Octavia E. Butler
Lilith Iyapo is a black woman who somehow managed to survive the nuclear destruction of the Earth. That survival was made possible by an alien species known as the Oankali, a species who grows and evolves by combining their DNA with that of interesting species they encounter through their interstellar travels. Everything they use, from their ships to their beds, is a lifeform that the Oankali have genetically manipulated to serve specific purposes. Lilith has been chosen by the Oankali to be the first to help shepherd human partners through the process of awakening from stasis and becoming ready to resume living on the revitalized Earth; she will also be the first to bear hybrid children, part Oankali and part Human.
As Lilith struggles to accept the role the Oankali have chose for her, she must overcome her fear and disgust of the physical forms of the Oankali in order to adapt to her new life as the mother of a new species. With connotations of Biblical history, Lilith, like the first wife of Adam, is destined for great things. It’s up to her intelligence, ingenuity, and ability to accept things sometimes far beyond her understanding to pull the human species back from the brink of extinction and forge a lasting bond with the strange Oankali.
Butler’s ability to create alien situations and lifeforms is displayed beautifully in this book, the first in her Xenogenesis trilogy. The Oankali are truly bizarre, a species that exists by literally consuming and merging with other species that they meet. At times, they seem altruistic in their desire to save humanity, at others sinister by their sheer determination to have their way, regardless of how humans might feel about becoming partners with the Oankali. With their physical appearance to create an even more terrifying perception among their human captives, the Oankali have their work cut out for them.
The social issues addressed in this series are also fascinating. The Oankali, through extensive study of human DNA, have come to the conclusion that we are an inherently flawed species. The Human Contradiction, as it is called by the Oankali, is the fact that intelligence and hierarchical thinking cannot safely co-exist. Even as humans strive to understand the universe around them, they also struggle to dominate their fellow humans. This leads to an endless cycle of war and destruction, and is possibly the ultimate cause for the annihilation of the Earth. The dream of the Oankali is to stabilize this Contradiction, while at the same time reaping the benefits of the human’s ability to grow and change.
Lilith could be seen as a pawn throughout this book, but in truth, she is a pivot point, teaching her fellow captives about their new partners, while at the same time, teaching the Oankali valuable lessons about what it means to be human. She struggles to survive in a tug-of-war between her feelings for her Oankali partners, and her belief that they are in fact destroying the human species by changing it beyond recognition. Lilith must win over her human charges, while at the same time, prevent her Oankali supervisors from destroying any chance they have at becoming true partners. The problems she faces range from racism to sexism, to sheer willful ignorance among those she’s trying to help.
This book, and the two that follow, are beautiful and shocking in their complexity. It forces the reader question what makes one human, and what can possibly be done about it. Are we truly destined to extinguish ourselves? Even in the future, will things such as race, sex, and age still matter enough to blind people to the true necessities of a dire situation? There are more questions than answers in Dawn, but they are questions that need to be asked. Read this book, and ask a few yourselves.
Bonnie Norman. I'm an English Major, a feminist, and a book lover. Sometimes a writer, too. I'm committed to being a voice for diversification and inclusion in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, as well as all books and the world at large. Check out Bonnie at A Working Title.