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.