Dawn, Octavia Butler (1987)
Review by Simon Petrie
Octavia E Butler was an African-American SF writer who died in 2006, aged 58. Her fiction has won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and she was the first SF writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant for her writing. She wrote several well-regarded series of novels; Dawn is the first novel in what is variously called her ‘Xenogenesis’ or ‘Lilith’s Brood’ trilogy.
Dawn starts with the reawakening of Lilith Iyapo aboard an alien spacecraft in orbit beyond Earth’s Moon. Lilith is one of the few human survivors of a nuclear war which has devastated the Earth. Her captors / guardians / mentors are the Oankali, a three-gendered race of grotesquely tentacled humanoids. (It’s difficult, when reading the book, not to envisage the Oankali as looking like the Ood from Doctor Who.) Starved of human contact, and still grieving for a husband and son who were killed before the war which all-but-obliterated humanity, Lilith must conquer a deep-seated revulsion for Jdahya, the Oankali adult male who has been tasked with helping her acclimate to her circumstances. Once she has adjusted to Jdahya’s company (and his largely passive tutelage), she must learn to communicate with the less-patient, intermediate-gender Kahguyaht (one of Jdahya’s two spouses), then with the family’s adolescent child, Nikanj. With each of her teachers, Lilith strives (and fails) to argue for the necessity to accommodate the basic human needs for companionship, for freedom of movement, and even for information. The Oankali, it seems, are prepared to offer humanity’s remnants a form of salvation, a second chance at existence; but it is to be a second chance which is entirely on the Oankali’s terms. Humans will get to repopulate the Earth, if they agree to abide by the rules which the Oankali are laying down; but they will not get the Earth to themselves.
Dawn is an incredibly immersive view of a disorientingly alien culture: thinking through other books I’ve read in a somewhat similar vein, I think only Phillip Mann’s work (notably The Eye Of The Queen, a near-contemporary of Dawn, and this year’s The Disestablishment of Paradise) would come close in their ability to convey a detailed and convincing otherness. Stylistically, there are parallels with the writing of Ursula K Le Guin, most strongly The Left Hand of Darkness, with which there is a similarity not just in terms of tone but also of the exploration of alternative sexualities: where The Left Hand of Darkness has its each-way ‘kemmering’ of androgynous humanoids into briefly male and female counterparts, Dawn has its three-gendered aliens, with male, female and ‘ooloi’ genders, with the ooloi acting as a very hands-on intermediary between the more recognisable genders. Thematically, the work evokes comparison with Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, with its superior aliens seeking to enlighten and to reshape humanity. I’d have to say that I found Butler’s view of future human evolution (or the foreshortened sketch of same on offer in Dawn) to be distinctly more palatable, largely as a result of the credibility and emotional depth of Lilith’s portrayal, and the sophistication (superior, supremely foreign, fallible, and somewhat arrogant) of Butler’s saviour-colonialist aliens. Although other humans do eventually appear in Dawn — the book’s final quarter places Lilith in the role of instructor and leader for the group which will subsequently be transported down — the focus, throughout, is on Lilith’s attempts to make her own personal peace with an alien culture which, no matter how well-meaning, spells a form of doom for human civilisation as we would recognise it.
Does Dawn work as hard SF? I think it does; the science in question is predominantly biological, and is addressed through Butler’s efforts to construct a detailed and self-consistent description of the Oankali’s aptitude for genetic (and more broadly biological) manipulation. This exploration is a satisfying and (I think) necessary component of the tale Butler is telling: while the story’s force derives from Lilith’s doubts and persistence as she masters the various dilemmas with which she is faced, its weight accrues from the Oankali’s plausibility as disturbingly accomplished genetic tinkerers, whose motivation in helping to perpetuate a human presence on Earth is plainly not pure altruism.
Butler shies away from simple answers: ultimately, it’s not possible to say whether she’s on the side of humanity, of the aliens, or somewhere in between. (The same could be said, I think, for her exploration of gender politics and of colonialism.) She just observes, and invites us to make our own conclusions of the scenario which she has sketched out with such care in this book. It’s this ambivalence, this careful understatement, which makes Dawn such a compelling story.
This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.