Dawn (Octavia Butler): Book Review

Science Fiction; Fantasy; Post-Apocalyptic ♠♠♠♠♠

Author: Octavia Butler

Something a little different today: a book review of one of my all-time science fiction favorites (expect a few more scattered book reviews in the future). This book was published in 1987, the first of the Xenogenesis trilogy. It holds a rating of 4.09 on Goodreads.

Lilith Lyapo awoke from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. Creatures covered in writhing tentacles, the Oankali had saved every surviving human from a dying, ruined Earth. They healed the planet, cured cancer, increased strength, and were now ready to help Lilith lead her people back to Earth–but for a price.

This is a brilliant fantasy narrative that never misses an opportunity to remind the reader of the ongoing atrocities that exist in our world, while maintaining an intriguing story of its own.

I read Dawn without having ever really engaged with science fiction or fantasy before-hand, and it opened so many new doors for me. It was a very unique experience because I felt as though I was being introduced to a new world alongside the character, Dawn, who wakes up centuries after the destruction of Earth to find herself on an alien planet she never knew existed. In learning about the Oankali creatures and their way of life, Dawn is forced to reconsider everything she once knew about the world and how it works. As a result, a great number of issues are explored, making reading the book an extremely fruitful exercise in critical thought.

Please note: As I discuss the themes, some plot points will be eluded to, prompting this “minor spoilers” notice.

Race

Octavia Butler is one of the few renowned black sci-fi writers. So it’s no surprise that this book explores issues of race. What is a surprise, however, is that the exploration unfolds on two levels.

Dawn (a black woman) is the chosen one, that is, the Oankali have decided she will be a leader among a small group of people salvaged from Earth to restore it with them. However, prepping her for her return often mirrors the experiences of black slaves. She was taken from her home (Earth) without consent. She is kept in small, bare quarters, and initially told nothing about where she is or why. Her captors study her from a position of superiority and authority. Her attempts at rebellion result in punishment; and eventually she learns that the only way to survive is to accept her situation.

At this point, the roles shift to some extent. Now, Dawn has the opportunity to study the Oankali. She finds their appearance disturbing, and their culture impossible to relate to. In many ways, her Othering of the Oankali also mirrors the concept of race-supremacy.

Gender and Sexualities

Dawn is a strong female lead and the idea that she is chosen to be the first person back on Earth also positions her as a matriarch. Of course, there are feminist connotations to this that I can appreciate; but it is the Oankali that become the most interesting in regards to concepts of gender.

The Oankali can be male, female, or neutral. Of the three genders, only the neutral sex is the only one that can procreate. In order to do this, it must mate with a male and female (simultaneously). The Oankali therefore must maintain three-way relationships, and each child has three parents.

The entire concept is difficult to grasp and the scenes in which it is explained or performed are difficult to follow. This allows us to think about how narrow mainstream understandings of gender and sexualities are, and opens up discussions of traditional values. For Dawn, the idea of sex with the Oankali becomes a point of serious self-evaluation and stress.

Reproductive Rights

In order to rebuild the world, repopulation must take place. The Oankali have saved hundreds of humans, both male and female, but they are not planning on simply returning them to Earth alone. In fact, the Oankali believe it would be morally wrong to give Earth back to humans who would (according to their genetic makeup) inevitably destroy themselves and the planet once again. The compromise? The next generation to inhabit Earth would have to be human/oankali.

Interspecies relationships mean there is a lot at stake, namely, the continuation of the human race (or what will be left of it). Dawn and the other humans must decide how they feel about the extinction of a purely human breed – and whether they even have a choice in the matter.

Final Thoughts

This book introduced me to a genre, and made me think about so many aspects of humanity and society.

The prose were not the most elegant, but the story was fascinating. The plot does not move very quickly, but that is to serve the purpose of making the reader think about the ideas being presented. The main character’s point of view is just the right amount of confused, and I found that for the most part she was believable, even if not relatable. The book surprised me, and as far as conceits of the genre go, I think it deconstructed them in a way that made it a wonderful introductory text. A lot of issues were explored, and adequately discussed in the moments where Dawn and the Oankali try to understand one another.

I give this book 5 spades ♠♠♠♠♠*

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own definition of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.
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