Last year around the same time Andrew read Butler’s Parables, I also embarked on a similar journey. I had heard about Butler’s work over the years, and felt it was high time I took a dive into her library, and landed on the Xenogenesis trilogy as my next read. It’s a story about first contact, something I’m a huge sucker for because there are just so many possibilities. Dawn, the first book in the trilogy by Octavia Butler, is a sincere and blunt look at first contact, and all of its complexities, after a nuclear apocalypse.
Dawn takes place centuries after the world has succumbed to its baser instincts and wiped out the majority of the population with nuclear warfare. Lilith Iyapo, having survived the initial explosions, was picked up by an alien civilization who call themselves the Oankali. For better or worse, Lilith has been selected by the Oankali to educate and train other human survivors in how to survive the reborn Earth they are to inhabit. The Oankali have spent centuries rehabilitating the world and bringing nature back to a point similar to when the governments of the world chose to destroy it. In return, they have taken some of humanity’s DNA and added it to their own growing genetic code, as that is how they survive. Lilith, wary at first, eventually agrees to their plans, knowing that her children, and the children of the other humans, will not exactly be human in the ways they have come to accept. The question on Lilith’s mind is, are they really here to save us and what exactly would that entail?
This is a tough book to talk about because Butler does such an incredible job of making the story uncomfortable. Her straightforward approach to harsh truths about society as a system, forces the reader to confront them head-on, while at the same time offering an only slightly less tough alternative. Humans, for all their ability to destroy a planet, are no longer in control of their own lives, and their one real avenue to gaining some form of autonomy requires submission to an unimaginable power. Butler doesn’t flinch when it comes to expanding on this idea, having it play out in the ways you hope it wouldn’t, and in some ways that are somewhat surprising. There are definitely some capital “T” themes in this book that surround the sexual dynamics between civilizations of differing power relations. It’s definitely a book intended to make you think about why something is presented in the way it is, instead of focusing on “entertainment value.”
One of the easiest things to say about this book is Butler really creates a sense of otherness in the aliens. They are fleshed out just enough that readers can understand their motivations, but you can never truly understand them. They are off-putting, unrecognizable, and yet they share just enough to make one question, “what is human?” Butler writes them in a way that builds some sense of comfortability before introducing some wild new interaction that forces the reader to jolt awake and remember they are aliens. They are haunting and beautiful in their complexity. Butler does a great job of undercutting their stated mission by playing with show and tell, giving them complexity that makes you question their true nature, while also never really answering the question herself.
One of the barriers some readers might run into is that the story itself is not necessarily a cogent and linear delivery. There are time jumps that aren’t pointed out, and some conversations feel missing. Information is not hand-fed to the reader, and Butler tightly controls information through an informed third-person perspective. Most of it is delivered when Lilith has to ask a question, or one of the other humans decides to do something drastic. I enjoyed it after I got used to the style, but it is a little jarring at first, especially coming off a meticulously plotted trilogy. Lilith, as a character, is a great vehicle to explore the world of Dawn, as she is both curious and naive. She changes amongst the aliens, putting her between the other humans and the aliens, and Butler captures it incredibly well in some of the more brutal scenes within the book.
Dawn is not an easy book to digest, and Butler should be commended for writing the story in a way that feels easy to understand, but hard to accept. The aliens are genuinely tough to grasp, with descriptions that allow the brain to spiral endlessly into conjecture about how horrifying they are. It’s a novel to be talked about and explored, especially as a piece of “first contact fiction,” but how contact between civilizations is never just the one time. I will definitely be continuing the rest of the Xenogenesis trilogy, and I hope some of you may join me.