Book review: Octavia Butler’s Dawn

I bought Olivia E. Butler’s Dawn, the first book of the Xenogenesis trilogy (also sold in a collection as “Lilith’s Brood”) on Audible as part of a massive 2-for-1 sale when I had three credits to spend. I bought 6 books that day. I picked Dawn with some idea that it was quite different from previous things I had read. I didn’t know much about Octavia Butler, other than that I heard the name, and thought she was a Black writer. A quick google said I was right there, and after listening to a bit of it (to make sure the narrator didn’t drive me dilly), I pressed the ‘buy now’ button. After all, I definitely need to read more broadly, rather than just white people (lol, mostly white men) whose books I am already familiar with.

Well.

What a book.

Octavia E. Butler was a multi award-winning Black author who rose to prominence for writing science fiction. She is known for the Parable series, which is now definitely on my to-read list, but only after I’ve finished Xenogenesis.

This isn’t the cover of the version I read, but I liked it more.

Non-spoilery synopsis

Lilith wakes up in a strange organic room – alone. The earth as we know it has been destroyed in some sort of nuclear holocaust. She has been rescued. Impisoned? She does not know. She cannot see her captors initially, and rails against these invisible questioners who feed her samey mush between long (how long?) sleeps. Then, they show themselves to be some sort of organically-engineering-sophisticated extra-terrestrials. Totally other, initially frightening and foreign, covered in tentacles. She spends a long time becoming acclimatised to these, the Oankali, learning about them and their organic ship – and their mission to trade genetically with the humans they’ve rescued before they are returned to a recovered earth after 200+ years.

Lilith must navigate her strange new community while awakening carefully-selected humans to repopulate the planet. Power relations between Lilith, the Oankali, and the humans she has chosen to wake become increasingly challenging after the Oankali make small changes to the humans as they journey back towards earth.

Alterity

As Brandon Sanderson says in his lecture series, we read science fiction and fantasy because we are taken with the process of world-building. We like getting to know another world that has its own complications. When Lilith awakes in an unfamiliar space, she gets to know the world. It’s cool, because the reader learns as she learns. It’s a big thing to get through in a narrative, teaching someone about the culture and life of a whole new species. I’ve not yet read a whole lot of sci-fi, so admittedly most of my learning new worlds has happened in sword-and-sorcery kinda fantasy. But strangely, I’ve watched a whole lot of sci-fi-ey things (Mandalorian, Expanse, Battlestar Galactica, Killjoys, …). This articulation of uncovering a new world is really interesting because of how it plays with knowledge, with our limited perspective reduced to Lilith’s understanding.

Lilith has to figure out how to be human, in what essentially is a post-human world. The Oankali are interested in how humans function – so they can improve them, tweak their physicality (curing Lilith of some sort of cancer and eventually giving her increased strength), but also their emotional and psychological functioning. They eventually grant Lilith the ability to understand and speak their language, and tap into the bits of brain she hadn’t previously been able to use. This expands her knowledge of them and their processes, and we are brought into the fold.

Part of the strangeness of the Oankali approach to humans is that they’re rigidly rational and scientific. Lilith feels like she’s treated and observed like a sort of intelligent house-pet, one who is learning table manners, but isn’t really considered capable of rational thought herself. Their observations of people have taken place over many years, many different humans. Lilith eventually gets the Oankali to take her to meet another human, but she has the horrible experience of realising she is safer with her captors than her own species (sorry, don’t wanna include spoilers).

After this, Lilith has to choose which humans to awaken, to form her new community and reclaim the earth, which has had time to recover. Coloured by her previous poor experience, and driven by a desire to develop a group strong enough to escape from the Oankali once back on earth, she has to pick the right people – has to find people she can work with but are also strong enough to deal with the weirdness/terror of being held captive by literal aliens.

I found it really compelling to hear how Lilith navigates the world in which she feels so other (or rather is the only ‘one of us’ in a sea of otherness). Because of her emotional connection to Nikanj and its family, her ability to interact with the bioship, and the physical enhancements they’ve given her, the humans she awakens can’t quite believe that she’s actually one of them, on their side. After the challenges of establishing a new community, it’s kind of difficult to figure out what’s really other – the Oankali, who are visually terrifying but seem morally neutral and generally preserve life at all costs (even in suspended animation for terminally violent cases), or the humans, who seem driven by hierarchy and a threat of violence.

Xenogenesis – other origins

The series is called Xenogenesis, also called Lilith’s Brood. Breaking down the Greek, xenos is ‘stranger’, and genesis – beginning or origin story. To get deep into this theme, I’d have to get a bit more spoilery, and I am sure that it will come through more strongly over the next two books in the series – so when I review them I might just need to put a big spoiler warning at the top and go for it. Loosely, the Oankali’s genetic trade with humans feels strange and worrisome to Lilith, not just because of the ‘sex with an alien – occasionally literally’ side of it. Lilith has to think through what it would mean to have children that are not as human as she is, but could be physically and mentally stronger. Is this sort of breeding (is it eugenics even? kinda feels a bit like it, which is dangerous) ethical? The other big genetics/sociology theme that runs through is the literal nature vs nurture debate, in which the Oankali firmly believe that vanilla, unchanged humans are naturally too violent and hierarchy-driven for the survival of the species. I’ll be interested to see how Butler plays this out in the other books in the trilogy, when the genetic trade is in full swing.

Worth it?

I listened to it flat out, while cooking, while cleaning, all them weekend activities. Weekends are kind of meh at the moment, but I make my chores much better by making them full of stories. Sometimes these stories are crappy TV on my laptop, but wow, I really prefer listening to a good book, once I’m listening. Any tips on how to make my brain go “go for book!”, rather than “eh, could rewatch another episode of XYZ crime show”.

So, was it worth it? Heck yes, and I’ve just found out that Amazon Studios has the rights to make it as a TV series, with quite a cool-looking directorial team.

I’ll be buying the next instalments once I’ve gathered two credits. My Audible account tends to be full of first books in series, so I might need to wait for a sale and just buy the rest I’m needing. On the topic of the audiobook I listened to, I can also commend the narrator, Aldritch Barrett – just the right amount of creepy-calm otherworldliness for some characters, and fundamental/solid humanness for others.

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