Dawn, Octavia Butler

dawnDawn, 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.

Lilith’s Brood, Octavia E Butler

lillithLilith’s Brood (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago), Octavia E Butler (1989)
Review by Shannon Turlington

Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis novels were first compiled into one volume in 1989, but that compilation is now out of print. As with Seed to Harvest, Grand Central Publishing has reissued the compilation in an attractive trade paperback to capture new readers. And I’m glad they did, because I probably wouldn’t have read these books otherwise.

When I finished Lilith’s Brood, I actually wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, but I thought about it a great deal, which I think is a sign of a book worth reading. The underlying theme disturbed me, partly because I didn’t find much hope in it, partly because I found myself agreeing with the series’ assessment: that humankind is fated by our own biology to destroy ourselves.

Lilith’s Brood includes three novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago, which comprise the Xenogenesis series. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war. The few human survivors have been picked up by an alien spacecraft and kept in stasis while the aliens, the Oankali, study them. Lilith is one of the first to be awakened and to be integrated into an Oankali family. She is being trained to awaken others, to introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and to reveal the Oankali’s plan: to produce Oankali-human offspring, a brand-new hybrid species.

The Oankali are genetic engineers and reproduce by genetic manipulation. They have no disease or old age, and they can communicate with one another at the cellular level. They survive by travelling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means that humans can no longer reproduce with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Also, when the Oankali leave, they will consume the remainder of Earth’s resources for the journey.

Of course, there is rebellion. Many humans choose to live long, childless lives rather than join with the Oankali. Lilith does not, because having been integrated with an Oankali family, she has become physically dependent on them. The next two books follow the lives of two of her children, as the Oankali-human interbreeding progresses. I don’t think I would have been compelled to keep reading the second novel if it were a separate sequel; each book on its own seems somewhat incomplete.

Throughout all three novels, the humans – living in primitive conditions on Earth – are portrayed as without hope, a species that, if allowed to reproduce, would attempt to destroy itself again within a few generations. Humans are hierarchical and competitive, unlike Oankali. As individuals, they can be intelligent and compassionate. But as a group, they are violent, destructive and territorial. Even when the aliens allow some humans to start a new colony on Mars and have children, the Oankali hold out no hope for their future.

That’s what makes this series so disturbing. The only hope posited is essentially that a greater power from the outside will find us, cure all our diseases and create with us a better people than we can ever hope to be. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another. I look at the news every day and feel that this is true. But I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of evolving past whatever impulse causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, not look to some alien or god to save us.

But if I’m looking for that kind of resolution, I won’t find it in Lilith’s Brood. Still, I’m glad I read it. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with Butler’s conclusions, her writing made me think about and question some of my own assumptions.

If you liked this book, you might also like Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler; Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson; Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler; Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler; The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin; The Snow Queen by Joan D Vinge

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord

162 Miriam Allen deFord Xenogenesis Ballantine069Xenogenesis, Miriam Allen deFord (1969)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Miriam Allen deFord – one of the more prolific SF short story authors of the 50s – 70s whose works appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, If, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy, Worlds of Tomorrow, etc – deserves a Gollancz Masterworks volume. But, as has been pointed out, despite the number of prolific female SF authors in the 50s – 70s they were rarely republished and are perhaps the least read group of SF authors for modern audiences. There are some exceptions but few readers can name a female author pre-Ursula Le Guin. deFord’s shorts were collected in only two volumes, Xenogenesis (1969) and Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Elsehow (1971) and both print runs were limited to the first year of publication.

Informed by her feminist activism (she was an important campaigner for birth control) and her earlier career in the newspapers, deFord’s stories tackle themes such as overpopulation, racism, colonialism, gender issues, sexism, and alienation. Her works range from deceptively simple allegories to future histories vast in scope and complexity (for short stories). Her female characters are almost all individualistic, resourceful, and highly educated – they often struggle against increasingly regimented/mechanized/homogenized societies in order to raise families in addition to their careers. In short, deFord advocates forcefully the right to self-determination for her heroines.

Likewise, African American characters who are highly educated and in positions of power, the antithesis of the standard race clichés of the time, proliferate her short stories. I found the strong social activist streak rather surprising considering the 40s/50s providence of some of the works… The only contemporary female SF author who I have who that comes close to the radical nature of some of the tales is Judith Merril (most notably, ‘Daughters of Earth’). It is important to keep in mind how early she is writing.

Despite a few duds (a characteristic almost of all short story collections), the majority are highly recommended. Her work deserves to be reprinted.

‘The Daughter of the Tree’ (1951) Miriam Allen deFord’s second published short story, more fantasy than SF proper, is an intriguing allegory. In late 19th century Indian country a white boy wandering the woods learns about a girl of who looks to be of “white-blood” yet lives with the Indians and is supposedly the “daughter of the tree”. The story is filled with so-called Native American speech, ie, “I little boy, he bring me” and “sometimes he give big potlatch”. The vaguely fantasy premise becomes an allegory of emotional and physical absence – a settler woman is forced to find companionship in a sentient tree rather than her often absent husband.

‘The Superior Sex’ (1968) deFord deftly turns the standard SF trope where a (generally male) writer postulates a future where the women are in power in order to construct a “warning” narrative (or titillating tale) of some sort – à la Edmund Cooper’s Who Needs Men? (variant title: Gender Genocide) (1972) – on its head. A man wakes up to discover he’s a member of an all-male harem for a proud, ferocious, tall “Viking Woman” (p 13). But, add in some implanted visions, investigations of “hidden psychological impulses” a female scientist investigates her husband who might wish he didn’t volunteer.

‘The Ajeri Diary’ (1968) An allegory of sex and imperialism, or perhaps, more specifically, the “gaze” of the west. The exosociologis narrator, voyages via the “Patterson Differential” equation that allows mater transmission, to “virgin” territory. Where, instead of conducting more scientific anthropological studies, he gathers experiences (of all sorts, including lots of sleeping with native women) to write his populist and scandalous series entitled “With Our Galactic Neighbors”, i.e. lots of sex with our all our sexy up to this point very similar to us galactic neighbors. Unfortunately, the planet of Algol IV is not conducive to the narrator’s “research.” A world where the men are not really “men” and the women “reproduce parthenogenetically” and have no sexual interest in him. A fun, if polemical, allegory of societal clash–definitely reads as a product of the late 60s.

‘Quick to Haste’ (1969) As with ‘The Ajeri Diary’ the insatiable sexual desire explorers feel towards “native” women is the thematic focus. But, there’s an intriguing twist that perfectly serves deFord’s satirical purpose. The world is “Earth-like” and “like a dream”. A paradise filled with scenes from Greek vases, images of classical glory…. Scout ships filled men (and occasionally women) spew out into the stars to combat overpopulation – the men fall for the native women (perhaps it is the plan). But the women on this planet seem to age at remarkable speeds and produce children in mere days. The world is the perfect world for interplanetary explorers seeking sexual fulfillment – not only will you not have to deal with long term attachment but any children you might beget will be adults before you leave.

‘The Smiling Future’ (1965) In an overpopulated and computerized world where every scrap, including ocean chlorella, is harvested to feed to populace an unusual “embassy? army?” from the sea emerges on the shore in individual tanks. Mankind is perplexed because the ocean dwellers are sentient dolphins! But little does mankind know that the dolphins too have evolved, and just as man is destroying the oceans to support their growing numbers, the dolphins have an equally sinister plan. A somewhat lacking, but enjoyable nevertheless, satire with ecological themes…

‘Gathi’ (1958) Thematically similar to ‘The Daughter of the Tree’, ‘Gathi’ is a wonderful parable of sentient trees who are literally “rooted” together. Explores the forces that compel women to follow certain paths, the “root” with certain people, to avoid leaving what is dictated by traditionalist forces. Moving away is against “denroid behavior” – the young female trees ought to find rooting companions. A mysterious caretaker of the grove moves at the outskirts reinforcing with blights and sterility those who do not conform.

‘The Children’ (1952) The longest story in the collection is one of the lesser ones despite a its grand scope of future history… Using Time Travel a scientist, after a devastating accident that killed the rest of his family, develops an experiment that will yield him children in the future. The rather ridiculous (and forced) premise does ruminate on gender relations of the future.

‘Throwback’ (1952) Not only of the better stories of the collection but perhaps the most sinister. In the far overpopulated future where both men and women are highly educated and have careers, a female artist of ceramics wishes for a child. In this world where humans are counseled by machines and only pre-selected women produce children she considered atavistic in her longings for a stable relationship with children and realizes that an undocumented pregnancy would result in serious repercussions. So she hatches a plan to escape after an accidental pregnancy – but deFord constructs no happy ending.

‘One-Way Journey’ (1955) An elderly couple in an overpopulated future relate how their son, Hal, signed up for a controversial program that sends young girls and boys off to the stars. He leaves them, or so they think, without progeny–not only will the program transform their child into something unrecognizable yet suitable for travel into space, but the restrictions on childbearing mean that Hal was unable to have a child on earth. A rumination on the pangs of separation, on disconnect from a traditional past, on atavistic desires (to reproduce, to have families) that resurface despite rigid legislation. I found that the ending is all too easy and avoids the issues at stake weakening the grim impact.

‘The Season of the Babies’ (1959) A hilarious satire on the clash of cultures. An alien world wants to be admitted to a Federation of Planets started by Earth. The Earth delegates arrive, everything seems to be going well, until a baby cries… Soon the entire alien way of reproducing and eating and living is uncovered, to the horror of the Earthmen. Deftly deploying a mix of elements from Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and Montaigne’s ‘On Cannibals’, deFord presents the aliens as a hyperbolic foil for humans who practice “traditional” practices that seem abhorrent upon closer examination. But the humans too can not look beyond what they believe is the one and only way.

‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ (1957) 4.5/5 Easily the best story in the collection, ‘Featherbed on Chlyntha’ is the journal of an Earthman snatched from a colony of Mars and stuck in an alien cage in a zoo. Unfortunately, he lusts after the alien feathered “women” who looks after him – deFord subverts the standard conqueror who lusts after the conquered paradigm. However, as he learns about their complex gender-relations – until a certain age everyone is female and after a certain age they become male – he loses sexual interests but his human-knowledge helps them unravel the reason for his abduction. Thankfully, not everything works out in the end! It is hard not to believe that writers such as Le Guin were inspired by stories such as this one.

‘The Transit of Venus’ (1962) Archeologists from the future uncover new clues about a particular scandal during the “rite of the Buticontest” (beauty contest) of the 21st century. The Buticontest is the obsession of Earth and all its colonies. All women desire to enter, and only those who are PhDs in the sciences and who won’t shrug at parading around naked in front of judges and thousands watching will be considered. The scandal, covered up forcefully by the horrified Buticontest officials, involved a woman drugged and cast-off by her family for her slightly more traditional ways who entered the pageant with faked credentials and a plastic skin-like body suit. The real reason for her deception has been uncovered!

‘All in Good Time’ (1960) Graduate students of the future are the only ones taught by real humans–all earlier levels of education is mediated by machines. Law students are presented with a case by the professor involving time-travel and bigamy. Only a young female law student knows the reason for the ruling…

‘The Absolutely Perfect Murder’ (1965) In a media saturated future where evenings spent with ones spouse equates both individuals tapped into different programs, doped-up on Sensapills, with hearing-plugs and directional conversation-glasses “smelling, tasting, feeling their favorite telecasts” a man resorts to killing his wife… Fortunately, a time-travel device has recently been invented. The husband spends his savings and vacation money for a one-time trip into the past. And discovers his wife’s secret – a lie that might save her life. The “disconnect of 50s domesticity” rumination devolves in all the standard directions as the story unfolds.

‘Operation Cassandra’ (1958) Fascinating premise with an average delivery. Only three people wake up in a vast Hibernatorium. The purpose of the facility was to preserve humans in a state of deep sleep until the end of a world-wide disaster. Unfortunately, the staff died and the power ran out leaving on a few alive–an African American Havard educated man, a college educated woman, a Danish college educated farmer, and a hardworking self-educated Southerner who serves as the narrator. What sort of society will they create? What about nascent racism? Unfortunately, the discovery of other survivors means that all the difficult questions have easy, and rather less radical, answers.

‘The Last Generation?’ (1946) Way before Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) or PD James’ The Children of Men (1992), deFord speculated along similar lines about the effects of mass sterility. An accident, presumably nuclear in nature, in New Mexico results in the inability for almost all of humanity to have children. First there’s panic and massive global searches for anyone who might be able to produce children and quacks take advantage and hawk “remedies.” Soon massive quantities of money is poured into the IARC (Ingrid Anderson Research Commissions), named after the youngest person on Earth, in order to find a cure. Even in this 40s vision, African Americans are scientists, and women are in positions of power… But, is it too late? Is this The Last Generation? But, we are left waiting, even the narrator does not know.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.