The Paris Review

Cooking with Octavia Butler

My copy of Lilith’s Brood, with a breadfruit, soon to be made into an edible bowl. I’ve read the book six times, as the damage to my copy shows.

The most perfect alien abduction scene in all of literature occurs in Dawn, the first volume of Octavia Butler’s Imago trilogy. Butler (1947–2006) was a rarity, a black woman publishing science fiction in the eighties, and the Imago trilogy is her masterpiece. On the first page, the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, comes to consciousness with the words “Alive! Still alive. Alive … again.” She finds herself in a familiar room with “light-colored—white or gray, perhaps” walls and anonymous touches like a bed that’s “a solid platform that gave slightly to the touch and that seemed to grow from the floor.” Lilith has been here before, has undergone weeks or maybe years of questioning by disembodied voices that come from the ceiling, has lost her mind and fallen asleep or lost consciousness only to reawaken and be put through it all again. This time, there’s food—“the usual lumpy cereal or stew, of no recognizable flavor, contained in an edible bowl that would disintegrate if she emptied it and did not eat it”—and something new: clothing. She dresses and eats. She is finally ready to cooperate with her unknown captors.

Lilith’s last memories from before the locked room are of an all-annihilating nuclear war, of which she recalls, “a handful of people tried to commit humanicide.” Despite the strange circumstances of her captivity, she doesn’t realize she’s on a spaceship in the hands of aliens until the first one comes through her door. She then discovers a race of humanoids called Oankali, who are covered with shaggy, grotesque, tiny “sensory organ” tentacles. The Oankali long ago scooped up all survivors of the war and have been keeping them in suspended animation while restoring the earth to a primordial, habitable state. Now they’re ready

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