Dawn (Book One of Lilith’s Brood) by Octavia E. Butler (book review).

In ‘Dawn’ by Octavia E. Butler, twenty-six year-old Lilith Iyapo awakens to find herself in isolated captivity after the human race has almost wiped itself out in a cataclysmic final war. As becomes clear, as the story progresses, Lilith and a few others have been rescued by a seemingly benevolent alien race known as the Oankali and placed in suspended hibernation for two and a half centuries.

With the Earth once more habitable, it is the Oankali’s intention to return Lilith and her fellow survivors in order to repopulate it.

So far so good, however there is one small catch, The Oankali want to repopulate the Earth with humanity using what they call a ‘gene trade’. What this means is that traits from both races will be combined in their children, so that a new race, neither wholly Oankali or completely human, will inherit the Earth. Humanity, as they once were, will be extinct within a single generation.

There are a lot of different themes explored here which, to be honest, become more important than the plot or even the characters. The plot itself is very straightforward, if fantastic, and there aren’t any twists or turns, any escapes or revelations, rather this is the examination of an interesting ‘what if?’ scenario that challenges the reader to think about the life they have now and the what they would do if they were in Lilith’s place. Do you cooperate with the aliens or do you try to fight against them?

In a way Lilith does both. She never quite bows down and obeys the aliens in all things but neither does she try to fight back, at least not in any obvious way. Her position is to ‘wait and see’, whereby she learns as much as she can, trying to understand the problem and find a solution rather than simply lashing out. In fact, the lashing out is left to other characters, some of which demonstrate a desperate anger that they seem to hope will overcome all opposition. It is more animalistic than logical and the way this lashing out is portrayed it’s as if the survivors believe these are the only authentically human reactions open to them.

Any other sort of behaviour is met with suspicion and ultimately violence as human turns against human, even though there are very few left. As such Lilith, who is only trying to help the others, is seen as something less than human, alien even, because she is cooperating with the aliens and because they have gifted her with genetic changes that make her stronger, heal faster and remember with pinpoint accuracy.

The relationship between the aliens and humanity is definitely not one between equals. The Oankali believe humanity have two defining traits that lead to their own destruction. They are technologically intelligent but also hierarchical, meaning that one individual or group will always try to dominate another, eventually leading to conflict and warfare. At the beginning of the book, Lilith is dealt with as an individual, adjusts to the aliens as an individual.

However, as soon as she is given a group to ‘parent’, that is where the trouble begins. Lilith is not a natural leader, nor does she want to be a leader, she just wants to get the job done. But to the group she is a symbol of their jailers and the jailers’ authority, so even though she finds some allies, eventually everyone turns against her. She becomes the enemy that unites them in their rebellion: ‘The Judas Goat’.

Perhaps this is the Oankali strategy, but it’s difficult to be sure. The aliens do not lie, but neither do they tell the whole truth. At times they are inscrutable and there is the sense that they are experimenting. That everything they do is a long process of trial and error conducted by beings with almost infinite patience. They are not violent except in defence, but they do bend people to their will, sometimes through argument, as with Lilith, and sometimes through drugs and pleasure, altering human brain chemistry so the aliens can ‘imprint’ themselves onto the survivors and so gain cooperation.

It is a method that only has limited success because, as soon as the drugs wear off, many of the humans become angry and belligerent, believing they have betrayed themselves. They inevitably fight back and just as inevitably, they are defeated.

Refreshingly, science in this particular work of Science Fiction is nothing to do with machines, binary code or circuitry, rather the aliens’ advances and advantages exist purely in the realm of the biological. The spaceship they live upon and which is the setting for the novel is a living thing. Its environment can be altered, it doesn’t see its passengers but it ‘senses’ them, producing food and absorbing waste. The ship is in fact a balanced ecological system and there is nothing ‘artificial’ about it.

It isn’t portrayed as sentient, there is an allusion that some of its functions are switched off, but it is living. The Oankali themselves are beings that have evolved since their origins, taking on traits from other races they have encountered over the centuries. In the case of Lilith, they find her cancer cells to be of particular interest, because when this trait is absorbed by them it gives them the ability to grow back or repair damaged limbs. In this sense life and technology are so closely intertwined that, in effect, life is technology.

So what we have is an alien society, three sexes, him, she and it, with tentacles and chemical manipulation trying to secure cooperation from unwilling humanity. The very thing that destroyed humanity, that need to be in charge, to fight for that need, is what causes the conflict. There is no sense of learning or adaptation, just rebellion. So the opinion of humanity expressed here or, at least a group of humans, is not a very favourable one.

Considering that we’d like to think of our culture as one ruled by cooperation, the view here is of dictatorship, of followers and leaders and the hatred of the in between, the not we as represented by Lilith. It’s a book that is all about pondering and understanding difference and the true nature of free will. The humans do not thank the aliens for saving them. Instead, they are repulsed by them, unable to accept a different point of view without expressing themselves with violence. It’s not optimistic, it’s grim and yet there is honesty about it, a small scale version of existing society with all its fractures and fault lines.

For some reason, the aliens are not repulsed or even feel any hatred for their humans. They ‘love’ humanity for its precious variety. In a very real sense, for the Oankali and their gene trade, difference mean change and change for them is a good thing. Change for humanity, on the other hand, is to be resisted and fought against at all costs, even though that battle cannot be won. For the humans in this novel, change is seen as synonymous with death and extinction rather than advancement. It is accepted grudgingly, if at all.

Simply put, read this book and open your mind to what is being said. There is a lot that can be identified with, a lot to learn and though you may not necessarily agree, the argument for change, for peace, for evolution, is well made.

GD Tinnams

January 2022

(pub: Headline, 2022. 320 page paperback, Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47228-106-7)

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