Hat tip to Jack, who recommended AND lent me the "Lilith's Brood" trilogy. It's one of his favorite sci-fi series, and I can see why. It presents a fascinating scenario, and is unique in the way that it presents uncomfortable moral situations without allowing for any easy answers. It demands that you think, without demanding what you think.
My one-sentence review: "If you've been waiting for a sci fi book that combines literary merit and creepy alien tentacle sex, look no further!"
The books were written in the 80's, as I verified once I got to the part where I read how the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (remember them?) had finally launched nukes at one another. All life on Earth larger than a gerbil is dying. The northern hemisphere is a pure wasteland, and while the southern hemisphere wasn't affected as badly, that just means it suffers longer.
In a coincidence, though, an alien ship has just moved within range of Earth. On board live the Oankali, an advanced intelligent form of life. They are relieved, not just because they can save Humanity, but because Humanity can save them. The Oankali are experts at creating, acquiring, and manipulating forms of life. Their need to heal is built in to them in the same way humans need to acquire and dominate. They rescue the survivors, and start examining them, and find a fatal flaw. Humans are intelligent, the most intelligent species the Oankali have ever run across. But that intelligence is new, and laid on top of ancient hierarchical tendencies inherited from their animal ancestors. Seen in this light, the nuclear war wasn't an accident or a tragedy. It was the inevitable result of the human genetic code.
The Oankali are driven to acqurie new forms of life, mix with it, interbreed, and improve, sort of a genetic version of the Borg. Ordinarily, they would announce their presence, help the native species, and patiently wait hundreds of years or more for the other species to willingly join them. Now, though, they have arrived in the midst of crisis, and they decide that drastic measures are necessary. Humanity is put on an accelerated time schedule, and the rest of the series deals with the repercussions of that decision.
The Oankali are about as far as you can get from the typical, Star Trek-ish vision of aliens as being basically humans with different foreheads. In their original form, they weren't even bipedal. Since discovering Earth, they have been breeding themselves into a more human-ish form so they can better interact (and, eventually, breed) with them, but it still doesn't look very human. They have no eyes, nose, or ears. Instead, they rely on "sensory tentacles," which can cover the entire body, to detect their environment. And, in the most drastic difference yet, they actually have three genders. Two are for convenience called "male" and "female". Males tend to be wanderers. Females are enormous, quiet, and strong. The third, generally referred to by the pronoun "it," is the Ooloi. In the Oankali reproductive system, the Ooloi is necessary for a successful mating. Males and females never actually touch one another; the ooloi is responsible for linking the two of them, gathering materiel from both, then mixing it together, examining the DNA, and reconstructing it to shape the child that is necessary. The ooloi are masters at this type of manipulation, and can also reprogram other oankali and other species. And so, as the book begins, all the human's genetic defects have been repaired, injuries cured, and their lifespan extended to hundreds of years.
(During the third book, the narrator starts mentioning how Spanish speakers tend to think of ooloi as hermaphroditic instead of sexless, because there is no neuter pronoun in Spanish. I kind of suspect that this was put in after Octavia Butler discovered that critical fact during translation of the first book. Just a hunch.)
Reading this series is a very odd experience. Naturally, we are inclined to empathize with the human perspective. At the same time, we can immediately acknowledge that humanity screwed up - not just in the book, but that it's screwing up in the real world as well. The Oankali seem superior to us, but they're far from perfect. As the book goes along and you learn more about them, you become increasingly sympathetic towards them, but at the same time, your sense of horror and revulsion grows. It's impossible to pick a specific side, or even a particular character, and say "They are doing the right thing." Really, it seems to ultimately come down to a question of the common good versus individual freedom, taken to enormous extremes in both directions. Do you have the right to kill another person? Most of us would say "no." What if we could put a chip in your brain that kept you from being able to kill? We may start to feel a bit queasy at the thought. What if it wasn't another person who put in that chip, but a tentacled alien invading the earth? All of a sudden freedom is looking much more like a good thing in its own right, even if that freedom might cause problems.
Each of the three books has a different main character, and they depict the evolving relationship between humanity and Oankali. Lilith, the aptly named protagonist of the first novel, is sort of the first woman of the new Human species. She lived before the war, has memories of the old Human way of doing things, but is responsible for orienting other Humans and helping them accept the new order. She is helped by the Oankali, and also betrayed and damaged by them. The other two books feature offspring of Lilith who inherit the new world order and can begin to act in order to change the original Oankali plan.
All in all, a fascinating series. I really don't read all that much science fiction these days - it used to be a staple of mine, and I still often enjoy sci-fi television and movies, but for whatever reason I don't read that many books, and the ones I do read tend to be very soft sci-fi like Vonnegut. This was a great change of pace, and a reminder of what the best science fiction can do: provoke you, make you think, and restore a sense of wonder.