June 18th, 2014
Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
I admit...I love the presence of Octavia Butler. I loved what she stood for, creating complex characters, particularly Black women, in thought provoking worlds, in Speculative Fiction and SFF no less. But up until now, I haven't actually read her work. This has now changed with "Dawn" first book in the Xenogenesis series.
Before I go further, I'd like to warn anyone who is disturbed easily, this may not be a book for you. While it will take your mind to a place it may not have been, this book challenges boundaries, human rights, reproductive rights, and deals with rape, violence and many other subjects that may cause you discomfort. This is not for the weak stomached.
Dawn follows the exploits of a woman named "Lilith Iyapo" a black woman, who survived a human induced nuclear war. She has been kept alive(amongst other humans) by a race of extraterrestrials known as the "Oankali." The wake her up, because they find she has qualities that may be useful, as they are planning to bring a select amount of humans back to their newly constructable Earth(as before this, it was inhabitable).
As far as plot goes, the story is intriguing. I found that I enjoyed not only it's pacing but it's world-building as well. Lilith amongst other humans were held capture on a living organism the Oankali referred to as their ship. Many, including Lilith, thought it may just have just be Earth, and they were being played.
The Oankali were a complex race. Many things they would say, or refuse to say, made absolutely perfect sense to them, but didnt to Lilith, which I often found didnt make sense to me either. Consistency levels for me were off and on. It was difficult to rely on the race holding the humans captive. Apparently they are a race incapable of deception, but they had no issue omitting truths as well.
The character development was amazing. Lilith was a woman who was intelligent, strong willed and often must negotiate through poor options. Lilith is a black woman, which I should mention, at the time when this was published in 1987, was about as rare as a transparent french fry. She was forced to accept the Oankali, despite how uncomfortably disturbing it was to look at them.
The Oankali I should mention, were an incredibly difficult, yet repulsive race to look at. She mentioned the had a sea slug appearance, as many were covered in grey "tentacles" but I cant lie, my imagination is powerful. It imagined things that made my skin absolutely want to just crawl inside out or completely rip off. Others might not have this issue, but I was picturing creatures so disgusting, I wanted to put the book down many times when certain situations occurred.
Althought she met Jdahya first, a male Oankali, she laters bonds with the Ooloi Nakanj as "It" is a child. The Oankali have three sexes. Male, Female and Ooloi, a sexless sex. As disturbing as it was overtime Lilith later became a companion, and somewhat unwilling lover of Nakanj.
I think the backstory of the Oankali is strong, but I still had questions to what caused and resulted in the death of humanity. It's suggested to be nuclear, and between the US and Russia, but I just would've liked more incite on that.
Many of the conflict came from the hold the Oankali had on humanity. While they described humanity as hierarchical and intelligent, which I agree, are a somewhat lethal combination, as humanity has never been satisfied unless they've been able to assert authority and dominance over others, driven by the need to conquer and control others. But The Oankali is a way did this as well. They were driven by their desire to heal humans, and wanted humanity to live. But the options they gave, solitary life abroad their ship, death or interbreed were so limited. They made humanity completely dependent on them, and when asked why, they gave answers only when they wished it, and gave answers that made sense to them only.
They mirror slave owners by their complete dominance over humanity. They controlled what they ate, how they lived(or didnt live, through keeping them asleep in suspended animation)their ability to conceive, and practiced many experiments on them without their consent. The worse part about this control, was they had no respect for human boundaries. Oolois including Lilith's companion often performed a type of mental rape. They would feed images into the minds of the humans they touched and bonded with, and feed off the sexual arousal. Humans often developed a type of Stockholm's syndrome, but were completely disgusted by the behavior as well. Many had to be drugged to even allow this. This behavior was normal for Ooloi, but they didn't seem to understand that humans were not prepared for this kind of bonding. That in itself is very disturbing. i kept thinking, I must be sick in the head because I just couldn't stop reading.
I find that the unique perspective makes the story that much more normal, that it could happen to any of us.
I saw grammatical errors, but I don't think they brought the story down. But I did notice at least 4. But other than that it is edited rather well, and Octavia's written style, dare I say, draws you in, even when you're disturbed. The point of view is clear, and the beats between dialogue give you a little extra time to soak things in.
About diversity. Between the Humans, there was Lilith a dark skinned black woman, a minor character named Paul, a human man of the same race, and John, a Canadian originally born in Hong Kong, while I assume by the descriptions of pale skin, and European surnames that many else of the people were white.
Maybe it's not unrealistic, I just wish there had been more people of color. One of the first things the white guys wanted to target when they were awaken and stirred up based on their situation, was the Asian guy. Perhaps if there had been more people of color, the white people wouldnt have been so quick to assert their dominance.
I found that Lilith and John were sweet. I didn't expect so see a black woman, with an Asian man in a book written over 25 years ago. Perhaps it was because they were the only people of color, but they fit well together. I think the diversity is acceptable, but it could've been more.
Their definitely believable, and I found many of what they went through unforced. The efforts to empower both a black woman and an Asian man were strong, as we both tend to be the images least represented in the media.
As far as cover art goes, the book I bought, while it shows a Black woman, it inst a comprehensible image to what the story is about. Those looking for a romance book in this specific cover, will not find that. The title is just okay, I wasn't sure why exactly it was called Dawn. Maybe because it was the dawn of a new age for both Oankali and Humans. Outside of the crazy names of the Oankali(names too long to remember or write out) Lilith and Tate's names were the standouts for me. This was written in the 80's so I suppose I could give it a pass, as many of the names for the humans may have been popular at the time. I wont give the point however for character descriptions, because I had no sense of what Lilith looked like outside of being tall, in shape and dark skinned. When she described the Oankali, she was descriptive which I painfully regret. But the humans often got about a sentence or less into what they looked like.
Overall, I can see why Octavia has connected with so many, and she is highly worthy of this praise. I have about 4 more books of hers that will definitely be dusted off and read upon reading this, as I look forward to her other books.
My Dreamcast for main characters:
Teyonah Parris as Lilith Iyapo
Chen Chang as John
Whatever the hell Nakanj is, I dont want to see it in person