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Would you sacrifice your humanity to survive? It’s the question at the heart of Octavia Butler’s Dawn, the first book in the Xenogenesis trilogy. Published in 1987, Butler’s classic science fiction book delves into questions of gender, leadership and what makes us human.
Lilith Iyapo is awakened by an alien species after being held in suspended animation for 250 years. The Oankali rescued the last survivors of the Earth after the cold war turned deadly, with a plan to revitalize the planet for habitation. Despite the Oankali’s promises of eventual freedom, Lilith is trapped by their plans for the human race.
Dawn is a sinister story, although not because of a villainous enemy. Butler grapples with detailed issues of cross-cultural understanding. The payoff for rescuing Earth is a genetic trade, as the Oankali culture is based in perpetual evolution. They cannot understand the human desire to remain as they are, thinking that any genetic changes to Lilith’s body are only for the better. Butler asks whether it is better for the human species to die or to survive as something not quite human. She writes:
“Your Earth is still your Earth, but between the efforts of your people to destroy it and ours to restore it, it has changed.”
“And you think destroying what was left of our cultures will make us better?”
“No. Only different.”
The humans become an intergalactic experiment, where those in the group who survive will be repopulated on earth. Although the book contains sex scenes, they are not particularly graphic. While a superficial concept of human/alien relationships might come up in paranormal romance, Butler’s realistic vision captures the complexities and fatal outcomes of taking away people’s choices.
It is this inability to choose that is most threatening to the humans on board the ship. Buffered around by the Oankali, who will not let them leave unless they accept their situation, the humans in the story are trapped by the very spaceship they live on. If they leave, they will die. If they stay, the human race will become inhuman.
In the Oankali, Butler has created a truly original alien race. The Oankali are so repulsive that humans must be drugged in order to adapt to their presence. Their tentacles are reminiscent of a writhing sea slug. Butler not only creates a vision of the species, but also goes deeply into their culture, a culture menacing in its willingness to help.
Dawn is a challenging, layered book, which deals with many complex issues. Butler’s writing is, as always, superior. During her lifetime, Octavia Butler won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and was one of the first African-American women to write science fiction. Dawn is confronting for many reasons, but if you enjoy thoughtful speculative fiction, you must read her work.
Have you read Dawn or any works by by Octavia Butler? Please share your comments below, and don’t forget to click on the yellow stars at the top of this post to share your rating (1-5 stars) of Dawn.
About the Author: Kat Clay is a writer and photographer from Sydney, Australia. She is the editor of Radiant Attack a blog for science fiction, fantasy, weird and big freakin’ squid. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s off hiking a distant mountain or travelling through Asia. You can find her on twitter at @kat_clay and @radiantattack.