Review: “Dawn,” Octavia E. Butler

Pros: Stunning exploration of gender, group dynamics, and alien first contact
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

I’m so embarrassed to say this, but I’ve never actually read one of Octavia Butler’s books before! My first is Dawn (Xenogenesis, Bk. 1), and it’s every bit as good as I’d been lead to believe she was capable of. Why did I not get around to this before?

So. In Dawn, Lilith Ayapo finds herself a captive of aliens. Every so often they wake her up from an unusually deep sleep and ask her questions, experiment in various ways (such as the time when she found herself accompanied in her waking by a young child). She has no idea what they want or even what they are–they don’t show themselves, and when pushed too far by her own questions they simply stop speaking to her.

Finally they decide she is stable enough to be introduced to one of the aliens. The alien, Jdahya, stirs an instinctive disgust and revulsion in Lilith, but over the course of days she gradually reaches a point where she can even touch him. At that point they deem her ready, and wake her up into their living ship. Jdahya’s family takes her in, and she discovers families have odd arrangements–one male, one female, and one ‘ooloi’–a creature designated as ‘it’ instead of he or she, but which is integral to their mating processes. The ooloi is capable of making genetic alterations to the child being created, and this is the means the aliens intend to use to merge themselves with humanity. But before this can happen, Lilith is allowed to Awaken at least 40 more of her people. The aliens hope that the humans can be made comparatively self-sufficient in order to return to their ruined earth, but they also need the humans to become accustomed to and involved with the ooloi. Lilith isn’t thrilled with the task but gamely takes it on–to some fairly terrible results.

 

It’s hard to imagine an alien that could trigger actual physical disgust and suspicion. Butler sold it not through describing the aliens, but by bringing to life the humans’ reactions to them–particularly Lillith’s.

It’s all too easy to see where the aliens’ plans will go wrong. Lillith will inevitably be viewed as a collaborator. The aliens’ intentions will seem evil. And gold ol’ ordinary xenophobia will inevitably rear its ugly head. Finding out the ooloi intend to be involved with human procreation certainly won’t go over well. Lillith knows all of this, but she doesn’t have much choice about going along with the plan. It’s the ways in which these problems manifest that make such an engrossing read. I also love seeing how Lillith integrates with her new alien ‘family,’–particularly Nikanj, an ooloi she helped through his transition into adulthood.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the male-ooloi-female triad is in the consent department. Do the ooloi drugs that they can produce constitute rape, or does the fact that they simply relax people and reduce their inhibitions make it in any way okay? The ooloi seem to have the purest of intentions, but that doesn’t have to make what they’re doing okay. There are no easy answers presented here–only consequences for actions. There are so many fascinating things to read and think about–the role of the ooloi in procreation, the aliens as a whole needing to ‘trade’ genetic material with other races, and what humans could or should do in order to reclaim what’s left of the planet they ruined.

I loved Dawn and immediately picked up its sequel, Adulthood Rites.

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