“Shall we tell them they can come back to us?”(pg 246)
“No. And don’t be too obvious about helping them get away either. Let them decide for themselves what they’ll do. Otherwise people who decide later to come back will seem to be obeying you, betraying their humanity for you. That could get them killed. You won’t get many back, anyway. Some will think the human species deserves at least a clean death.”
“Is it an unclean thing that we want, Lilith?”
The Oankali have made their lives about studying and understanding the human race. They have had two hundred and fifty years to study everything about humans: learn about their cultures, their mannerisms—both as a race and as individuals—, their biology. They have studied and learned so much about the humans that they know them almost too well at times. They know each person’s disposition, what makes them tick. Lilith’s ooloi Nikanj tells Lilith that it matched her and Joseph based on the way that they handled the isolation and questioning at the beginning of their inhabitation of the ship. The Oankali have their own values, their own sensibilities, but they work hard to look at the feelings of the humans objectively. They seem to anticipate and plan for every situation imaginable, they seemingly know everything about the human species, but they cannot understand or plan for the issue of pride.
When Joseph is killed, Nikanj tells Lilith that “there was no sign that Curt meant to kill….What happened here was…totally unplanned” (224). The Oankali cannot seem to understand the inner workings of human pride or the human need to be human. Humans are unique, and the Oankali know this, but they like everything to be predictable; they have structured everything in their world to be predictable. They think through issues and solutions quickly and logically. They have no way to really understand the terror and panic that happens to humans when their humanity is threatened. This calmness is evinced in their always steady and calm voices.
The Oankali see change as a good thing. They are a people that thrive on change, on seeing it, studying it, creating it. They see change as the logical next step in the evolution and perpetuation of the human race. The gene trade that they force upon the humans seems logical and right to them but they cannot see passed their own values to see how this might be detrimental to the race of people they are trying to help. They do not understand that the humans take pride in their humanity. If humans can be bettered, the Oankali cannot see why they would not want to be. But as for the humans, all they really have left is their humanity. They have never liked to be threatened, but they can deal with physical and emotional threats. Once their humanity, their human uniqueness is threatened, they act out in ways that the Oankali can neither percieve nor understand.
The inability of the Oankali to understand this need to remain unchanged will undoubtedly return in the next two installments of the trilogy. The fact that Lilith has already become pregnant through the help of the Oankali has already caused tension, and the knowledge that the ooloi have bonded with the humans and made conception impossible without them anger, confuse and sadden Lilith.
“But they won’t be human,” Lilith said. “That’s what matters. You can’t understand, but that is what matters” (248).
The inability of the Oankali to understand the human need to retain its humanity will be the struggle throughout the rest of Butler’s saga.