July 2017
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review-by-elements: Octavia Butler's "Imago"


icon: "bluestocking (photo of a book lying open on a table with a bright window in the background, overlaid with a yellow fractal that looks like the sun shining through dust motes)"


"Imago" is a subset of sci-fi, "far-future humans on earth after alien contact." It follows a neuter-gender alien-human biracial person named Jodahs as they mature into an adult and navigate the difficulties of being the first of their kind. It includes themes of: primary motivation of sentient beings (suggesting the options of control/hierarchy versus consensus/learning), the value of fertility, and the importance of place. It complicates questions like what makes humans human? what is desire? What is sex? What is consent? What is a disease?

I most enjoyed the sex scenes, short though they were. They were of necessity not focused on genitalia, which is unusual and more creative than most depictions of sex. I also enjoyed the concept of an organ attuned to learning genetically, and feel disappointed that this was not explored more in-depth. I feel like there were many sensory aspects that were glossed over, but I quite enjoyed the small bit of exploration done of non-human sensory capacities. The need that the main character had for connecting to the environment is something I felt great resonance with.

Content note: possible triggers are the passive violation of boundaries (knowing that if something is left alone it will remove the possibility of choice for someone, but choosing not to inform them so that one can benefit from what they are forced into). [[[Spoilers this sentence: Jodahs allows their mates to become addicted to them without informing them.]]] It ruined some of the book for me.

Characters: The characters are all cis, all non-disabled, all straight. The main characters consist of: neuter-gender alien-human (Jodahs) who chooses to look 'male' and latinx, Jodahs' five parents (male alien, female alien, neuter alien, male brown human, female black human), Jodahs' twin (neuter-gender alien-human), Jodahs' human mates one male one female (both Spanish-speaking and brown), and a few side characters, all brown. The minor characters are interesting and unique. Other than Jodahs, there is little exposure of characters' feelings and motivations. There seems to be no prejudice except by some humans toward aliens, and by almost all characters toward the human-alien neuter-gender (though not toward the purely alien neuter-gender, such as Jodahs' agender parent). I felt that the story was very plot-driven, and not enough attention was paid to developing the characters. At only 220 pages I think it was simply too short and too thin, like a first draft.

Imagination: Concepts I hadn't seen before included a race which can perform genetic alterations with an organ in the body of the third (neuter) gender; organic spaceships/buildings which communicate with the alien race who designed them; sensory arms which function as sexual organs and have the ability to grow microscopic filaments which can reach into the flesh of other beings to inject substances or perform surgery or perform genetic alterations; sensory spots and sensory tentacles which allow for the sending and receiving of information and pleasure; reproduction by the conscious mixing of genetic material in the neuter-gender parent before incubation in the female parent; a race motivated by novelty/exploration on the micro level; desire for touch and sex controlled completely by pheromones.

Issues: Many of the interesting concepts just took too many assumptions. I felt this was extremely ciscentric and heterocentric, as the new family size was EXACTLY five, with two males and two females and one neuter. Trans people cannot exist in this world, intersex people cannot exist, polyamorous people cannot exist. The idea that after marriage, there is one hub who is the only way that any of the other four can touch ANYONE: this is horrifying but no one expressed horror. No one was horrified that they would cease to be able to be touched by anyone of the 'opposite' sex. It was assumed that all touch with the 'opposite' sex had to do with sex. I don't care how great being with one person is, I would not be willing to give up touch from half of the world. I really wanted to like this book, but it was so full of mental control and gender binary that I found it extremely frustrating.

Plot: the plot was quite well-paced and intriguing, though fairly simple as a coming-of-age story. It would have been easy to finish this in one sitting.

Setting: this is set on a future earth which has been ravaged by war and then healed for many years with assistance. Most people live in alien-human families in cities which are made from a single organism. Groups of humans called 'resisters' live in the wild and re-forested earth, some aliens live on spaceships, and Mars has been made into a colony for resisters to go live as exclusively human. Most of the book takes place in the re-born jungle.

Point of view: 1st person (Jodahs), but it doesn't feel intimate. Usually first person draws me in more to the character and helps me feel like I'm in the story, but I actually thought this was written in 3rd person until I double-checked. I feel like the book suffered from not being in 3rd person.

Dialogue: There's about the same amount of description as dialogue, making this a very easy read. The dialogue maybe passes the bechdel test- questionably, as the author writes Jodahs in a way that conforms to masculine stereotypes. Tone is hardly varied from person to person. I would say that the variety in speech patterns is less than average: notably too-similar, to the point that I have to double-check names to see who said what.

Writing style: Quite emotive, but spare. Many of the actions of characters are described with their emotions (which makes sense given that the main character is highly emotionally intuitive). It didn't create much of a visual but it created very clear moods in scenes with people.

Imago book cover Length, cover: 220 pages in paperback. The cover pictures a thin brown person with a narrow waist standing with back to the viewer, hair as tentacles, tentacles coming from elbows and fingers, lower half blue and scaly. They're topless, wearing a brown skirt, and a starry night sky is the background. Either the artist did not read what the main character was supposed to look like, or they created something they thought more likely to appeal to humans reading it (the sensory arms are supposed to come from underneath the strength arms, and should be much thicker). I think this speaks to Western white sensibilities, since multiple arms don't have a negative connotation in some Eastern cultures. The feel of it is extremely self-absorbed and passive, because the person is staring at their finger tentacles. It conforms to pose rules for female models, which is why it does not look neuter at all.

Author: Octavia Butler, feminist, black, age 42 at the time of writing this in 1989, dyslexic, cisgender, straight American woman. Butler wrote from the age of 10 (while growing up under Jim Crow), and this was approximately her 9th novel. In 1995, she was the first science-fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

Context of this reviewer: White, afab, genderfree, trans, queer, non-disabled, poly, add-pi neurodivergent, poor, intersectional feminist, age 32, from southern US.

on amazon: biracial agender alien coming of age. A great story but too spare, too short: needs more fleshing out.

My favorite author and biologist, Joan Slonczewski, wrote a review on this book and its two prequels (the last four paragraphs on the page cover this book).
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on communication, social justice, intimacy, consent, friendship & other relationships, spirituality, gender, queerness, & dreams. Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.
Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.