Dawn – by Octavia E. Butler

Here I am, finally catching up with some seminal work I hadn’t read yet – and for no good reason, because we’re not talking about some supposeddly ingenious and actually quite offputting masterpiece, we’re talking about themes and styles that are absolutely my thing. So, better late than never, they say.

Title: Dawn

Author: Octavia E. Butler

Original Publisher: Warner Books

Publication Date: 1 May 1987

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 248

Standalone or Series: First book of the Xenogenesis series (a.k.a. Lilith’s Brood)

Synopsis: At the beginning of the novel, Lilith Iyapo, a black terrestrial woman, awakes alone in a cell. Soon we discover she’s been abducted by the Oankali, an alien species who plucked the last surviving humans after a nuclear war had left the Earth in ruins. Her saviours/captors want to “help” humanity, training the surivors to live on Earth once again; at the same time they want their species to interbreed, which is a natural imperative for the Oankali. They perceive such process as mutually beneficial, especially as they state it’d fix humanity’s lethal combination of intelligence and hierarchical tendencies, an they expect Lilith to provide her cooperation.

Analysis: The story is told in third person, closely sticking to Lilith’s limited point of view. Through her eyes we gradually discover what happened to the world and to Lilith herself, and we get acquainted with the Oankali, their society and their beliefs. The prose is deceptively simple; it adopts a mostly familiar, everyday language to describe very alien (and alienating) concepts and realities, thus effectively conveying the experience of an otherwise ordinary and relatable person suddenly thrown into a very disconcerting world.

The Oankali are a good example of an extraterrestrial species that feels properly alien, while at the same time being understandable enough to allow for meaningful interactions. Their appearance is described as offputting, their bodies being covered with sensory tentacles that only loosely compare with human sensory organs; they have three sexes – female, male, and ooloi; all of them are endowed with a keen perception of genetic biochemistry, but the Ooloi are also able to manipulate genetic material, both to mutate other beings and to build offspring from their mates’ own genes. Their drive to mix and merge with other species (by manipulating them to their own ends) is described as an essential biological drive, not as something that can be debated in political and cultural terms.

While their course of action seems perfectly natural and unproblematic to the Oankali, however, through Lilith’s eyes we perceive all its disturbing implications. We see the main character as she struggles to come to terms with her imprisonment, longing for freedom while at the same time bargaining the terms of her coexistence with her captors, and being irrevocably transformed in the process. The novel prompts us to ponder over comparable power dynamics that we can recognise in real life – from sexual abuse to colonisation and cultural erasure. Given the context, however, no comparison is straightforward, no message is clear-cut. If anything, the premise of the story makes our questioning even more uncomfortable and nuanced: because, indeed, the Oankali may have no respect for personal agency, however they literally rescued humanity from extintion, and even thorughout the novel Lilith’s human companions end up being a more direct threat to her life than her alien overlords . So, can be the loss of freedom and identity an acceptable price for survival? Is a self-disruptive culture still worth saving? Science fiction has often cast extraterrestrial species as antagonists to a mostly sympathetic humankind; other times, our species may be portrayed in an unforgiving light, in contraxt to a more enlightened alien culture. Here, on the other hand, the author offers no simplitic answer, instead prompting us to deal with a fictional world that is just as complex and ambiguous as our own.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Dawn entirely lived up to my high expectations; it’s an incredibly insightful, thought-provoking book, while at the same time being very readable and engaging. Recommended, no ifs or buts.

Content Warning: Confinement – Rape – Murder – Sexual Content – Suicidal Thoughts – Cancer – Child Death

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: