Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dawn book cover
Rating 9.1/10
Nothing will come between us, except this tentacled alien monster!

As I’ve said before in reviews, one of my absolute loves in science fiction is exploring very alien aliens, beings who do not just look different, but think, react and relate to each other in a truly inhuman way. Therefore Lilith’s Brood was obviously a trilogy I needed to read, as it contains some of the strangest aliens ever written.

Lilith lyapo awakes alone. She barely remembers the war, the conflict between the USA and USSR which resulted in the almost total destruction of humanity. Neither does she remember her capture by the Oankali, the alien race who arrived just in time to salvage the last of the human race and place them in suspended animation aboard their massive biological ship. 250 years have now passed, and the Earth is once again habitable. The Oankali will help humanity reclaim the Earth and start a new culture, but only at a price, a price which will change what it means to be human.

Told in spare, straight forward prose with a deeply compelling rhythmic style, Dawn is one of the most riveting books I’ve read for some time. Butler does not concentrate on the war, but begins directly with Lilith’s solitary incarceration, then her experiences learning about the Oankali, from their disturbingly different technology, based entirely on genetic and biological manipulation, to their family structure, featuring three sexes, male, female and ooloi, the none gendered sex responsible for manipulating the biochemistry of others. Yet, it is not only externally that the Oankali are shown to be alien, but in the very way they think, which creates profound problems for Lilith, and the rest of the survivors.

The Oankali are genetic traders, and their ultimate goal is to fuse their race with humanity, creating hybrid human/Oankali children. As part of this trade, they see nothing wrong in controlling others, including Lilith, using a combination of gentle force, implacable patience and blatant psychological manipulation. Thus the first part of the book sees Lilith having to not only learn about the Oankali, but also come to terms with being handled as a pet or a child, even though she is fully aware that the Oankali represent literally the only hope of survival either she or the rest of humanity has.

In other hands, the exploration of Oankali culture and relations might have appeared dry, but through Lilith’s relations to what she experiences, as well as a very specific way of picking out details, I found this section truly fascinating. In particular, I credit Octavia Butler for managing to create an alien race who are both very alien, and yet have distinct individual personalities and characters, from the domineering Caguyat, to the gentle Jdiah, indeed Lilith’s ongoing relationship with the Ooloi Nikanj, a relationship which is part manipulation, part friendship, and part fencing match makes for some fascinating undercurrents, particularly in the things Nikanj gets right about humanity in general, and Lilith in particular, and the things it gets very badly wrong.

I do wish we had the chance to know a little more about Lilith as a person, and indeed about other humans when we meet them, since while Butler puts us very in touch with Lilith’s experiences and thoughts, even her less pleasant ones, we only get her past in broad outlines, making the whole book feel something like a continual stream of consciousness.

Halfway through, matters change and we see Lilith become the teacher of a group of humans. Here Butler starts to introduce several different themes, including alienation, group dynamics and sexuality.

One question which I found profoundly disturbing relates to the Ooloi, since the Ooloi have the ability to engage in three way mating with a human male and female partner, using their ability to control the human nervous system to create pleasure. The Ooloi see nothing wrong with this, and yet it has some disturbing implications, implications which Lilith herself notes. Is something rape if a person’s body completely responds and the person themselves is not hurt, even if they object, indeed Nikanj’s statement to one man: “your words say no but your body did not” is about as icky as it gets; particularly when it’s made obvious that people have absolutely no choice about accepting the Ooloi partnerships. These partnerships represent not just sexual intercourse, but also something akin to forced marriage, given that the Ooloi partnerships are definitely long term, and people are not free to do anything but accept, if they want to get back to Earth.

Yet for all this, the descriptions Butler employs of human/Oloi mating are profoundly sensual and deeply poetic, especially in their focus on the experiences of each other’s sensations. It's also interesting that the Ooloi, since they are empathically linked to their partners are literally incapable of causing pain without hurting themselves, yet at the same time blatantly manipulate their partners chemically for their own ends; one occasion when the Ooloi cause couples to feel a sense of repellency when they try to touch each other (even as little as holding hands), without the Ooloi’s presence is a thought my lady and I found quite horrific.

Yet, Butler is more than aware of the disturbing implications of what she is showing, indeed the only time Lilith is almost assaulted by a human man in the book, it occurs expressly because the man in question has been sent severely wrong by the Oankali’s treatment, having been awake and imprisoned by them since he was fourteen and never having interacted with any human women.

I did have a minor problem with the group dynamics, since Butler’s impression of humans is inevitably very grim, with factionalism and hatred springing up almost immediately and most humans coming across as pretty nasty. Also, whilst Butler talks a lot about sex and has the group pair off both a little too neatly and quickly into male and female pairs, (apparently there are no same sex relationships), she never talks about friendship or love between men and women, indeed Lilith tends to see every man in sexual terms, either as potential threat or bed mate, though how much of that is due to her previous experiences I’m not sure (one other woman does challenge Lilith on this).

My only general issue with the book in its portrayal of sexual relations, is that while Butler does feature several unpleasant women as well as several decent men, there is the strong implication that the Ooloi mating is particularly traumatic for men due to them having to get used to being passive rather than active, one man even speaks of being “taken like a woman,” from a writer with such a broad imagination when it comes to sexuality, this was disappointing, particularly when one apparently good man goes very wrong due to Ooloi mating.

I also found the group dynamics almost a little too humourless, indeed given the whispers and accusations it’s hard to imagine Lilith having fun or being friends with anyone (even though the narration tells us she is, though of course, since all the humans we meet are people who’ve lost everyone they love in a war and have been held captive by aliens it’s not surprising people are very on edge).

Pacing wise, while the book has little action, and whilst almost the entire plot features Lilith stuck in a no win situation, at the same time, Butler’s world and the shear tension of the whole thing kept the momentum going. Indeed, where in most sf books set in alien worlds a time comes eventually when your familiar enough with that world and its rules to start anticipating what might be coming next, or putting together information to make educated guesses about where the plot will go, here Butler created a world which made me feel off balance for the entire time, and thus always maintained that sense of wonder and fear which usually dies off around chapter three.

Despite being billed as a feminist author, one thing I find extremely refreshing about Butler’s writing is that she rarely if ever prescribes, or voices deliberate opinions. Indeed, this is why (apart from the business of men going so much wronger than women due to the Ooloi’s attentions), I did not find the book at all accusatory. What Butler does do is ask a hell of a lot of very hard questions. Where does Stockholm syndrome blend into doing what you need to do to survive, where does benign intention become paternalism, and how much manipulation is reasonable, and what exactly are the limits of freedom. She even asks the severely difficult question of what exactly constitutes sexual consent, especially in an arrangement where so much of the power is held by one partner, and where does seduction end and rape begin.

Looking on Goodreads I was amazed at the range of opinions about the book. There are those who hale the Oankali as the saviours of humanity, offering a change which Lilith and the other humans are too provincial to accept. There are those who were so creeped out by the idea of border line rape by tentacled monsters they could not continue with the series, whilst others saw the Ooloi mating as the most profound form of pleasure and people’s inability to accept it as a reflection of our flawed human nature. There are those who see the book as raising questions of slavery and racial understanding, or animal research. There was even one particularly ignorant reviewer with an especially large axe stuck through her head, who called Butler a bad feminist for promoting “patriarchal rape culture”.

I suspect myself, that Butler, as in her Hugo and Nebula award winning novella Bloodchild, is not trying to impose a specific point upon the reader, but rather (as Harlan Ellison once said), is attempting to engage in revolutionary guerrilla warfare upon our perceptions, to ask a variety of extremely difficult questions which deliberately do not have simple or comfortable answers. This is why myself I believe the Oankali are neither benign nor malign, nor intended to flatly represent one specific group or perspective or idea, but are simply, and profoundly alien. However, it is in considering those aliens and the way people relate to them, that Butler I suspect wanted us to question the way we relate to the inhabitants of our own planet, many of whom can be almost as alien and just as incomprehensible to us. This after all is why I love reading about alien aliens myself, not to get some polish for any specific axe, but to ask the really tough questions, and explore perspectives different from my own.

The book did not so much end as finish, and Lilith neither completely accepted the Oankali and their deal, nor entirely reaffirmed her ties to humanity. Indeed, in large point the entire book was essentially setup and the conclusion simply another step in laying grounds for the sequel. Where however this might have been unsatisfying in other trilogies, here, given that Dawn had gone to such dark places, I was quite glad of the rest.

Despite a couple of minor niggles with its portrayal of male sexuality, and overly grim group dynamics, Dawn was in general amazing; and at times both very beautiful and deeply disturbing book. Though its plot was necessarily almost all setup and exploration, if you like the idea of reading a book which really takes you into a very alien world where you’ll have your comfort zone severely stretched, Dawn is definitely worth your time.

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