Dawn by Butler, Octavia, 1987

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Here is a link to a review of the entire Lilith's Brood trilogy.

I can never really say enough good things about Octavia E. Butler. During her career she wrote some really deep and entertaining high caliber SF. The quality of her works was pretty consistently high, too. She passed away early a few years ago after slipping and striking her head, and during her career she suffered an almost decade long writer's block that she had only just broken through with her last novel. Up for review today is a novel from 1987 called Dawn, the first novel in her Xenogenesis Trilogy, collected in an omnibus that is still available called Lilith's Blood. Five out of five stars.

Dawn is the story of a human woman named Lilith. Lilith was a survivor of a total global nuclear war that killed everything on Earth. She was in South America when the war started, so she survived the initial blasts but not the nuclear winter that came later. Butler begins her work approximately 250 years after the war. Lilith wakes up in a cell in a space ship orbiting Earth that is owned by a race called the Oankali. The Oankali are master geneticists, and raising the dead with full memories of their former lives poses no serious problem for them. They have raised many humans from viable DNA they found down below, and have for over two centuries been selectively waking and returning to sleep thousands of humans to learn about us. Their purpose in this is propagation of their own species. The Oankali have a third gender, called the Ooloi, that allow them to mate with virtually any species at all. The Ooloi blend DNA inside themselves to create a brand new race each time they mate. They stumbled across our world shortly after the war, took all the humans they could, and cleaned everything off the face of the planet so that groups of Ooloi and humans could be seeded on the surface and begin mating. Their plan thereafter is to mate with humans to create something new to walk the face of the Earth. Humans as a species are never given a choice in this matter, but the Oankali are as gentle as they can be, and give individuals free choice to either mate with them, or escape and stay sterile so as not to create more pure humans. For most this is not a viable choice at all, and tensions simmer between Oankali villages and nearby resister villages. Thus Butler frames the two big themes in this novel, rape and genetic/biological bondage or slavery.

Despite the very complex slavery comparison, and the equally complex rape metaphors, the Oankali obviously have some very important gifts for us. Not only do they save our race from a certain extinction, and remake the Earth into something that is again habitable, but they propose to breed out the one element of our experience that brought us to the brink in the first place. The Oankali see our tendency to create hierarchies as incredibly self-destructive. This tendency is magnified by our other tendency to segregate ourselves by ethnicity, which made it likely that we would eventually pull the trigger on nuclear Armageddon. The Oankali intend on breeding this out of us within the first generation, and in its place breed in "individual diversity." With beings that each can have up to five parents (two human, two Oankali and one Ooloi to mix the genetic material and impregnate one female from each dyad) this seems quite possible, but is not deeply explored in this first book.

The complex setting described above is put into the background though, when it comes to the conflicts that develop on the ship. Lilith has been awaken first to serve as a trusty of sorts to a group of 45 other humans that are to be included in her seedling group. Lilith first has to get past her own revulsion of the Oankali, then is asked to waken 44 others and nurse them past the same thing. Before the others are brought to consciousness Lilith was not only fully rained in the skills she will need to live along the Amazon River, but is altered to have incredible strength, speed, stamina, and fast healing abilities. These skills turn out to be vital to her survival as those humans who come after her displace all their hatred and fear of the Oankali onto her and plot to kill her out of rage and anger. The Oankali are viewed through a very complex kaleidoscope lens. They found us and gave us life again, but the cost is not only a sort of bondage that restricts our freedom of movement, but most importantly requires that we give up the right to our own genetically unique children. Whatever comes from the union of a human pair and genderless Ooloi, it will not be human. So all of those people who were "saved," who went through the war and survived to see their worlds and families die, who were brought back to life only to be studied and then put to sleep again and reanimated to mate with an alien, they really wanted to just kill something, and Lilith made a great target. After the Ooloi drugged the group to mate with them for pleasure the group felt humiliated, and Lilith became their best choice.

Like I said above, there really is nothing at all like an Octavia Butler book. She had this amazing way of taking highly complex ideas to the extreme in defining conflict, then really simplifying the debate with amazingly lucid and common prose. Butler was also very gifted in world building, and in this work supplies numerous and consistent setting elements seemingly on the fly. In this book, as with most others by her, it simply must be read to be understood. Seek this one out and give it a try.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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