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Book Review: Dawn, by Octavia Butler

An alien race saves humanity, for its own reasons.


Warner Books, 1987, 248 pages

In a world devastated by nuclear war with humanity on the edge of extinction, aliens finally make contact. They rescue those humans they can, keeping most survivors in suspended animation while the aliens begin the slow process of rehabilitating the planet. When Lilith Iyapo is "awakened", she finds that she has been chosen to revive her fellow humans in small groups by first preparing them to meet the utterly terrifying aliens, then training them to survive on the wilderness that the planet has become. But the aliens cannot help humanity without altering it forever.

Bonded to the aliens in ways no human has ever known, Lilith tries to fight them even as her own species comes to fear and loathe her. A stunning story of invasion and alien contact by one of science fiction's finest writers.

Octavia Butler, the late, lamented genius of SF, wrote stories that were very much statements about race, sex, and power, and most of it was fairly close to the surface. Her stories of time travel, vampires, and aliens made statements about power relationships and consent between beings that weren't always human, but her human characters were also affected by race and class and gender.

She also wrote stories that were often disturbing — I think few authors could get away with what she did in Fledgling, for example.

Dawn is the first novel in the Xenogenesis series. It's an unusual story of a post-apocalyptic alien invasion. Not really an invasion, though, because humanity already destroyed its own civilization. The Oankali just picked up and preserved the survivors in a sort of suspended animation, aboard their giant world-like ship. It is why they did this that emerges over the course of the story.

When Lilith Iyapo awakens, she is slowly made aware of her new situation. Not only is she one of the last survivors of the human race, but it's actually been hundreds of years since she "died" and she is now the unwilling "guest" of an alien race that has definite but unspoken plans for humanity.

Lilith behaves like a human being - imperfectly, sometimes irrationally. Slowly, the Oankali establish a relationship of sorts with her, characterized by mistrust on Lilith's part and inscrutable affection mixed with frustration and condescension from the Oankali. Lilith wants to meet other humans, but it never seems to go well. The Oankali are frustratingly vague, and while despite all of Lilith's paranoid imaginings, they never mistreat her or do anything to her at all, they also refuse most of her simplest requests, like paper to write on.

As she learns more about the Oankali and what they plan for her, she realizes that humans and Oankali are now inextricably bound together whether either race likes it or not.

I found this book cover rather ironic. Lilith's ethnicity is not a major factor in the novel, though it does come up a few times, but it is made very clear that she is black.

A mighty white Dawn

Butler's prose is very straightforward, almost simple at times. The Oankali are very interesting aliens. They are advanced, alien, and imperfect - in most ways wiser than humans, but still prone to errors of judgment, as well as letting their feelings overcome their common sense. They are also weird and, as Lilith's reactions make clear, creepy, even moreso when it turns out that Oankali actually need humans for some sort of interspecies bonding, which does in fact involve sexual contact. "Consent" is not really a concept for the Oankali, because they are acting according to a biological imperative. On the one hand, they never force anything onto any individual humans; on the other, they are, in a sense, raping the human race, since whether humanity agrees to their scheme or not, they are going to do it.

Verdict: Dawn is a very interesting novel, and while I found some parts a little predictable (like almost all the other humans inevitably proving violent and untrustworthy), and the prose was sometimes so plain as to be dry, I will probably continue the trilogy. 7/10.

Also by Octavia Butler: My reviews of Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Fledgling.

My complete list of book reviews.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
May. 10th, 2016 11:36 pm (UTC)
"Dawn" was an awesome book. The aliens were like passive aggressive Borg; instead of "resistance is futile" it was "resistance is illogical" and they just wore you down.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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