Dawn by Octavia Butler
Dawn (1987) is the first book in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy, written after her PATTERNIST series. By this point she had been writing challenging science fiction novels for a decade, and her writing craft and ideas had reached a high level.
Dawn is a very impressive book. Imagine that mankind has largely destroyed itself and the planet — it’s a fairly common doomsday scenario. But instead of the survivors scrabbling for survival, what if they were saved and kept in storage for centuries by an alien race, the Oankali? And what if one were awakened first, as Lilith Iyabo was, by these strange and frightening alien beings, covered in sensory tentacles? And what if one were told that humanity had been saved and would be repopulating the planet Earth, together with the Oankali? And with only one condition — but one that would transform human beings forever.
Octavia Butler doesn’t write comfortable science fiction stories. She wants to challenge the reader with truly alien beings, and then present them in a surprisingly benign and benevolent light, while making humans look ignorant and brutish. Lilith is a fairly tough and independent-minded woman, and that is why they think she can tolerate the extreme psychological dislocation of being awoken aboard an organic alien spaceship.
The early portion of the book deals with her trying to understand the sheer strangeness of the Oankali. They have three genders: male, female, and Ooloi, the latter of which can manipulate genetic material directly. They can adjust their own DNA as well as that of humans. Throughout the book, we are presented with scenes of transformation. The line between human and alien is blurred. Human and alien sexuality is also put under the microscope.
Finally, the venality of the humans selected for repopulating the earth is explored. Butler seems to have a profound skepticism of humanity. The Oankali may be opaque in their true intentions for humanity, but they are certainly more advanced, patient, benign, and intelligent than people. They seek to make an exchange with humanity, but when Lilith begins to awaken other people, she discovers their reaction to the Oankali is much more xenophobic and violent than she or the Oankali could ever have anticipated. Lilith finds herself caught between two sides, and drawn more to the alien than her fellow humans. And yet her designated role is to lead this group of surviving humans to rebuilt civilization on Earth.
A full assessment will have to wait until I’ve read the two sequels, Adulthood Rites and Imago, but Dawn is unnerving and compelling reading. If science fiction is supposed to confront readers with the truly alien, then Butler has succeeded marvelously. The Oankali are intriguing and frightening at the same time, but her depiction of humanity is even more alien in many ways. It is their prejudices, insecurities, brutish instincts, and predilection to violence and conflict that stand out compared to the peaceful and contemplative Oankali. There is clearly a strong element of implicit social criticism here, and I expect to see this expanded in the coming volumes.
Dawn is an interesting First Encounter story which is frequently interrupted by attempts of human-on-human sexual assault, successful alien-on-human sexual assault, and multiple (one explicit, at least seventy implied) forced pregnancies. I expect that kind of thing from Robert A. Heinlein, not Octavia Butler.
What’s good about Dawn? The alien species, the Oankali, is unlike any that I’ve encountered in many years of reading science fiction, and Butler clearly gave a lot of thought to their societies, physiology, language, and even their eating habits. They travel in a ship which is actually a huge living creature, possibly the size of our own moon, full of living vegetation and creatures. Walls, floors, and other objects are created from living plastic-like flesh which responds to pheromone triggers produced by the Oankali. Physically, they’re greyish bipedal creatures with four arms, an alarming number of emotion-reactive tentacles, and misshapen, not-quite-human faces.
The Oankali arrived shortly after a nuclear holocaust which wiped out most of humanity. Survivors have been scooped up from the planet’s surface and put in suspended animation for a little over two hundred and fifty years, at which point the Oankali have decided to slowly wake small groups and re-train them to live on Earth with Stone Age technology.
What’s the hitch? Humans will be bred with the Oankali, merging various desirable qualities from each species to create new life-forms. Humans are not — I repeat, not — being given a choice about this exchange because this is the only way for Oankali to reproduce. Any human who doesn’t want to participate in reproduction or return to Earth is put back to sleep and forced to share reproductive material while unconscious.
If that sounds like a bad deal to you, then you won’t enjoy 65-75% of Dawn. Sexual assault is a driving force of the plot, which is something that I wish I’d known ahead of time so that I could pass on this and read something more enjoyable. Paul, the first awakened human male who meets Lilith, beats her senseless and breaks one of her arms merely because she rebuffs his sexual advances. The encounter is observed by a group of Oankali, some of whom were willing to let Paul rape Lilith in the name of procreation. Luckily for Lilith, her adoptive Oankali family managed to intervene.
A year passes and Lilith is put in charge of awakening a group of humans with the goal of acclimatizing them to life on Earth. One man, after he recovers from stasis, immediately assaults an awakened woman, “and might have raped her if he had been bigger or she smaller.” After a few days, the two have begun a consensual sexual relationship — but it’s okay this time and they’re in love now, haha, because he didn’t actually rape her before. Hilarious, right?
Even worse is the Oankali treatment of humans: on multiple occasions, Lilith’s Oankali protector/pair-bonded mate Nikanj drugs Lilith’s human mate, Joseph, and forces him to engage in a ménage à trois completely against his will. The goal? Collection of Joseph’s sperm. Joseph objects to all of that, repeatedly saying, “You said I could choose. I’ve made my choice!” Unfortunately, Nikanj informs Joseph that his “body has made a different choice,” which is the Oankali version of “your mouth says no, but your eyes say yes.”
If you’re expecting Lilith to join in Joseph’s objections, you’ll be disappointed. “She was patient and interested. This might be her only chance ever to watch close up as an ooloi seduced someone.” She even has the nerve to argue with Joseph when he tells her, afterward, how uncomfortable he is with the fact that he was raped by an alien. Apparently his gratitude at being rescued from death (again, something he and no other survivors asked for) should outweigh any feelings of physical or emotional violation.
Butler’s writing style is lovely — she’s clearly a very talented author. I’m not completely sure what the Oankali look like, but I know exactly how they make Lilith feel; Butler’s talents lay more in evoking an emotional landscape than describing a physical presence. On the other hand, my enjoyment of her prose could not outweigh the disturbing subject matter. Clearly, the issue of personal agency was very much on Butler’s mind when she wrote this novel. Butler addresses Lilith’s behavior in the two subsequent XENOGENESIS books, providing commentary on how Lilith has become an alien to both the Oankali and her fellow humans, but I didn’t see a shred of that awareness or commentary in Dawn, and I felt that the book would have benefitted from more complexity.
As Stuart and Jana both make clear, Dawn is a novel that’s both impressive and disturbing. While I had the same reaction that Jana did, I didn’t think Butler was condoning the aliens’ (or humans’) behavior, merely describing it in all its ugliness. These humans are few and desperate and it can be argued that they don’t have the luxury to live by any morality they believe in.
The audio editions of the XENOGENESIS trilogy, read by Aldrich Barrett, are excellent.
You definitely had a different reaction to Dawn than I did! I’ll have to dig up my old review.
We certainly didn’t have the same response, Jana. For me, this book (and its sequels) is all about control, enslavement, power and powerlessness, and the morality of one species forcing itself upon another (symbolic violation), whether out of biological imperative or otherwise. That doesn’t make for a light entertainment, no doubt, but I found the ideas and questions it raised very gripping, especially because it didn’t provide any easy answers. I think most of Octavia Butler’s books explore similar territory and cause similar discomfort, so not for everyone’s tastes.
Quite right! Butler specialized in difficult situations and infusing her work with moral quandaries. I definitely have to be in a certain frame of mind, when I read her work, not to get bogged down by the weight of it.