Dawn by Octavia Butler


Read June 2014
Recommended for fans of sci-fi, aliens
4 stars for personal enjoyment, 5 stars for quality

As one of the earliest African-American female science fiction writers, Octavia Butler is a must for anyone who reads sci-fi. Fourteen of her works were nominated for the Locus Award during her career, including each book in the Xenogenesis series, but she only had one win, the novelette “Bloodchild.”  Dawn is the first book in the Xenogenesis series, published in 1987, and is a science fiction classic. It achieves what the best in science fiction has to offer: by looking at humanity’s interaction with an alien species, it examines what it means to be human and to be emotionally intimate. It’s a powerful story, uncomfortable in character and theme, and yet I can’t recommend it enough.

Lilith is an African-American woman Awakening from a prolonged, artificial sleep. As she reviews her situation, the reader learns humanity was engaged in a full-scale nuclear war that left almost no survivors. Since then, she has been trapped in a white box of a room with virtually no outside stimuli except mysterious voices occasionally asking questions. When Lilith finally meets her captors, she discovers they are humanoid-appearing aliens called Oankali with a talent for gene manipulation, and, even more intimidating, sport a large assortment of tentacles instead of hair. They carefully explain they’ve managed to save the few remaining humans–for the price of some genetic material. Lilith is given little choice to grow comfortable with the Oankali unless she wants to spend the rest of her very long life on their ship. If she can work with them, there’s a chance she can return to Earth.

Divided into four sections, “Womb,” “Family,” “Nursery,” “The Training Floor,” the narrative largely divides the story into chunks of time and stages in Lilith’s interaction with the Oankali. Transitions between the sections seem slightly awkward, sometimes with setting changes, sometimes with significant time breaks. The third person limited point of view brings the reader closer to Lilith’s experience without unnecessary breaks in point of view. Readers who are used to the popular first person perspective, or multi-person perspective may find it hard to emotionally relate to Lilith as she copes with her confinement and the proposed genetic destruction of the human race.

The first time I read it, I was much younger, and lacked compassion for Lilith. She is a frustrating main character who is often focused on opposition without logical basis. This time, I felt I understood her better, although I remained disappointed in her naivete. Butler did an excellent job characterizing the Oankali; I got the sense of an alien motivation, patience and decision-making process while still feeling they were somewhat identifiable. It really is remarkable how few writers are really able to convey a sense of Other; so many times aliens feel like humans dressed up in strange skins. Sadly, Butler also represents the range of humanity including uncomfortable extremes, and it was tough to witness the very real human dynamics.

There is little doubt in my mind that the story of Lilith exploring issues of freedom and sexuality with aliens has a parallel to the experience of the African slave among white slaveholders, or even dominant modern white culture. What does it meant to be genetically pure? To grant humanity to the oppressor? The Oankali are ‘saving’ humanity despite (some) human objection and doing it on their terms. While the Oankali claim their culture is egalitarian and preferable to humanity’s propensity for hierarchy and war, it is clear to Lilith that the third-sex ooloi enjoy a special rank among the Oankali, and that the Oankali are patronizing her and other humans. It is easy to be ‘benevolent’ when they hold the power over human life and death. Essentially, Lilith is given a choice to assimilate or die shipbound, but when she elects to die, the Oankali claim that they know what she really wants, even as she states otherwise. And yet there is nothing simplistic here; it is not merely a case of returning humanity to Earth and letting them recreate their self-destruction. There humans and Oankali trying to do the best as they understand it with a challenging situation.

It is a powerful, uncomfortable story on many levels. The series was released as “Lilith’s Brood,” and in a Youtube promotional video, Samuel Delany said “you read it, you walk around the next few days thinking about it, which is, I think, what good writing makes you do” (“Octavia Butler Profile Piece“). I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I’ll take a breather before advancing to the next in the series, Adulthood Rites.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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12 Responses to Dawn by Octavia Butler

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    Your first line makes it seem like her book holds merit only because she’s of African descent and female 😛

    I’m on a lifelong mission to read my way through all the Hugo/Nebula winners and nominees, so I’ll be going through a large portion of her work 😀

  2. thebookgator says:

    Well, that’s a catch-22–she should be read, if only for those reasons, just like people should read Ursula LeGuin and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s sci-fi because they are some of the seminal women writers. I won’t pretend her style and themes will necessarily resonate with younger readers–she’s a little more of the ‘classic’ generation of writers that I see younger readers saying they aren’t as accessible. But I enjoy them.

    Sadly, the recent Hugo brouhaha makes it clear it has lost value as a criteria for me over the years.

    • Rabindranauth says:

      I personally could care less what race/gender a writer is; most of the time they’re just a name on a cover to me. I’m more of a story focused reader; I’m always looking for great books. That’s pretty much my only criteria on reads, lol.

      This is a pretty great list of female SFF authors, though, just another list I want to read through as much as I can. Have you come across it yet?


      • Joachim Boaz says:

        I think it is important to notice because so many valuable SF authors who are women have had their work ignored for so long…

        I submit to SF mistressworks frequently as a result for Ian Sales’ attempt to bring worthwhile works by women to the fore.

      • Rabindranauth says:

        I agree with that, but at the same time, wouldn’t it be a positive sort of sexism to single out female SFF authors for recognition simply because they’re female? In a way, you’re devaluing the strength of their work and making it seem like their strongest asset is their gender.

        The way I see things, in this particular day and age, it’s completely impossible for a good story, regardless of age and gender of the author, to go unnoticed and unlauded. If it’s good, it WILL become well-known. I’m all for promoting female SFF authors, but the best way I see to do so is to present the merits of their story and completely ignore the fact that they’re women, or not Caucasian; to do any else would be to diminish the merit of the story itself.

        In short, you’re promoting them entirely on the basis of their story and not out of some need for political/social enlightenment/correctness. Sure, without bloggers/the book community actively promoting female authors, their books won’t come to light in the first place, so you’re right, we do need to promote female authors. I just consider actively singling them out a bad approach to a positive end. That’s the way I see things, at least.

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        You are reading way more into my comment…

        There are factors at play which have prevented their work from getting the respect it deserves. A LIST isn’t exactly something detrimental in any, remote, minute way…

      • Rabindranauth says:

        I don’t consider it detrimental, I just think singling them out is a bad approach to a positive end. Big difference.

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    I still have not read Butler! I know! Shame! But, I do have Kindred on the shelf.

  4. thebookgator says:

    In writing my first line, I was appealing to the vanity of my fellow book-readers who like to feel they’ve hit many of the classics/basics. While I look forward to the day that I can just blindly pick up a book and read a story without thought about the author, the reality of the matter is that speculative fiction (sci-fi and fantasy) has been classically dominated in American/British writing by straight, white, economically privileged males, and the majority of viewpoints/ characters to date have represented that perspective (it takes much more work and skill to represent a perspective that is not native to oneself). It is worth making note of equally valid but under-represented perspectives when one finds them in this field precisely because it is still the not-norm. It is not “reverse-sexism” or “positive sexism” to single these authors out because of their background, until their background is so ubiquitous and represented that it is not an issue for most readers.

    There’s a very, very, very long thread in the Goodreads Sci-Fi fantasy readers group about this topic: “are we, as readers, sexist” that shows the extent to which well-read people can consider themselves “not-sexist” and yet have read almost no sci-fi or fantasy works by more than two women. Until under-represented groups had equal access to agents, editors, publishers, promoters, conventions and the like, and are not shouted down by others when they do use that access (as N.K. Jemisin was by Theodore Beale) there is institutionalized discrimination, and no matter how un-sexist a reader thinks they are, unless they make a conscious effort to counter that, they viewpoint will be skewed in favor of the dominant one.

    Unfortunately, -isms are still running rampant in the science fiction/fantasy genre, as the recent (within the last 2 years) dust up in SFFWA over hostile, sexist, racist comments in their publications and leading voices.

    Butler was notable on many counts, and her stories themselves are unusual for an unrepresented viewpoint in sci-fi/fantasy. This book specifically, because she then used that protagonist to explore coercion, sexuality, identity, comfort, complicity and species (race).

    Great discussion. Perhaps worth of it’s own blog post!

    • Rabindranauth says:

      I’ve set myself the mentality that the day when female authors are on the same playing field as traditional SFF authors is fast approaching, if not already here, which is where my view on it as a sort of positive sexism comes from. Because there’s no doubt that day’s rapidly approaching. After all, that’s the simplest way to eradicate racism; you teach the young ones there’s no such thing. I’ve just applied a similar mentality to how I choose my SFF books where it comes to gender.

      I agree with the skewed viewpoint, I proved that to myself a few months when I looked at the authors of the majority of books I’ve read in the past; for every one with a female author, there’s at least 29 male-written books.

      The Beale-Jemisien incident is what first brought the matter to my attention, actually. And considering I’m East Indian and I like to dabble in writing now and then, minorities is something I definitely want to see eradicated in concept from the SFF community on macro and micro scales; we must be so universally accepted that we’re not even considered minorities in the first place.

      The only sure thing is that that’s going to be the future; as much as racism and sexism are inherent institutional mentalities at the moment, active strides are being taken by countless readers to go against these trends. It’s a change that won’t be stopped, and the easiest way to prepare and forge the paths for that day is to adopt a fitting mentality from now. Like I said; exactly how you’d take steps to eradicate racism. But that’s all just my take on things [and pretty much how I’ve indoctrinated my kid cousins, hah.]

      P.S. It would make a great blog post, but I’m too lazy to go type up everything again. Sorry for hijacking your review!

  5. Pingback: Kindred by Octavia Butler | book reviews forevermore

  6. Pingback: Review: Xenogenesis Trilogy (Lilith’s Brood) by Octavia Butler | From Cover to Cover

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