“Your people contain incredible potential, but they die without using much of it.”
Dawn is the first book in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. It was nominated for the 1988 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. I read her 1979 classic Kindred a couple of years ago and it totally blew me away. (You can find my review here.) I was so impressed with Butler’s storytelling that I wanted to read anything and everything written by her. I regret it has taken me this long to get around to this novel because it is a riveting and powerful story, one which I couldn’t put down.One of my aims with this blog is to write spoiler-free reviews. With this book, I am going to have to reveal some of the main plot details but I won’t go beyond the published synopsis. Unfortunately, the synopsis reveals important events which occur at the beginning of the story. If you would rather not know these details then stop reading now.
In the near future, a devastating nuclear war has left Earth in ruins and the population decimated. Dawn tells the story of one of the survivors, Lilith Iyapo. At the start of the book, Lilith wakes up alone in a strange white room. She is being held prisoner by mysterious captors who question her but will not reveal themselves. When they finally confront Lilith, she is shocked and disgusted by their identity. She also struggles to believe where they are holding her as well as where they are from.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Flesh. More like mine than like yours. Different from mine, too, though. It’s … the ship.”
“You’re kidding. Your ship is alive?”
Lilith’s captors are an alien race called the Oankali. They have rescued her from the ruins of Earth. Despite their warnings about their unusual appearance, Lilith is physically repulsed when she finally meets them. Butler does a great job here of describing the alien-ness of the aliens, sparking memories of the chthonic creatures of Lovecraft’s weird tales. Their sensory organs are very different from ours and play a crucial part in the story.
‘She did not want to be any closer to him. She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alieness, his difference, his literal unearthliness. She found herself still unable to take even one more step toward him….’
Dawn is a book about first contact with aliens but it’s also a sobering examination of what makes us human. As the narrative moves forward, it becomes clear that Lilith is not the only person to have been rescued. There are more, and Lilith’s task is to prepare them for a crucial mission which will take them back to Earth. The question is how will they react to the Oankali and their plans? And how will they feel about Lilith being in charge?
The story becomes increasingly addictive as Butler raises the tension with the introduction of these new characters. Little personality details bring them to life making them feel like people you know or have met before. Butler contrasts the seeming benevolence of the Oankali with the ignorance and aggression of some of the humans. It makes for uncomfortable reading at times, and is made even more sobering by how realistic it feels.
If I had to make one complaint about Dawn then it is with the ending. It felt too sudden and left me feeling a little unsatisfied. It is clear that this book tells only part of a longer story, and finishes on a bit of a cliffhanger. “I want to know what happens next!” It’s a clever way of getting readers to buy the next book in the trilogy, but the sheer strength of Butler’s storytelling will surely leave you wanting more. I know I do.
Recommended for readers seeking an exciting and intelligent first-contact story.