5. Octavia E. Butler & Dawn [SF Women of the 20th Century]

octavia-butler-799659Octavia Butler (1947-2006) is one of the most fondly remembered SF writers in the history of the field. She has won several Hugo and Nebula awards as well as being, to date, the only SF writer to receive the MacArthur “Genius Grant.”

Many of her works look at characters who are dispossessed, whose autonomy is taken from them or compromised. Her stories acknowledge race, sexuality, feminism, and the cost of survival. An African-American writer, Butler’s highest bestselling novel is Kindred, a time travel story about black slavery and the issue of survival vs. compliance.

There’s been some recent excitement (and more than a little apprehension) at the news that Octavia Butler’s book Dawn (1987), first of the Lilith’s Brood series (also referred to as the Xenogenesis trilogy), is being developed for TV, which is why I picked this book for the SF Women of the 20th Century.

This is the point where I admit that I am terribly under-read when it comes to Octavia Butler – until recently I’d only read a couple of her short stories, so Dawn was the first of her novels that I picked up. This book is fantastic! I found myself racing through it in about three days, and while I don’t plan for this blog series to be made up of book reviews, apparently some of the posts are going to be.

dawnDawn (1987)

Lilith Iyapo is an African-American human survivor of a terrible war that all but wiped out life on Earth. Aliens called the Oankali have rescued the last humans, and put them into suspended animation for two centuries while they repaired the damage done to the planet (and discreetly destroyed all man-made structures and other remains of civilisation). Now they’re planning to release humans back into the wild via a carefully planned program of biological and social improvements.

There are so many fascinating themes explored in this story, which presents a harsh and at times cynical view of humanity, but is also deeply complex. When we’re first introduced to the aliens they claim to have a pretty basic Prime Directive attitude to the humans – helping them resettle the Earth, but not giving them advanced or unnecessary technology. It slowly becomes clear, however, that the Oankali’s definitions of “helping” and indeed “non-interference” are complex, and based on what they (rather than the samples of humans they have been studying) think is most appropriate.

Lilith has to learn to overcome her xenophobia (which manifests as physical and psychological repulsion) in order to work with the Oankali, and it’s implied that this reaction is common and natural. Unfortunately, learning to understand and communicate with her rescuers/captors means that she begins to change, and the aliens insist on making more and more upgrades to her biology that cause problems for her among her own people. The aspects that make it easier for her to deal with the aliens present as suspicious to her fellow humans, when she helps to train and orient them in their dealings with the aliens, and their preparations to return to Earth.

Is Lilith a traitor and collaborator, or is she doing her best to preserve her own species? How much genetic change can be done to humans before they are not human any more?

Then there are the aliens themselves – a fascinating three-gendered species who are driven by the development of gene-technology and never quite manage to understand how humans work, no matter how long they study them.

Sexuality is explored substantially throughout the book – particularly the sexual connection between the humans and the ooloi (the third gender and most powerful member of the triad family structure of the Oankali) who are chosen to bond with them. The humans pair up in traditional Adam-and-Eve style (there appear to be no gay, lesbian or openly bisexual members of the first wave of new human society) and yet their very definition of sex is challenged by the sensual and psychic/telepathic experiences these pairs share when they bond the ooloi.

Masculinities are threatened, squicks are confronted, and there are some deeply uncomfortable scenes of dubiously consensual intimacy. Consent issues, and the crossing of personal boundaries, is a major theme throughout the book. The Oankali claim always to have the best interests of the humans at heart, and plan to leave them in a better condition than they found them – cancer genes removed, eidetic memories inserted, a lush green playground for them to live upon – but there’s no denying that they are highly paternalistic, and often take advantage of the power imbalance in all kinds of skeevy ways.

(I’m reminded of the recent outcry when a guard-prisoner romance novel set in a concentration camp won a major award – there is no way that such a setting allows for true equality or consent in a sexual or romantic relationship)

Lilith’s constant struggle to communicate with the aliens feels at times like an episode of The Office – she’s hamstrung by an inability of the executive class to empathise with or believe her, because they will never value her lived experience over their own perceptions. Likewise, the humans refuse to believe in Lilith’s more extensive experience on the ship and with the Oankali, to the point of not even believing they are on a ship (to be fair, it mostly looks like a forest). She has been literally designed to be the best person to communicate between the two species, and the reader has been on that journey with her, so we share her frustration and her fears – while this is never explicitly framed as a gender issue, it’s pretty clear that many of the human men are threatened by a female leader, to the point of questioning her gender identity because they perceive her as suspiciously strong and knowledgeable.

I suspect any female political leader or workplace manager would find a great deal to sympathise with in this novel!

Having spent the last month or more re-absorbed in the works of Tiptree, coming to Butler was really exciting. Much of what I love about Tiptree’s stories was here in Butler’s novel – the fast-paced prose, the powerful ideas, the beautiful writing, the stark and complex characters. Butler, however, has a greater empathy for her characters and is far less conflicted about the idea of woman as hero – and while Butler’s imagined futures are in some ways equally bleak as those created by Tiptree, they also hold a stronger spark of hope that humans will survive and maybe, just maybe, everything’s going to turn out okay. Survival comes at a cost, and maybe the compromises we have to make will be harsh, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t roll up your sleeves and do the damn work.

I’m going to be reading more Butler. I really like the new ebook covers, and I plan to be acquiring a good set of them! A particular shout out to “Bloodchild,” a novelette which won the Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards, and ties closely to the themes of Lilith’s Brood – I found it available for FREE on the Kindle.


Other links about Octavia Butler:
Devil Girl From Mars: Why I Write Science Fiction, by Octavia Butler
Sleeping With the Enemy: Octavia Butler’s Dawn.
Dialogic Origins and Alien Identities in Butler’s XENOGENESIS
Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy: A Biologist’s Response

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3 replies on “5. Octavia E. Butler & Dawn [SF Women of the 20th Century]”

  1. Kerry Dustin says:

    Tansy, do you have any thoughts on how this would translate to TV?

    I remember when I read Fledgling (no spoilers) that there were aspects that I felt worked because I was reading them in the voice of the character, not seeing them from outside.

    Parts of Dawn and the subsequent two books had a similar feel. Butler pulls us into the world, and Lilith’s experience so well that bits that might make us confront a squick as you put it, become a part of the flow of the story. However, it seems to me that would be harder to do through an external visual.

    • tansyrr says:

      It will be interesting to see! I’d be fascinated to see them physically realise the aliens.

      I suspect the internal nature of some of the novel might be a bit of a problem as it was with The Hunger Games – audiences aren’t accustomed to Woman As Stoic Hero, and may feel distanced from Lilith (as happened with Katniss) if they haven’t read the book.

      Having said that, I think it would make a great season of television, with the ensemble cast exploring the ship/forest and falling apart as a community – kind of like if Lost had a point to it. And +1 of awesome for a TV show requiring a black female lead.

      If I were in charge, I’d choose to age Lilith up rather than have her be in her late 20s – someone like Taraji P Henson or Gabrielle Union would take the lead in a show like this wonderfully.

  2. […] Speaking of great writing advice, Ursula Le Guin is responding to questions over at Book Cafe. And if, like me, you are in the mood to read more prickly women characters, Tansy Rayner Roberts is doing a series on SF Women of the 20th Century. This link is to her article on Octavia Butler. […]

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