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Old School Wednesdays Readalong: Dawn by Octavia E Butler

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Dawn by Octavia E Butler

For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.


Title: Dawn

Author: Octavia E Butler

Genre: Science Fiction, Horror

Dawn 2

Publisher: Warner Books
Publication date: First published 1987
Paperback: 248 pages

Lilith lyapo awoke from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. Creatures covered in writhing tentacles, the Oankali had saved every surviving human from a dying, ruined Earth. They healed the planet, cured cancer, increased strength, and were now ready to help Lilith lead her people back to Earth–but for a price.

Stand alone or series: First novel in the Xenogenesis Trilogy

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Ebook


Ana’s Take: Discomfited. Uncomfortable. Disturbed. Those are probably the best words to describe my reactions whilst reading Dawn. I say this in the best possible way: because this book is thought-provoking in ways I was not expecting. Because of how the story progresses it reads more like Horror than Science Fiction to me (not that both genres don’t go together. In fact, I thought about Invasion of the Body Snatchers a lot) but that’s maybe a result of my own personal projections into the story, something I feel, is exactly what was intended by the author. But more on that below. Suffice it to say for now, that Dawn is an unsettling yet powerful story and I am very happy to have read it.

Thea’s Take: Oh, I LOVED this book. It is certainly uncomfortable, and strange, and eerie and I totally get the body horror vibe Ana mentions. This is a smart and isolated story about a woman awakening to a lost world and to an utterly alien species that has taken her as prisoner. Or is she a prisoner? This is a brilliant, unsettling story that questions our human tendencies – it deals with issues of xenophobia, of violence, of love and anger and the will to survive. I loved this book very much and suspect it will stay with me forever.

Discussion Questions:

1.Dawn is a story of the future; of humanity’s destruction by their own hand and subsequent rescue by an alien race. It follows main character Lilith Iyapo who, after awakening from a centuries-long sleep, finds herself confronted by not only the truth of being one of the few human survivors but also with a choice: to re-colonize Earth under very specific conditions (dictated by her saviors), to stay with her saviors aboard their vessel and forget Earth, or to remain in stasis forever. What’s your overall impression of the novel and the tale it tells?

Ana: Dawn is a story about the future and about First Contact but it’s above all, I think, a story about survival. Survival in a bigger scale – the human race! – and in that smaller scale of what one person would do keep on living. It’s a terrific, thrilling story because so much hangs in that balance between the individual and the collective and the choices that have to be made to ensure that very survival.

Dawn is fundamentally excellent from a storytelling perspective too: starting with the horror of protagonist Lilith’s awakening to face the truth of what happened to her and to the Earth to learning about the aliens who “saved” her. From that first, scary moment of contact to her becoming more and more at ease (LOL, “at ease” to say the least) with the Oankali. All of that written with lightness of tone that almost deflects the harshness of the events taking place. Plus, incisive commentary about humans, about race, about gender, about xenophobia and colonialism. It’s pretty good stuff.

Thea: I agree with everything Ana says above. Dawn is a story of survival. But it’s not survival exclusive to a single woman (though it is told from her unique perspective) or even of just the human race; it’s also the story of how the alien Oankali must also adapt and “trade” with humanity in order to survive. It’s a story of change, and the paralyzing terror of change, and an examination of the human response to that which is different.

From a pure storytelling perspective on the most superficial layer, Dawn is an incredible book. There’s a reason why Octavia Butler’s writing is so lauded and her books are (or should be) essentials in the (so-called) Grand Science Fiction Canon – she’s a hell of a storyteller. Even ignoring the many layers of subtext and core themes that make Dawn truly brilliant, the characterization of Lilith, the pacing of the story, the world of the Oankali’s self-contained version of a spaceship are all beautifully wrought in this novel. Then, add to this Butler’s skilled worldbuilding – including the Oankali’s take on the family unit, the difference between the Ooloi (a third-sex member of the Oankali family unit, essential for reproduction, healing, etc) and the male and female Oankali, and the physiological, cultural and basic psychological differences between humans and the Oankali. It’s all incredibly impressive from a technical story-framing perspective.

But that sounds so clinical, and does Dawn a disservice, because the most impressive thing about this book, at least for me, is its tangled web of thematic underpinings – not so different than an Ooloi’s sensory arms, really – that poke and prod and gently force us to question our own thoughts and values. There’s the question of xenophobia – literal xenophobia, as Lilith and all other humans are horrified by their Oankali saviors/captors, but more broadly applied to the racism and sexism portrayed by other humans as they are gradually awakened and try to reconcile reality with what they want to understand. There are the blatantly religious overtones and comparisons throughout. There’s the question of what it means to survive, what it means to be “human” versus intermingling one’s genetic lineage with something different.

All of these elements work together to question our own proections and understandings as we engage with the book. Frankly, I don’t think I’m smart enough to adequately express (or intelligently discuss!) my fascination with and admiration for this ambitious, brilliant, yet deeply unsettling book.

2. We could argue that much of Dawn‘s success stands on Lilith as a protagonist. What did you think of her viewpoint? What about the decisions she is forced to make?

Ana: I loved Lilith. LOVED her as a protagonist. I loved her drive, her resolution, her calm and collected strength and her attempt to do anything it takes in order to achieve survival. That’s her imperative. It’s just such an impossible situation! I kept thinking what I would do had I been in her shoes.

From the moment she wakes up to fighting to control her horror and her reaction to the Oankali, to becoming a reluctant leader when it’s against her instincts, her journey is all about learning to basically adapt and negotiate in order to survive. And that’s something utterly admirable – even if I questioned the level of success she could reach in her endeavours (as addressed below).

Thea: I, too, loved Lilith as a protagonist. She is put into an impossible predicament: to lead and to teach her fellow human survivors, to prepare them for the reality of the Oankali, to recolonize and repopulate Earth. Lilith asked for none of this responsibility, but as much as she resists it, she also resigns herself to this thankless task because she believes in a future for humanity and her will to survive is that strong.

Lilith is a fascinating character who frequently refers to herself Judas and is viewed as a traitor and threat by her own people – she’s the science fictional La Malinche; the Lilith of Mesopotamia and the Bible. But… she’s also none of these things, and more than these things. Lilith is simply Lilith: a compassionate, methodical woman who will do anything that will help her (and her people) survive.

3. One of the biggest aspects of Dawn is the relationship that develops between Lilith and the alien race Oankali. Given the circumstances, it is impossible to read this book and not think about “consent”. How do you see Lilith’s relationships – sexual or otherwise – with the Oankali? On the flipside, how do you see the Oankali? Are they benign benefactors or evil manipulators?

Ana: This is where the book truly stands out for me. It’s where it gripped me, where my thoughts kept going back to after I was done reading it. I will start with the easiest for me: the Oankali horrified me. Completely and utterly horrified me. Not because of what they looked like or because they are “other” – nothing as superficial as this although I completely understand having that first terrified reaction to their alien appearance – but because of what they did. From choosing whom to save and how. From approaching Lilith and her group of humans the way they did, from forcing situations, from violating their rights and forcing them to interbreed, there is nothing at all about the Oankali that is about free choice for humanity.

To the issue of consent, I can only ask: can there be consent when the power differential is such as they are in the book? When the levels of manipulation done by the Oankali as such as they are in the book? To my mind: no.

It does not matter that some of the Oankali are expertly written by the author in a way that they become almost sympathetic. Because I can’t forget that the narrative itself is unreliable and tricky too. Because it’s all from Lilith’s point of view and she is a sympathetic and likeable, it’s almost too easy to fall into the trap of accepting her more…positive views of the Oankali. But the truth is how much of Lilith is compromised and brainwashed? How much of her actions are true freedom? The horror of the novel is this for me: that as much as Lilith tries to make the best of a terrible situation, as much as her feelings seem to be real, as much as she is aware of all of that, I questioned everything. This is the first book in a series and to me this one volume is all darkness: I see little hope. I see Lilith’s struggle and belief that she can run, that humans can somehow escape what seems inevitable but I only asked myself….can they? Is she only kidding herself? This is what is so uncomfortable about the book to me: I can not, will not deny Lilith’s drive for autonomy and choice as much as I can’t deny that the circumstances make those almost impossible.

Thea: The question of consent is the most pressing and fascinating issue in Dawn. Does Lilith give her consent, ever, to the Oanakali? Is the “saving” of the human race worth capture and imprisonment? Especially if such saving happens against humankind’s will, and especially as humans have no say in the “trade” of biology with the Oankali?

I think Ana taps into all of the deeply disturbing and problematic aspects of consent with regard to the Oankali, and certainly expresses why so many of the developments in the book are so horrifying. Not to get into spoilers, but there is “sex” (not really sex, but a shared intimacy) that is practically forced upon human pairs – though the Oankali are gentle and claim that although a person’s words are saying no, their bodies are saying yes (heard that one before?) – and even pregnancy against someone’s explicit wishes. The Oankali’s presence is so much more intrusive than these acts, though, as from the very beginning, humans are held against their will and placed into forced sleep. Their DNA is “copied” and sampled, their responses carefully recorded and predicted and analyzed. As Ana says, this actually could very well be a horror novel in the same vein as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But… at the same time, it’s not.

Hear me out: the thing to remember is that the Oankali are utterly alien. They do not think in terms of human constructs, they do not question things in the same way that humans question. The very concept of “consent” and its underpinings, I think, are completely different because this entirely alien species operates in an entirely different way, has an entirely different cultural background, and is entirely different from humanity. I think that’s the brilliance of this book, the fact that we (humans) will attempt to assign our own value judgments and perceptions towards this alien society. And in fact, that’s likely Butler’s point with this book (being a human author writing for a human audience).

As one Oankali tells Lilith, “You will never understand us.” Just as the Oankali will never understand humanity – but their mingled children might.

I say again: Dawn is brilliant. Deeply disturbing, but brilliant.

4. It has been said about Dawn that it shows a terribly pessimistic perspective of humankind. What did you think of the portrayal of the men and women that are saved by the Oankali and raised from their sleep by Lilith?

Ana: Tough question. In a way, I just about see how accusations of misanthropy can be thrown at the book. The majority of the people awakened by Lilith seem like the worst of mankind: rapists, xenophobes, homophobes, violent men who seem uncomfortable to see a woman (a Black woman) as a leader. But there are two things I wanted to say about this:

One goes back to the point I made about so much of the future of mankind hanging in the balance of the collective and the private. I think the point made by the choice of characters’ behaviour is precisely that: it’s incisive social commentary about the way that we are used to choosing the personal over the collective, about prejudices and about how hard it is to get over personal bias in order to work together.

The other point is as simple as: not all human characters are horrible.

The main thing is: this is a complex, multifaceted look at an impossible, difficult, hard situation.

I will say one thing though that is as close to negative criticism to the book I will make: all the 40 people raised by Lilith end up pairing together as male-female pairs. In a way this is understandable within the story given the Oankali’s interbreeding imperative. But it bugs me that the lack of LGBT characters is not remarked in any way by the characters or the narrative.

Thea: I am so glad Ana brings up the binary nature of pairs in Dawn – I 100% agree that this was my one criticism with the book. (This is especially frustrating because the Ooloi are non-gendered entities, and it seems that distinctly “male” and distinctly “female” partners are not needed for reproduction – their zygotes are, but that’s it.)

But back to the question at hand – pessimism and humanity. Is Dawn overtly pessimistic? I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s realistic, in that in any random sampling of people pushed to their psychological limits, you will find some are violent, some are rapists, some exhibit other destructive and harmful traits of humankind. This is an extreme, terrifying situation, and people react in extreme and terrifying ways to such stimulae.

5. Is Dawn your first Octavia Butler novel or have your read her works before? Do you plan to keep on reading the series?

Ana: Yes, this is my first Octavia Butler novel and I felt it was the perfect introduction to this author’s work. I definitely plan on reading the rest of the series.

Thea: No! I’ve read Parable of the Sower many years ago, which I dearly loved. And yes, I plan on finishing this series and reading much more of Octavia Butler in the near future.


Ana: Torn between 8 and 9. Will go with 9 – I thought it was that good.

Thea: 10 – I loved this book, and I can’t imagine giving it anything less.


Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

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  • Kallen (@GeekyLibrary)
    April 30, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I first read Dawn after reading Parable of the Sower(Which I recently reread and hope to review soon for GeekyLibrary) and I did love it. By the time I read it for the first time in the late 90s, it felt a bit dated to me, but I liked the interplay between the different characters.
    It was also the first time the aliens actually seemed alien in a scifi novel.
    It’s still on my shelf today, along with the sequel. I didn’t like the sequel as much so I never did read the third book…

  • Matthew
    April 30, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    I’m so glad this was chosen for the Readalong — it is one of the few of Butler’s books I’ve not read yet. I really love her work. (sadly, with this being the final weeks of school I’ve not actually had a time to finish it… But I’m definitely going to!). I think the first I read from her was “Mind of My Mind” which is part of a really fascinating series.

  • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard
    April 30, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    I’ve yet to read any Octavia Butler, but your review/discussion emphasizes what I’ve read about her work: that she challenges existing assumptions in profound and sometimes disturbing ways, within the context of brilliant writing and worldbuilding. It’s such a pity that she died relatively young. However, I hear that two of her early, never-published short stories will be released in June or July.

  • E_bookpushers
    May 1, 2014 at 6:30 am

    Somehow I have failed to review or provide more than a line or two, Books and Moods, about Octavia Butler on The Bookpushers even through I love her writing. I think I need to fix that. I agree with most of your points that her writing is always a combination of uncomfortable and throughout-provoking. It is possible to read her on a superficial level but I find that each time I re-read one of her works I discover something new. She raises questions about humanity, the strength of our urge to live, effects of rigidity in thought vs flexibility/adaptability, willingness to shift blame, and genetic imperatives. I have read most of what she has written and published and of those I regularly reread them. I am really looking forward to the Smugglers’ thoughts on the rest of this trilogy because I think Butler goes onto explore some of the fundamental questions she raised in Dawn. Thanks for doing this feature and picking one of my favorite authors.

  • Katy K.
    May 2, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    I’ve been recommending Octavia Butler to sf fans at the library for years without actually having read her – so thank you for the extra push to read her! In brief, I thought the book was amazing. I also think that I don’t have the emotional energy to read more of her at this stage of my life, though I’m not sure if this is because of the thinky thoughts or because of the verging on horror, and I just don’t do horror. In any case, she’s higher on my list of Really Good Hard SF Authors.

  • ninja mom
    May 6, 2014 at 1:26 am

    Octavia Butler is one of my favorite authors. Her writing is brilliant, provocative, and uncompromising in following a premise to its logical end. Both her ability to build worlds and characters is incredible. The ideas she explores in Lilith’s Brood (collection of all three books of which Dawn is the first) makes me so uncomfortable. But I believe that was done on purpose to make us pause and look at ourselves and our assumptions. I like being challenged, hence I reread all of her works once every couple of years. Butler’s untimely death left me devastated. I felt like I lost a good friend. Thank you for introducing her to readers who might not have been exposed.

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