It’s the Old School Wednesday Readalong at the Book Smugglers today.
Dawn by Octavia Butler. Warner: Aspect Science Fiction, 1987.
Octavia Butler has been on my want-to-read list for about a decade now. When this book was selected as the Old School Wednesday Readalong, I decided to take it as a Sign and finally get around to reading this award-winning African-American science fiction author, whom I’d been recommending to patrons for years.
Here’s the cover blurb on this book:
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.
Wow. I had such a love-hate relationship with this book. On the one hand, it’s amazing. The characters, the world-building, the many issues Butler is able to look at within the framework of the story – just astounding. On the other hand, this is a book for grown-ups that reminds me why I usually prefer to read books for younger readers. There is so much darkness shown, both in the humans that Lilith awakens to repopulate the Earth, and in the casual force the Oankali use, “trading” genetic material with the humans even against their explicit rejection. Maybe I am just too exhausted to deal with reading a book that makes me think this hard about so many issues – though that makes me sound lazy, and it’s not like the book I was alternating reading this with (Merrie Haskell’s The Castle Behind Thorns) has what you would call a cheerful premise. I will try to be kind to myself and remind myself that I preferred more optimistic books even before I had children and became chronically sleep-deprived. My librarian brain is telling me that this is a classic case of just a bad fit for me at this time, and that’s OK.
And now, on to the official discussion questions:
1. Dawn is a story of the future; of humanity’s destruction by their own hand and subsequent rescue by an alien race. It follows main character Lilith Iyapo who, after awakening from a centuries-long sleep, finds herself confronted by not only the truth of being one of the few human survivors but also with a choice: to re-colonize Earth under very specific conditions (dictated by her saviors), to stay with her saviors aboard their vessel and forget Earth, or to remain in stasis forever. What’s your overall impression of the novel and the tale it tells?
This is the kind of story that could be a poster child for Why Science Fiction Is Important Literature (just in case there’s anyone still unconvinced on that point.) This takes an impossible premise and uses it, not to tell a swashbuckling adventure story, but to look at questions of what makes people human, how far we will go to survive, and the trade-offs that make people human. In building a race so utterly alien that humans can’t avoid an initial reaction of visceral revulsion, Butler makes us look again at how easily we now apply that label of “other” to those who ultimately aren’t different.
2. We could argue that much of Dawn‘s success stands on Lilith as a protagonist. What did you think of her viewpoint? What about the decisions she is forced to make?
If Lilith hadn’t been such a believable, likeable character, I’d never have finished the book. She’s forced to make nothing but very hard, unfair decisions, and I found myself agreeing with her logic even when they turned out badly.
3. One of the biggest aspects of Dawn is the relationship that develops between Lilith and the alien race Oankali. Given the circumstances, it is impossible to read this book and not think about “consent”. How do you see Lilith’s relationships – sexual or otherwise – with the Oankali? On the flipside, how do you see the Oankali? Are they benign benefactors or evil manipulators?
As Ana and Thea say, there isn’t, and can’t be true consent with the kind of power relationship the Oankali have with the humans, with the way Lilith is completely isolated and the Oankali are willing to do anything to make the humans want what the Oankali want them to. I also think that’s the point – the Oankali think so differently that the whole notion of gaining what we call consent isn’t even on their radar.
4. It has been said about Dawn that it shows a terribly pessimistic perspective of humankind. What did you think of the portrayal of the men and women that are saved by the Oankali and raised from their sleep by Lilith?
It was really sad. Maybe not inaccurate – but for Lilith to end with all the humans against her was heartbreaking in the context of the story. For humanity to be in these last, dire circumstances and have it bring out only the worst was very depressing. I wondered why, in such circumstances, Lilith would even consider it worth fighting so hard to preserve it.
I also noticed that everyone paired right off into heterosexual couples. The lack of LGBT people or even people who maybe just wanted to stay single, while still part of the community, was glaring and troubling, especially when the Oankali tripling up instead of pairing up shows clearly that Butler did have alternate sexualities in her mind. Maybe she thought that having humans not pair up would cloud the issues she was trying to look at? Or maybe 1987 was much longer ago than I’m realizing? I’m reading it now, though, and now this particular aspect doesn’t quite work.
5. Is Dawn your first Octavia Butler novel or have your read her works before? Do you plan to keep on reading the series?
This is my first Octavia Butler book. I’d need to be going in to reading with mental energy to spare, instead of my usual going in depleted looking for rejuvenation from books, before I’d continue this series. I’ll go on recommending Butler to sci-fi fans in search of really good books beyond the old-school white boys’ club for sure. I’d really love to hear others’ thoughts on this or other Octavia Butler books!