Speculative Chic Book Club: Dawn

Welcome to the Speculative Chic Book Club! Each month, we invite you to join us in reading a book that is voted on by YOU, our readers. We’re still experimenting with the format, so just like last month, this month we’re just doing a review followed by your discussion in the comments!

Dawn (1987)
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Pages: 256 (Kindle)
Series: Xenogenesis Trilogy/Lilith’s Brood
Publisher: Open Road Media Sci Fi & Fantasy

Why I nominated this for book club: It was January, so I wanted whatever we read to be about beginnings, and what’s more of a beginning than first contact? But I specifically chose to nominate Dawn because — SHAMEFULLY —  until I finished this book, I had never actually read anything by Octavia Butler. This will definitely not be my last book.

The Premise:

Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth — the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali — who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.

The Oankali survive by genetically merging with primitive civilizations — whether their new hosts like it or not. For the first time since the nuclear holocaust, Earth will be inhabited. Grass will grow, animals will run, and people will learn to survive the planet’s untamed wilderness. But their children will not be human. Not exactly.

Featuring strong and compelling characters and exploring complex themes of gender and species, Octavia E. Butler presents a powerful, post-apocalyptic interplanetary epic, as well as a ray of hope for humanity.

This book club discussion does assume you have read and finished the book. If you want to avoid spoilers, please finish reading before continuing!


Discussion: I’m going to start this discussion at its basest level, and we’ll work our way up from there: if someone had told me that Octavia Butler wrote books about humans having sexual relations with aliens, it probably wouldn’t have taken me 30 years to read one of her books. That’s just the kind of prurient detail I look for in novels. Look, I play Mass Effect regularly and I’m not romancing the humans, you know what I’m saying?

And now that I’ve said it, let’s move on.

There is a lot of meat for discussion in this book, but what struck me most is wondering how the Oankali could have done things differently to avoid Joseph’s death. They kept claiming to understand humans better than humans understood humans, but despite Lilith’s multiple warnings about the problems she saw with locking humans up in a room together without any tangible proof of where they were and who their “jailers” were, they went ahead and did exactly that.

An increasing number of bored, caged humans could not help finding destructive things to do. (Location 2317, Kindle edition)

I wonder how much Lilith’s suggestions would have helped though? The human community was angry and violent, and this denotes a particularly grim view of what humans are like in captivity. And while the end of the book was the culmination of that anger and violence, it was prevalent throughout the novel, starting with Lilith’s first introduction to the Oankali and her physical revulsion to them.

So I guess my biggest question is, was the interaction of the group of humans inevitable, or could it have been different? I asked myself this the whole way through. Would a different group composition of people have changed things? Would having firm proof have truly mattered? What if the group had been majority women/majority men/majority of a certain ethnicity?

The alien culture was really interesting as well. The fact that they’re gene splicers, and that their trade for giving the humans back to the Earth is essentially to change the very makeup of what it means to be human. Their gender roles, the physical appearance, their lack of connection to their own homeworld, how their social structure works, all of these things are shown to be completely alien, and in some ways antithetical to humans. I’m interested to see, in the future installments of this trilogy, how these differences are resolved in Lilith’s children.

In conclusion: I really liked this book, even when it was difficult and uncomfortable, and I really want to know what comes next. Will definitely keep reading this trilogy, and Octavia Butler in general.

18 Comments

  • Shara White January 26, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    I read this one a really long time ago, about ten years ago when I was working on my thesis, which was a SF novel. The link to my original thoughts are below, and I handily divvy up each part so one doesn’t need to worry about spoilers unless they intentionally read the reaction to a part other than the one labeled DAWN. This is a trilogy I want to revisit, because it was just so amazing to me the first time around:

    https://calico-reaction.livejournal.com/60664.html

    Reply
  • J.L. Gribble January 26, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    I read the entire trilogy over a decade ago, so I’m not sure where Dawn ends and rest begins. DEFINITELY read the rest of it! It’s still one of my favorite SF stories, and I distinctly remember it making me wonder why humans don’t have more than two genders for a while afterward.

    Reply
    • Merrin January 26, 2018 at 2:20 pm

      This one ends with Lilith’s human lover Joseph getting killed by the group she woke up, the group getting sent to Earth, and Lilith staying with the Oankali to be impregnated with the new Oankali/Human mix. I’m super interested to see what happens next!!

      Reply
  • Elena January 26, 2018 at 1:54 pm

    I love this book (and its sequels, which take these same issues and further trouble them) so much. What you raise about group composition is worth thinking about – if I remember right, Lilith is always isolated as a black woman. What would it mean if she were less alone in that way? It’s an interesting authorial choice – an also an interesting selection by either Lilith or the Oankali (I know she decides the order of who to awaken, but did she also get to pick her team from a racially diverse overall pool?)

    I have also wondered about the place of sexual orientation in this universe. How would a lesbian or gay man fit in? Would they be able to reproduce with the oankali? Or would the Oankali ignore them? Is sexual orientation an unthinkable concept to the Oankali, whose sexuality seems more tied to biology and reproduction than humans?

    And of course, the question of consent is really troubling throughout.

    I 100% recommend the next two books in this series for anyone who liked Dawn.

    Reply
    • Merrin January 26, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      I literally spent the entire book thinking about how heteronormative it was for a book that basically had orgies by the end, with pairing off the humans by gender. And is their no deviance outside the norm for the Oankali? Did they specifically pick people they knew were heterosexual? So many questions!

      I just read this, but I don’t remember there being a lot of information about the racial composition of the group she was given to choose from. There are hints based on their names, but that’s about it.

      I’m definitely planning on further reading, I really liked how this book made me think.

      Reply
      • Elena January 26, 2018 at 4:11 pm

        Ooh. So l actually could be making assumptions about them, or misremembering! I’m pretty sure Tate has light skin, and Joseph is Asian, but it’s been maybe 6 months since I re-read the series, so I’m not sure about the others. But even so, if another character were also a black woman, and Lilith didn’t remark on it, that would be odd too.

        Reply
        • Merrin January 26, 2018 at 8:21 pm

          Agreed, and I’m just not sure any mention was made.

          Reply
    • Shara White January 27, 2018 at 8:44 am

      So like Hanna, I read the whole trilogy at once, and a while ago, so there’s a lot I’m forgetting. BUT:

      I assumed that sexuality didn’t matter, because humans aren’t reproducing directly with each other: the Oankali is always in the middle (does sex even happen in the books with the Oankali?). And there’s another THING that I don’t think is revealed until later in the trilogy, but it had a profound effect on how couples interacted with each other outside of the Oankali, which is pretty sad but made being heteronormative a disadvantage, I would think.

      That said, I read this with an eye firmly biased in my own heterosexuality, so I wasn’t asking hard questions. It’ll be a great thing to be aware of whenever I get to re-read this.

      Reply
      • Merrin January 27, 2018 at 10:02 pm

        Sexuality would matter though, because the Oankali need all three sexes to be available for reproduction. I’m assuming it would work the same way with people but I don’t actually know because I haven’t seen Lilith reproduce yet. The Oankali is in the middle but from what they explained, I think it’s an enhancement? So if it’s reproductive, I still think you would need heterosexual partnerings.

        And yeah, sex definitely happened with the Oankali. :p

        Reply
        • Shara White January 28, 2018 at 8:28 pm

          Oh, the partnering would definitely be heterosexual, but I’m wondering if one needs to be attracted to the person on the other side of the Oankali?

          Reply
          • Merrin January 28, 2018 at 11:18 pm

            It kinda sounds like the way that the Oankali have sex kinda takes care of that.

  • nancyotoole January 28, 2018 at 10:13 pm

    I read this trilogy a year or so ago, and one thing that struck me about this book (or any Butler book) is how accessible the prose style is, but complex the content. I’ll be reading along merrily and stumble into a moral quandary without even realizing it. I never come out of a Butler book without feeling pensive or even genuinely uncomfortable on some level, but at the same time they are so easy to pick up. It’s such a stark contrast!

    Reply
    • Merrin January 28, 2018 at 11:19 pm

      Oh definitely. Like, so very many moral quandaries in this book. I cringed a lot at the consent issues, from the sex to the idea that the Oankali wanted to mix their DNA with the humans. It was a lot.

      Reply
  • stfg January 30, 2018 at 12:36 am

    I had previously read the whole trilogy, but re-read Dawn for this book club last month. Also, I have been catching up on my Octavia Butler reading in the past year and read Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, the Patternmaster quartet, and her book of short fiction, Bloodchild and Other Stories. I still have not read Kindred, but I think that’s the last of her readily available works that I haven’t read.

    One of the things I find really interesting is how she addresses issues of powerlessness and lack of consent in her characters. In Dawn, all of the humans lack basic autonomy and are utterly under the control of the Oankali, but different humans react differently to that. Lilith is allowed to consent to some things, like staying with Nikanj through its transformation into an adult, and consenting to having Nikanj be involved in her sexual relationships with Joseph. It’s a weird sort of consent though, because Lilith comes from a position of powerlessness, and her consent ends up making her feel complicit with the Oankali in a way that is remarkably disturbing.

    There’s a direct comparison to be made here between Lilith and Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. Even if you say that Sally consented to a sexual relationship with Jefferson, was she actually in a position to consent? The answer is clearly “no.”

    Butler really grapples with some difficult issues here and it’s one of the things I appreciate most about her.

    Reply
    • Shara White January 30, 2018 at 7:49 am

      Great commentary, and thanks for joining us!

      Reply
    • Elena January 30, 2018 at 10:21 am

      That’s an excellent point about the troubled nature of consent in this series, even where it does explicitly exist. And even in those cases, where Lilith has a choice, her choice is tempered by her biological pull toward Nikanj – so it’s not just her relative social and physical powerlessness, but also that to say no in those cases, she would be resisting her own chemical ties – and of course, her affection for Nikanj. One of the troubling things about these books, which I think can also be applied to human relationships in a non-SF context, is the difficulty the characters have in separating out the relationships they have chosen from the ones their bodies have chosen for them.

      Of course, in saying that I demonstrate my own inclination to a body-self dualism – what does it mean for my body to choose something that I wouldn’t otherwise choose? If my body is vulnerable to seduction, whether by a human or by an alien, how is that different from my mind being vulnerable to seduction?

      Reply
    • Merrin February 1, 2018 at 3:05 pm

      Yeah I agree, I don’t feel like there’s truly a way that Lilith or any of the humans could have consented to what the Oankali wanted to do, they had no power in the situation and lacked the ability to say no. The Oankali simply overpowered them to get what they wanted anyway.

      Reply
  • Kelly McCarty February 12, 2018 at 10:38 pm

    I read this and keep forgetting to comment on it. I thought the book started out slowly and I probably would have tossed it aside if I hadn’t been reading it for book club. I haven’t really liked either of Octavia E. Butler’s books that I have read so far (Dawn and Kindred). The ethical quandaries that she explores are interesting but somehow the books are a little off to me and I don’t care that much about the characters. I do wonder if things would have gone differently if the Oankali had picked someone that would have, stereotypically speaking, been seen as a leader by the other people. I think Lilith faced an even more uphill battle with the others because she was female and African-American. I also wonder if the violence would have been less if it had been an all-female group. I’m somewhat interested in reading the rest of this story, but I finished this book in early January and haven’t bothered to seek out the rest of the trilogy yet.

    Reply

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