Fair Trade?

Although anthropology does not explicitly train for “first contact” with extraterrestrials, it does prepare one for dealing with an alien culture. Lilith, as a student of the discipline, is well-suited to the task of understanding intelligent beings that have a different orientation to reality whether that being is human or something else. She has probably been trained to be aware that the ‘Other’ may operate according to a system of logic different from hers. This mental framework allows her to quickly assimilate the Oankali’s strange customs and way of life into her understanding of her new reality.

When Jdahya tells Lilith that his relative cured her cancer in a manner unknown to human science, she quickly accepts it. “Is that how you cure cancer among yourselves?” Jdahya replies, “We don’t get them.” And then she sighs, saying “I wish we didn’t.”

Lilith also accepts that the Oankali are capable of manipulating genes and body chemistry in unfathomable ways. When she finds out that her captors have fortified her immune system, and “increased [her] resistance to disease in general,” she not only accepts it as possible without a second thought, but understands why they would do it. She cites our own practices in animal husbandry: “We used to treat animals that way…We did things to them—inoculations, surgery, isolation—all for their own good” (pp. 32-33).

Even the Oankali’s household arrangement is not too alien. Jdahya lives with his “wife” (as Lilith calls her) and their child. With the exception of Jdahya’s ooloi mate, Kahguyaht, it’s almost a nuclear family. But this is no stranger than some living arrangements among human populations. (It’s not just the Dinso that live this way either. The Toaht also live in small family units.)

For everything that the Oankali have subjected Lilith to thus far—imprisonment, isolation, interrogation, nonconsensual surgery—she’s found the human equivalent to make some sense of it (for more on this check out Brandon’s excellent post). And even when there is no analog, she merely accepts it as true. For instance, she easily believes that the massive ship is a living thing. Pseudotrees that can be manipulated–cabinets and rooms created at will–at the touch of a finger? OK, accept.  Suspended animation through a once carnivorous plant that’s been genetically modified not to digest its prey? Sure, why not.

But there is one thing about the Oankali that is just too alien for her to accept.

The trade. The Oankali’s raison d’être—their reason for being.

Jdahya explains, “Your people will change. Your young will be more like us and ours more like you…That’s part of the trade.” Lilith is alarmed: “What will you make of us? What will our children be?”
When he responds that they’ll be “Different, as I said. Not quite like you. A little like us,” Lilith freaks out. She is categorically opposed to the “trade,” no matter what it means to the Oankali.

“No! No. I don’t care what you do with what you’ve already learned—how you apply it to yourselves—but leave us out of it. Just let us go. If we have the problem you think we do, let us work it out as human beings.”
“We are committed to the trade.”
“No! You’ll finish what the war began. In a few generations—“
“One generation.”

When Jdahya offers to kill her, she almost goes through with it.

Of all the things that are alien to Lilith, the thought of human-Oankali hybrids is too much for her to bear. In this class we’ve talked about the fear of having our boundaries breached, penetrated, and violated. Well, having radically alien DNA inseminated into our gene pool is a violation of another order. I think that explains her gut-level reaction. Cultural relativity, one of anthropology’s central tenets, is the principle that one should suspend judgement to look at an act from the native’s point of view. 

For Lilith, however, it seems the “trade” is something no amount of cultural relativity can overcome.