Octavia E. Butler
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.
I came across Octavia E. Butler on a list of must-read science fiction novels. There aren’t too many female sci-fi writers, let alone black female sci-fi writers. She was prolific so I went with the Xenogenesis series which was high on the list.
Dawn did not disappoint.
It begins with confusion, Lilith’s confusion. She has memories of waking up several times. Sometimes she talks to a disembodied voice. One time a child was in the room with her until she was put back to sleep. She doesn’t know where she is or who holds her. She quickly learns the hard way.
Lilith is Awakened from stasis and meets an Oankali, an alien race that saved humans from Earth. (As with most 20th century science fiction, it was our fault. Humans started a war and ruined the world. The aliens saved who they could.) She is initially repelled by the physicality of the Oankali, especially the sensory tentacles that cover his body and move of their own accord to perceive the world far better than any human can. He refuses to leave the room to force Lilith to grow accustomed to him. Gradually she does and gradually she earns the right to leave her room.
She is on a ship that is larger than anything imagined. The ship grows lush vegetation and is primarily plant-based itself. The ship grows what is needed, creates what is wanted and anything left over goes back into the ship. As Lilith explores the ship, she is also introduced to her Oankali family which includes an Ooloi, a third gender (i.e. male, female and ooloi). Ooloi can manipulate genetic material which has already been done to Lilith while she was in stasis to remove a cancer growth. They begin to genetically alter Lilith further so she can open walls with the touch of her hand and do other ‘normal’ things on the ship.
Lilith struggles with the changes. She is healthier and stronger and more adapted to her new surroundings. She is beginning to enjoy the Ooloi’s company and the pleasure it can provide. She also feels less human. Every change takes her a step further away from what she was before she awoke.
She is trained in a replication jungle – the only habitable areas on Earth are near the equator – and then put in a large room with files on all the other humans held in stasis. She wakes them and introduces them to their new environment. There are a variety of responses – acceptance, anger, willingness to play along until an escape opportunity arrives, despair, disbelief that they are actually on a spaceship. And each views Lilith differently. Some see her as human since she looks human. Others despise her and cast her with ‘them’ since she has extra abilities and a relationship with an Ooloi. Even after the Oankali introduce themselves and begin to bond with the humans, problems arise.
Dawn is a fascinating study in human behavior. The other humans Lilith wakes up cover the range of expected reactions. But it is Lilith who is the most fascinating. We are in her head so know her inner conflict. She still feels human yet she knows she is more than just human. She wants to go back to Earth but believes the humans won’t cooperate with the Oankali. She wants to live and continue life on Earth but not through a merge with an alien race.
These themes easily relate to the many instances in history and in the world now in which a group is forced to assimilate in a particular way. The apparent option of choice in conjunction with the obvious lack of choice is troubling. Arguments can be made for both sides. The entire book is painted in gray with no clear resolution. While I am personally working on accepting that most things in life are gray instead of an easier black and white, it’s never easy. And when the stakes are literally life or extinction, ‘not easy’ doesn’t begin to describe the conundrum.
I know Dawn isn’t a YA novel but I would recommend it for high school students since they deal with change and choice on a daily basis. The ending may be frustrating but there is a lesson in that – one that adults could do to remember as well.