Book Review: Dawn, by Octavia Butler

Enthralling, dawning horror. That’s probably the best way to describe my evolving response while reading Octavia Butler’s Dawn—an emotional journey that shares much in common with the experience of Lilith, the book’s protagonist.


Cover of Dawn, by Octavia Butler.

The story begins when she’s awakened from stasis by Oankali, aliens who rescued her and a handful of other survivors after a nuclear holocaust ravaged the Earth. While these “lucky” few slept, the Oankali spent the intervening centuries restoring the planet and readying it for humanity’s return. Lilith is tapped to lead the first wave.


But the Oankali aren’t acting solely out of the goodness of their hearts (or whatever organs function as the metaphorical equivalent in their bizarre, many-tentacled bodies). Salvation comes at a price. And the cost is genetic.


Much of this is fascinating. For one thing, the worldbuilding is particularly well done. We only get the broad strokes of the conflict between the United States and Russia that precipitated intergalactic intervention. But that’s all we need—Butler devotes most of her exposition to slowly revealing the Oankali’s biology and culture. We learn about their lifecycle, from puberty to adulthood. We see how they form triads rather than couples, with gender-neutral ooloi forming the link between male and female. And we glimpse the differences between their broad peoples—Dinso, Toaht, and Akjai—in a way that hints at even greater distinctions.


The Oankali are also technologically advanced but in organic fashion. They grew their ship. They replicate organisms and objects from “prints” of each entity’s molecular makeup. They store their subjects in Venus flytrap-like plants that sustain them in hibernation. And, as Lilith explains to some of the humans she’s charged with leading, the Oankali “manipulate DNA as naturally as we manipulate pencils and paintbrushes.”


This is the entry point for one of Dawn’s many unsettling aspects. Lilith notes more than once that she feels like a lab rat caught up in a captive breeding program. “We used to treat animals that way,” she tells one of her Oankali handlers. “We did things to them—inoculations, surgery, isolation—all for their own good. We wanted them healthy and protected—sometimes so we could eat them later.” But the Oankali (the ooloi especially) aren’t interested in that form of consumption. They see “great potential” in humanity’s various mutations. It’s an uncomfortable turning of the tables. And while Butler never really gets into intra-species racial dynamics, it’s hard not to think about historical parallels like the abominable Tuskegee Study.


This theme of coercive experimentation carries over to sex. The rapes attempted by other humans in the book are the familiar sort of terrible. (In Dawn, terrestrial tensions and barbarity don’t improve when the constraints of civilization are stripped away.) But the chemical and neurological manipulation the ooloi use to tempt and control their patients corrodes consent in a different, more insidious way.


Ultimately, though, Dawn comes down to a classic sci-fi quandary: What does it mean to be human? It can’t simply be a question of genetics—fluidity has always been baked into our DNA, an evolutionary malleability Butler hints at when an ooloi reverts Lilith’s physical strength back to the level of our primate forebears’. The Oankali suggest that what truly defines us is our tendency to be both intelligent and hierarchical. Yet for all their strangeness, the aliens have these traits in common. (Paternalism might be too gendered a term for the form of “we know what’s best for you” condescension they levy at Lilith and her cohort, but the attitude is uncomfortably familiar.) Some of the Oankali are even likable. And while they display feelings like love and grief differently, there’s enough overlap with the human varieties of these emotions to make you wonder where the lines of delineation are—or if they even exist.


So did I enjoy reading Dawn? Not entirely. I found it more thought-provoking than thrilling, partly because Lilith doesn’t have much agency. Her rebellious impulses never really mature into a plan; mostly, she fulfills the role the Oankali set for her, resigned to playing a “Judas goat” the majority of her fellow humans will always see as an agent of the enemy. But I won’t soon forget this book. And I intend to continue on in the series.


I just might read some lighter fare first.


 

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