Warning: this review contains spoilers! The other characters withhold a lot of information from the main character, so discussing the themes of this book is really difficult to do without spoiling it. I’m just not going to bother here, and assume you’ve either read the book or don’t care about spoilers.
Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series establishes its setting in the first book, Dawn. The book takes place after an apocalyptic war that resulted in nuclear winter. Lillith, a young black woman, wakes up not knowing where she is. Soon she finds out that she is on a living spaceship that is inhabited by aliens called Oankali. The Oankali are covered with tentacles with sensory organs on them. At first, Lillith is too horrified to get anywhere close to the Oankali and tries to hide, but it makes her look at it, and little by little, she becomes used to their appearance. Butler does an excellent job of making the aliens feel really alien, and gives readers a good sense of the Oankali’s otherness.
Oankali society is set up a little differently from humans. Families are comprised of a male Oankali, a female Oankali, children, and an ooloi, which is a genderless Oankali that lays between the Oankali male and female during sex and remixes their genes to make sure the children are born healthy. Dawn deals a lot with the ethics of genetic modification and what it means to be human. Dawn also deals with themes of consent, since the Oankali like to make decisions for the humans first and then give the humans a choice. Normally, the Oankali are right in assuming what the humans want, but when they’re wrong it is pretty traumatic for the humans.
The humans are a little bit like pets to the Oankali. They don’t want to hurt the humans, but they exercise control over where they go, what they do, and who they breed with. The ooloi can modify the humans’ genetics to give them super strength or make them heal faster. The ooloi is very sensitive to the humans’ physical condition and wants to keep them safe, but whether this is because they like the humans or because they want to keep them alive so they can learn from their genetics and integrate what they like into their own species is not clear.
Once the ooloi has modified a pair of humans, they can’t stand to touch each other without it. They can only be comfortable with ooloi mediation (although this effect does fade over time). I wonder if this effect is something that the ooloi consciously do to prevent couples from conceiving unhealthy children, or something that naturally happened to the ooloi.
I really enjoyed the concept of aliens that are masters of genetic manipulation, but I felt like the blatant exposition sometimes got a little boring, so I’m not quite sure if I want to dedicate the time to reading the other two books in the trilogy (Adulthood Rites and Imago). It is hard to put the series down after just one, though… I still want to find out what happens after they get to Earth!
One thing I really didn’t like was the way that the Awakened humans acted. I mean, sure, they don’t know where they are and that’s confusing and frustrating and all, but that doesn’t seem like enough reason to start raping and killing each other. The way the humans paired off sexually so quickly seemed odd to me as well, but then again I’ve never been in that situation and so I’m not sure how humans would act if isolated with only each other. I would think most people would just watch and wait, and maybe those with the most leader-like qualities would rise to the top instead of the complete assholes… but that would require more exterior conflict than interpersonal, and since the humans are being kept away from the outside, there’s not much space for exterior conflict. But all the strife seemed a little contrived to me…
The premise that the thing that caused humankind to self-destruct was the combination of intelligence and predisposition to hierarchies also seemed a little odd to me, but considering what havoc economic inequality is wreaking on our society right now, I can see her point. The hierarchical nature of humans probably had a lot to do with Trump’s win, since he targeted lower-income white voters who like to bring themselves up by clawing minorities down. And his presidency might also end in nuclear winter… Sigh. Beam me up, please?
Anyway, Dawn deserves a place on any scifi fan’s bookshelf for the distinctive alienness of its aliens, its strong and realistic female protagonist, and its finely constructed writing. I read it with my science fiction book club, and it got 4s and 5s all around, so I think it’s safe to say it’s more objectively good than a lot of other books we’ve read. I highly recommend it!