Review: Octavia E. Butler 'Dawn'

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I tell you that by your way of measuring time, it has been several million years since we dared to interfere in another people’s act of self-destruction. Many of us disputed the wisdom of doing it this time. We thought . . . that there had been a consensus among you, that you had agreed to die.

Set after a nuclear war between the USSR and United States, Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn tells the story of Lilith Iyapo, an African-American captured alongside two and a half hundred human survivors by an alien species, the Oankali. One of Butler’s accomplishments, even surpassing Lovecraft’s similar attainment, is to eschew anthropomorphism and make her aliens truly alien. Indeed, when Butler imagines alien consciousness she arrives at the same metaphor Lovecraft used in ‘The Colour Out of Space’: ‘It gave her… a new color. A totally alien, unique, nameless thing, half seen, half felt or… tasted.’ The Oankali have three sexes, as well as male and female there are Ooloi, crucial to the species ability to perceive and manipulate genetic biochemistry, which is how they survive. In their current guise—they evolve rapidly—they are humanoid with sensory tentacles covering their bodies. They are depicted as repulsive and fearsome to humanity, with whom they plan to trade genetic material. They seek humanity’s intelligence and even find uses for our propensity for cancer and, in turn, decide to repair human being’s destructive inclination for hierarchies: ‘Our children will be better than either of us,” it continued. “We will moderate your hierarchical problems and you will lessen our physical limitations. Our children won’t destroy themselves in a war, and if they need to regrow a limb or to change themselves in some other way they’ll be able to do it.’ This is a novel about colonisation, but also the encounter with the Other and simple endurance against reality.

Lilith resists, but Oankali are not merely stubborn. All of their decisions are made through the consensus of the species and are therefore individually irrevocable. This produces one of the most sinister aspects of the novel, as Lilith or other humans vainly try to negotiate against a force the logic of which is inaccessible and unchangeable. Lilith finds herself altered, tampered and stripped of agency, ‘The Oankali had given her information, increased physical strength, enhanced memory, and an ability to control the walls and the suspended animation plants. These were her tools. And every one of them would make her seem less human.’ The horror is visceral, but unlike most body horror—played out merely for the gratuitous voyeurism of its audiance—slow building and subtle. Lilith eventually pairs with an Ooloi named Nikanj and another human, Joseph, and through a series of tragic events this leads to the possibility of hybrid offspring as altered humans are reintroduced to earth. Butler evokes genocide, rape and slavery, but through a conceit of speculative literature that evades obviousness. This allows her to explore these themes at a distance and open up questions about identity, both personal and shared, that would otherwise be difficult to elucidate and explore through narrative. A classic of science fiction, Dawn is a unique book.

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Saturday, 22 September 2018

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