Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

cover art for Dawn, featuring a red sunset over a dark field
Lilith Iyapo awakes in a plain white room. She has no idea how much time has passed since her captors last brought her back to consciousness. She doesn’t even know who her captors are. FBI? CIA? KGB? The world is in tatters after a massive nuclear strike, and she struggles to remember who came out on top.

This time, though, her captors want to talk face to face. And their plan for Lilith is far stranger, and far more terrifying, than anything she could have envisioned.

Wow, y’all. You’ve been telling me about Octavia E. Butler for years, and I’m so glad I finally listened to you. If this first step into her backlist is anything to go by, she and I will get along very well indeed.

DAWN [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository | Scribd]is deeply concerned with issues of consent in all areas of an individual’s life. The aliens who have abducted Lilith say they want to help humankind return to Earth safely and with their best possible chance at success, but they aren’t terribly concerned with what the humans think about any of this. They repeatedly ignore Lilith’s demands in favour of their own agenda. What she wants is nothing compared to the Oankali’s idea of what humanity should be, and what humans can do for them.

It’s a powerful look at colonization. The Oankali are the invaders who come in and change everything under the guise of helping supposedly less enlightened souls. They call it "trade" and insist it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. They learn valuable biological information from humanity; humanity gets to evolve into something more like the Oankali. And meanwhile, the humans under their charge will form their bodies this way and eat these things and play by those rules--or they’ll be denied Earth forever.

Lilith, of course, argues with them every step of the way. She’s horrified that her body and her choices have been co-opted this manner. She shrinks away from every change they try to make, but the Oankali steamroll right over her. They meet every one of her arguments with unshakeable kindness and patience, their tone that of doting parents to a frightened child.

And eventually, no matter how hard she struggles, Lilith has her agency stolen from her. The Oankali either impose their will despite her protests, or she gives in because she sees no other choice. Her captors have even taken the option of death or suspended animation from her, so certain are they that she is meant to lead humanity into a new age.

It’s as suffocating for the reader as it is for Lilith. Slowly, her barriers erode. She tries to fight the Oankali, but they’ve immersed her so completely in their plan that she can almost see where they’re coming from. Over time, she even comes to feel affection for some of them, and to question both her place among the Oankali and her connection to the humans she’s meant to lead.

It hurts. It hurts an awful lot.

DAWN is by no means a nice book, but it’s powerful and beautifully written. It left me sorry it took me so long to explore Octavia E. Butler’s work. I’m awfully glad I have so many more of her novels on my Kobo.


  1. That's what I love about Octavia Butler. She's not afraid to make her characters suffer and to use that suffering as a commentary about the problems that exist and/or have existed in our own world. I've read a few of her other books, but haven't read this one. *adds to TBR list*

    1. Exactly! I'm really looking forward to her Patternist series.

  2. SO glad I bought a nice new copy of this trilogy during the Weekend of 90% Off! I've never read an Octavia Butler book and I think this one might be a good choice to start with.

    1. It's an excellent place to start! DAWN convinced me to read all Butler's books.