Octavia Butler’s Dawn is a science fiction tale of war and isolation, gender, sexuality, race, and allegory. Lilith Iyapo, the main character, awakens to find herself upon a “living ship” just outside the moon’s orbit, two hundred and fifty years after the vast majority of human life was destroyed through nuclear war. She has been rescued — kidnapped? — by the Oankali, an alien race who have decided to rehabilitate the earth and any human survivors. Lilith has been kept in a kind of stasis pod plant, being “Awakened” for testing and experiments as the Oankali please.
The Oankali are covered in sensory tentacles instead of hair or eyes/noses/ears and have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi, who are the only sex with the capability for reproduction. The ooloi, who are referred to with “it/its” pronouns, use this capability to manipulate their own and others’ genetic material and create offspring. However, Lilith is confused and upset by the existence of a third sex and by the Oankali’s appearance. The Oankali’s main goal in waking Lilith up is to interbreed with humans and create a type of hybrid race — she believes this will be forced, and almost resigns herself to it at one point. Lilith’s physical and mental strength are enhanced after she is woken for the last time and she is trained to wake up other humans on the Oankali ship, with the express purpose of making them trust the Oankali and eventually go back to Earth.
As the book progresses, Lilith develops a relationship with one of the ooloi at the same time as she is supposed to be leading 40 other humans to recolonize the earth. She has mixed feelings about both, and rightfully so. Human flaws are easily recognized – selfishness, violence, etc., but the Oankali, and especially the ooloi at times, have their problems too. They have little regard for bodily autonomy or consent and have kept the human survivors in solitary confinement for literal decades.
As the humans train for recolonization, they become violent and aggressive, lashing out at each other. They are xenophobic towards the Oankali, who are manipulative and controlling. The humans are treated like livestock for breeding, like lab animals for experimentation, and like pets for amusement. They are given no choice in what has happened to them, and what the Oankali have done to them in terms of genetic modification and manipulation is easily compared to eugenics. Lilith’s family is said to be prone to cancer, and between two of her Awakenings, she developed a tumor which her body was taught to “re-absorb” by an ooloi. The very biochemistry of these humans’ bodies has been irreversibly changed in the name of experimentation. At the end of the book, we find out that Lilith has been impregnated against her will, in a way she thought would not happen, and because of the psychological adaptation and coercion she has been subject to, she does not leave the Oankali. She stays – for the survival of her species.
Not only are the sex scenes in this book essentially rape (how can Lilith consent when she has been manipulated and coerced over a period of time to believe the Oankali are on her side? That they are trying to help her? That their intentions are good?) but there is an attempted rape by some of the human men. However, this book is about much more than that, or about aliens, or human violence, or nuclear war. It is about slavery and racism, loss and lack of control, the fear of both the unknown and of one’s inner self, and of course, survival of the species. This novel was at once captivating and terrifying, because of the questions it raised, its ambiguous ending, its insinuations that even the most resilient among us can be overpowered, and purely by its content. I enjoy science fiction because although it is literally otherworldly, it forces us to look at ourselves and humans and ask ourselves just how far we would go for something.