The Oankali are incestuous, male and female mate from the same family. They are so closed off in their families, so incestuous, that they need a third sex, the ooloi, to bring in genetic material from the outside and avoid stagnation or degenerescence. But even this is not enough, and they must roam the galaxy finding new intelligent life to overcome the perils of inbreeding.
Despite their ethic of life and their search of otherness the Oankali represent yet another imprisoning of life in a Form, just as humans do. What they seek from humanity is “cancer”, a biological destructuration that is a disease for us but that can be used by the Oankali for regeneration and metamorphosis. What they get from us is not just this biological destructuration but the bases for at least accepting social destructuration in the form of liberty and independence. Apparently they had never left the option of remaining unchanged to the other species that they met and “traded” with. Everyone had to be assimilated. Thanks to Akin’s atypical development and his espousal of the human need for independence they have authorised a part of humanity to found a free colony on Mars. We can imagine that they will now apply this principle to the species they encounter in the future.
The Oankali bring healing and change, to a humanity that had almost completely destroyed itself and rendered the Earth uninhabitable. The human form is not an eternal essence, and not necessarily a good in itself. Deleuze asks in his book on Foucault:
“What does Foucault mean when he says there is no point in crying over the death of man? In fact, has this form been a good one? Has it helped to enrich or even preserve the forces within man, those of living, speaking, or working? Has it saved living men from a violent death?”
The death of Man need not be the extinction of a species, but can be the consequence of the acceptance of change beyond the given forms. Man is hierarchical, but so are the Oankali (one cannot be taken seriously before one’s metamorphosis into an adult, even if one has insights that the People, as they call themselves, do not. And there is another hierarchy: the Oankali imprison life in their own genetic technology and traditions. Humans help them to free this life with their gifts of cancer and independence, just as they bring healing and change to the life of which humanity is just one custodial form.
The Oankali are enriched by humans in many ways. They gain cancer, and thus the possibility of regeneration and of transformation. But this gift is too destabilising for them, and they need bonding with humans to stabilise this new potential, or else they will become totallt de-differentiated and their cells will disperse. The Oankali are intelligent, but they do not seem to have much emotional intelligence, relying on bonding, chemical and neural interfacing, and rigid traditions to understand and to manipulate the other, whether Oankali or human. Lilith, and later Tate, and then many others, give them a chance to develop emotionally and to accept the others aspirations, and not just their unfamiliar genetic make-up.
“Writing is becoming”, Gilles Deleuze tells us, and the Oankali do have a system of writing, only it is genetic. They are one image of the science-fiction writer, bringing estrangement to the species they encounter. Lilith is another image of the writer, bringing resistance and a commitment to freedom into the cultural understanding of the Oankali. Cognitive estrangement and ethical engagement make for writing that is not just repetition of official stereotypes and conventional tropes:
“In writing one always gives writing to those who do not have it, but the latter give writing a becoming without which it would not exist, without which it would be pure redundancy in the service of the established powers” (DIALOGUES, 44, translation modified by me).
For Deleuze and for Butler all becoming is double-becoming, we change something else as it changes us:
“Our children will be better than either of us,” it continued. “We will moderate your hierarchical problems and you will lessen our physical limitations. Our children won’t destroy themselves in a war, and if they need to regrow a limb or to change themselves in some other way they’ll be able to do it” (LILITH’S BROOD, 247-248, lsecond last page of DAWN).
Butler herself writes to become other, and cognitive estrangement is accompanied by existential estrangement:
“Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow . . . Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself”.