What is the single most alien aspect of the world into which Lilith is thrust? Reading mindfully of this question made one scene stand out more than any other. On pp 67-69, Lilith buries some orange peels in Tiej instead of Kaal, and the ground reacts- well- cancerously. I felt Lilith’s shock and helpless panic more keenly here than I did anywhere else, and I had to ask myself why.
See, Lilith is an anthropologist. She makes sense of even the most unusual Oankali characteristics by comparing and contrasting them to things she already knows. Sensory organs are snakes, tentacles, night crawlers, sea slugs (13-14). She compares the near-rape scene with Titus to the way humans treat mares and stallions, then dogs (95). She believes it’s foolish to think of the ooloi as being male or female, because they’re neuter-sexed (89). Every time the Oankali surprise her, she’s ready with a definition of precisely how they’re similar, or dissimilar, to humanity. Her major in anthropology serves her well- she starts thinking of her life as fieldwork (87). Even the secrecy of the Oankali, while sometimes bizarre, isn’t alien in and of itself. Lilith comes from a world in which the US-vs-USSR conflict went from cold to very, very hot. Government secrecy isn’t something she’s unfamiliar with. Lilith has a formidable array of coping mechanisms at her disposal. She’s a psychological multitool.
But the ship? Man, the ship. So it’s alive, so it can be intelligent, so the Oankali have managed to perfect the idea of a self-sustaining paradise. More importantly, it’s the one thing that Lilith can’t predict. Everything else is reasonable enough, once the initial shock wears off. But to live in a world where the concrete laws of physics are radically different- how can she possibly prepare for that? Imagine trying a car key in your apartment door. Maybe it wouldn’t fit, or maybe it just wouldn’t turn. Now imagine if it turned, and you pushed the door open, only to find yourself walking through the ceiling of a Roman catacomb lit with lava lamps. It just doesn’t make sense. With everything else, there at least appears to be some kind of cause and effect, even when the causes are hidden from Lilith’s knowing. Sure, there’s an obvious cause here- the ship’s got a wonky physiology- but what makes it so alien is that Lilith has no way to anticipate how the ship will react to any given stimulus.
To recap: Lilith is surrounded by alien things, but she’s got plenty of ways to process most of it. Her inability to anticipate the ship, however, makes her much more helpless by temporarily suspending any useful coping mechanisms she might otherwise use. Things on Earth may have taken her by surprise, but at least she had a stable environment in which to try and learn things. That fundamental assumption of science- that experiments are repeatable- seems absent. Yes, there’s probably an explanation- the neighborhoods of Tiej and Kaal have other differences- but it’s the most alienating thing Lilith probably experiences.