Dawn, the 1st novel in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy by Octavia E. Butler, is set in an intensely alien world, where almost nothing is familiar. The single most unfamiliar, and unimaginable component of this foreign environment is the ooloi.
The ooloi is the third sex in the Oankali race. The human race only has two sexes (male and female). The idea of a third sex existing in humanity is uncomprehensible. What would a third sex look like? Sound like? What would be their role in society? Would they participate in reproductive processes? What would their personalities be like? I can’t even wrap my head around the notion of a third sex. Humans come from male and female DNA and as we spend our lives on Earth, we are surrounded by males and females. It is the most natural thing to us; one of the core components of who we are as people and as a species.
Reading about the ooloi in the book fascinates and frustrates me at the same time. Since a third sex does not exist in the human world, it is nearly impossible to imagine what a third sex would be like, even in an alien race (something that is already hard to understand). When Jdahya first explains to Lilith what the ooloi are, he attaches the pronoun “it”. This makes the ooloi seem even more “other” than they already are because we usually attach “it” to inanimate objects- to things that are not alive. In human standards, “It” has connotations of lacking an identity or importance. We see Lilith react according to the normative human social structure of “it”; “some things deserve to be called ‘it'”(pg 49). This construction does not exist in the Oankali; the ooloi not only has a unique identity, but they are also the most important and influential sex in the species. I guess “it” is not an insult to them.
It is very clear that the ooloi is neither male nor female, but Paul Titus feels that “the ooloi acted like men and women” (pg 89). He goes on to ask Lilith, “Doesn’t yours seem male to you?” (pg 89), referring to Nikanj. When he said this, I was startled because I had been thinking the same thing while reading. Nikanj does seem male to me, but I can’t explain why. This may just be my natural attempt to humanize this alien- to give it a human sex just so that I can understand it better. But even beyond that, I cannot explain why I see Nikanj as male (as opposed to female).