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Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

As Lilith Iyapo wakes up she knows this was not just a short nap, or even a full-night’s sleep. This was the birth-like experience she has already been through several times after waking up from the artificial sleep induced by captors. She does not yet know how long she has slept for – months? Years? Decades, even? But something is different after this awakening. She is given clothes. And she is not alone. Someone, or rather something, is in her cell with her.

Hundreds of years ago, as humans fought a final battle rendering Earth inhabitable, the Oankali, an alien species, decided to save some of the surviving humans and bring them aboard their ship. They have kept the humans asleep for centuries, studying their biology and culture. And now they want Lilith to lead the group of remaining humans in preparation to return to their home planet. As Lilith is forced to overcome the repulsion the Oankali inspire in her, she learns about her captors and their society. The species has a special skill to manipulate genes and communicate via body chemistry which they detect through the almost hair-like tentacles that cover their bodies. Male and female Oankali live together with the third-sex ooloi, the most powerful individual in any relationship and with special healing talents. The ooloi’s influence over their fellow Oankalis renders their claim of an egalitarian society questionable. And finally, Oankali survive by genetically merging with other civilisations – and that is exactly what they plan to do with humanity. When people will return to restored Earth their children will no longer be merely human. A new mixed species is meant to populate the planet.

Lilith is given no choice but to grow comfortable in the Oankali’s presence but doing so puts her in a complicated dilemma. She grows fond of some of the specimen, who adopt her as if she were part of their family, and yet she is horrified by the thought of interbreeding with them and never stops wanting to be free and reunited with her fellow humans back on Earth. So she takes on the task of selecting a group of humans that will be awakened and trained for their eventual return home. But she quickly realises how difficult it is to lead a group of people all desperately fighting for their survival.

The science-fiction classic Dawn is the first book in the Xenogenesis series by Octavia Butler, one of the first black women to achieve success in this genre and thus offering it a fresh perspective and new insight. While her novel is set so far from Earth and most of its protagonists are not human at all, Butler exploration of humanity’s interaction with an alien species show what it means to be human. For me, as a lover of literary fiction, the prose was less convincing, but Butler made up for that by her thought-provoking investigation several important topics. The question of consent is a big one, as the Oankali claim to hold it as one of their highest values and yet act against Lilith’s will repeatedly, arguing her body chemistry indicated she actually desires what they want for her. Time and again she is also offered non-choices, where she can either volunteer to act according to the Oankali’s wishes or opt never to see Earth again. At the prospect of interbreeding with her captors, issues from human history play on Lilith’s mind: as a black woman, the threat of controlled fertility, forced breeding and stolen children is all too familiar for her. But it’s not just human and civil rights that are at the centre of this story: animal rights and humanity’s treatment of the natural world play a powerful role, too.

In its messages, Dawn is a powerful book and Butler makes excellent use of unlikable characters and her readers’ discomfort. So even though there are some flaws in prose and narration, this book offers a lot to its readers, even to those who, like me, are not usually drawn to works of science fiction.

First published 1987

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