Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn: Xenogenesis Book 1 – Book Spotlight

Welcome back, Readers! As has become almost a yearly tradition, this Black History Month we’re Spotlighting a book by one of my favorite authors, Octavia E. Butler, the grand dame of Sci-Fi! We’ve thus far read Kindred, Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents. As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan. One of my many regrets in life is that she was never able to complete her Parable series. Written in the 90s, they paint a weirdly exaggerated but strangely accurate picture of life in the 2020s. I’d almost assume she had a crystal ball next to her word processor or was writing these things from inside the Tardis. It’s like she saw the nonsense that was going on in this very day and age and said to herself “Let’s kick it up a notch.” But, no. It was all her own. She saw the way things were moving and drew logical conclusion without aid of anything but her mind’s eye. There are notes pertaining to Parable of the Trickster, and three more books besides (Parable of the Teacher, Parable of Chaos and parable of Clay.) available for viewing at the Huntington Library for research purposes. As amazing as that is, I’d love for her to have been able to finish these books. She passed away in 2005 in her late 50s and the world is a much poorer place for it.

The Xenogenesis books, however, ARE a completed trilogy! So, if you’re new to the writings of Ms. Butler, this series is a fantastic place to start and probably one of my favorites of her work. It’s a little gentler than a lot of what she’s written. As described in my various Spotlights on her work I am always made uncomfortable by how viscerally she depicts suffering. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not a criticism. She’s an amazing writer that can and has made me laugh, tear up and cringe with sweat-inducing discomfort. Dawn contains less of that, so, a nice and easy step into her work for the uninitiated.

So! Grab a beverage, a snack and let’s check out Lilith’s life aboard an alien space ship 250 years after humanity nuked itself, mostly, to death!

Book Stats

Basic Premise

Lilith awakens in a bare, gray, oddly contoured room. It’s not the first time and it certainly won’t be the last. The aggregate of time she’s been awake in this room, by herself, with nothing but daily feeding and questions asked by an unseen captor totals about two and a half years.

The questions generally center around what she used to be. Career, health, family. The same questions are asked repeatedly at times and so, to amuse herself, she’ll lie. The food is a gray, tasteless stew served in an edible bowl. The room is smooth – no seams, cracks, joints in the walls or floor. There’s a bathroom with a toilet and even that seems molded to the floor seamlessly. There isn’t even a door to the exterior of the room.

At one point, a child is placed in the room with her. A little boy with lighter skin than hers and long hair who speaks a language she doesn’t know. She takes care of this child’s needs as much as she is able but once they start to bond, she wakes up alone once again.

Eventually, though, she is greeted by a newcomer to her environment. They are ensconced in shadow and look like a tall, thin man with long hair. Finally, some answers!

Shame none of them are ones Lilith wants to hear.

It’s been 250 years since Lilith was last on Earth. She, along with almost all of the surviving human race, have been lifted into the sky to live on a massive ship owned and operated by an alien race called the Oankali. Not only are these aliens quite different to humans in almost every way, but strangely enough there’s an instinctive fear within each and every human when they encounter the Oankali. Lilith describes it to herself as a phobia – irrational, unintentional, but vicious in its usurping of her emotions and reactions any time this stranger does anything. Despite it doing nothing to harm her, she can’t help but shy away from it. What’s worse is that it insists that she must become used to its presence. All remaining humans must become comfortable with the Oankali. And why wouldn’t they want to? The Oankali have cured cancer! They saved our species! Heroes, right?

The Oankali are a race of space nomads who find intelligent species on the brink of destruction and save them. They pluck the survivors from their ruined planets and keep them safe, housed, fed and give them things to do – usually, it seems, relating to fixing their past mistakes and repopulating their old worlds. There’s a price for this, though. A price Lilith isn’t sure she, or anyone else from Earth, would be willing to pay…

My Take

So, to get this out there right away; there’s some sexual content in this book that’s definitely not suitable for younger readers. Some abusive stuff does happen, and then there’s a lot of it involving the Oankali. So. Aliens. In the discourse I’ve read surrounding this book, that seems to be a sticking point for people. Human beings and aliens being involved in intimate scenes.

Never bothered Kirk so it’s not going to bother me.

There are a lot of interesting themes at play, here. Speaking of Star Trek, the Oankali have never adopted anything quite like The Prime Directive. They won’t interfere if a species has decided to end its own existence – any kind of mass suicide is allowed and the Oankali just move along to the next inhabited but doomed world. Seems like a lot of planets out there are this way. (Nice to know we’re not the only ones intent on destroying the one place we can currently live. Well. Not NICE exactly.) But the things they do in reciprocation for this species saving effort are uncomfortable. There are themes of colonization, forced integration and cultural dilution throughout this book and, indeed, the whole series. These themes in relation to the text have been talked about by far smarter people than me but they bear mentioning here. The real strength of Octavia E. Butler’s work is her ability to push uncomfortable subjects to the fore and shine a light on them in a way that we might not have thought to, otherwise. Star Trek’s Prime Directive is in place to prevent cultural contamination of technologically inferior species. In human history, any time a technologically advanced group has happened upon a group that’s in an earlier or just different stage of development, it has never ended well. Even with the best of intentions on both sides, harm is always the result. It’s just human nature.

The Oankali would like you to hold their beer.

Our narrator is Julienne Irons. She does a great job keeping characters separate in their depictions, especially switching between human and alien voices.

All in all, if you’re looking for new Sci-Fi to read and you’ve been meaning to give Octavia E. Butler a shot? I can’t recommend this series enough!

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