologetic about correcting people who think of ooloi as hermaphroditic or "male and female in one body". The thrill of representation can't really be beat. It's too bad there was absolutely no room for asexuality in this book, but for those under the genderqueer umbrella, Butler has done a great service by writing this.

To top it all off, I'm pretty sure every human in this book is a person of color, and there is no generalizing about personality based on former nationality or ethnic origins. There is the strange role of the Oankali as keepers of genetic purity, which is hard not to take as a reference to eugenics and all the racial conflicts that were involved in that, but I don't think Butler actually intended to critique such things. The Oankali are known to prevent violent humans from procreating. There are some deep knee-jerk reactions to that concept, but it's also hard to dismiss the evidence that the Oankali are not at all malicious in their intent, only wanting what's best for humanity, knowing it is doomed to failure unless it joins with them. This is one of those instances where their straightforwardness comes off as arrogance and is a little terrifying.

Strange and provocative stuff. I will definitely have to go back and read the rest of the series, and I'm looking forward to learning more about Oankali psychology, gender and family structure. Butler has created quite the universe here, and it'd be a shame not to explore it further.