Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

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DawnHCFC.jpgOctavia E. Butler  (1947-2006) was the first African-American female science fiction/fantasy writer to gain widespread acclaim by fans and critics during her lifetime.  Her works, including the classic novel Kindred, are notable for their sensitive and perceptive insights on political/social issues that affect anyone, or any society, over race, sex, religious beliefs and other topics. 

Ms. Butler's 1987 novel Dawn, the first in her "Xenogenesis" (AKA "Lilith's Brood") trilogy, also explores social and political themes within the science fiction genre.  Set many centuries after Earth's population has been (mostly) destroyed by nuclear war, Dawn focuses on Lilith, one of several survivors from Earth who have been taken and kept in suspended animation by the Oankali race.  With Lilith's help, the Oankali intend to repopulate Earth with the genetically-altered offspring of the humans they have.  But the aliens must first get Lilith to trust them.  Then, once that objective is reached, Lilith, under the Oankali's surveillance, and with new-found physical and mental abilities, must lead a group of humans to Earth.  But old fears and prejudices are hard to put aside...

In describing the culture and science of the Oankali, Butler creates a fascinating and truly alien culture.  The Oankali genetically engineer their own kind to be able to adapt into any kind of surroundings and, through bio-engineering, are able to create technology (spaceships, etc.) that's actually alive in it's own way.  Butler also focuses on how the alien sexes (there's more than two) are able to procreate (as well as having sex) and what part humans play in this procedure.  Readers will have to leave their own preconceptions at the door when reading this novel.

There's also Lilith's own plight, which in many ways parallels the experience of African Americans.  When we first meet her, she's already been taken from Earth, her home, and finds herself having to adapt to another, more dominant culture.  Significantly, as Lilith grows to accept her surroundings (it's clear she has little choice) and is designated by the Oankali to oversee other humans, she begins to look at herself as a "judas goat".  And the fact that the Oankali "traffic" in human beings (they're a merchant-based race) that they hope to repopulate and replenish the Earth (like a plantation?) with their own genetic stamp can't be overlooked either.

For thought-provoking social commentary and/or a powerfully exciting adventure novel, Dawn (and it's sequels, Adulthood Rites and Imago) should be on any reader's list.  Reserve it online here.

(Note:  It's clear from reading the novel that Butler intended Lilith to be African-American.  What the publishers were thinking by depicting her as Caucasian on the cover of the 1987 hardcover edition of Dawn is beyond me.)


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This page contains a single entry by Ed published on February 11, 2010 11:45 AM.

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