This book is... not one of my favorites. It has all the things that should make it right up my alley, but it somehow didn't come across as the sort of thing I like-- and yet I couldn't put the thing down. Even with it's ugly cover and my copy's massive copy errors that kept kicking me out of reader mode and into editor mode. It was a short book. It shouldn't have had so many errors, mispelled words, repeated words, missing words. And it wasn't an advance reading copy, either.
Anyway, enough of that particular hobbyhorse.
Imago is the story of Johdas, half-human and half-alien, going through metamorphosis and becomign what he'd/ she'd/ it'd become as an adult. There's five parents, two human and three alien, various siblings, various normal and mutated humans. There's a post-apocalyptic vibe going on-- there was a terribly destructive war a generation or wo before-- mixed in with a preapocalyptic one-- the aliens will eventually leave the earth a broken and used-up husk. Johdas comes out of metamorphosis as an ooloi, the third gender that helps the aliens breed with the new species they encounter, as well as letting them correct genetic abnormalities, collect DNA of anything that has it, and being the lynchpins of their society. It wasn't supposed to happen in human-pairings; they were designed to be male or female, and a human-ooloi is not just unexpected and unpredictable, but also dangerous, they claim, because it could damage DNA without knowing it.
Sounds good, right?
But Johdas doesn't really damage much, and what it damages, it fixes. And never damages humans or plants or microbes, only alien-things like them, their ship and their town-beings. And he gets that under control with little enough trouble. His sibling has a rougher time, but he fixes that, too, with almost no trial and error-- which would have made the book more interesting a read. He goes looking for human mates, and that, even, is sort of uninteresting; there's lots of weird alien sex, but all of it so oblique as to be ignorable, and the people are put in a position of physical dependance on the alien presence of him: they're addicted to him and have no choice. And he knows it. And he doesn't tell them.
Maybe that's my biggest problem: Johdas is kind of a jerk, his people are all jerkish, and the narrative is told from this jerkish point of view, where humans are constantly being called treasure and wonderful and interesting, and then being kept as breeding stock, too addicted to thin straight, even when they think they should be. There's so little choice in the whole story. It's innevitable, and innevitability is dull, even when the actual events-- preparations for leaving a dead world, unheaval in the alien societies, human resistance and how it's overcome-- are really pretty interesting ideas. It was constantly bothering me on fundamental reading and writing and plooting levels, and yet I kept reading it. I didn't even like it, and yet I kept reading it. It's like it was making me, like the book itself was that alien jerk, addicting me. And I have a problem with that-- if she could accomplish that on a dumb story, think what she could accomplish on a good one.
People keep telling me to read Butler's books, and I'm not all that impressed with this one, but it had good ideas. Hopefully it's just an early one and good ideas don't always come out this annoying.