Tag Archives: octavia butler

Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dawn by Octavia Butler isn’t for everybody. There is tentacle rape. Nobody has ever accused Butler’s work of being easy or light.

This review contains spoilers.

Lilith Iyapo, a Nigerian American, wakes up in an isolation room in an alien spaceship. The aliens – the Oankali – come to her and tell her that nuclear war has destroyed most of life on Earth. The Oankali will restore the planet and teach the survivors how to live on it. In exchange, the humans must mate with them.

Lilith doesn’t trust the Oankali, but she reasons that if she cooperates with them, she can get herself and a group of human beings onto Earth’s surface and then they can run away.

The Oankali seem quite reasonable at first. Jdahya, the first Oankali she meets, is gentle with her and lets her get used to his horrifying appearance at her own pace. The Oankali are pacifist plant-eaters. They have an egalitarian society.

The first sign something is wrong is that Lilith wakes up with a scar on her abdomen. The Oankali cured her cancer. While she was unconscious. Without asking her.

After that it gets so gradually and creepily worse that I often had to stop and ask myself did I really just read that? The worst things the Oankali do are written in such a matter-of-fact tone that they left me wondering whether the Oankali did something wrong. The entire novel is a case of gaslighting for artistic effect.

The Oankali rarely lie, but they are dishonest with Lilith. They tell her they arrived in the solar system just in time to save humanity from extinction by nuclear war. But does “just in time” mean right after, or right before, the bombs dropped? What are the chances that the sight of space aliens with worms for faces caused the U.S. and Soviet militaries to panic?

They show Lilith their families made out of one male, one female, and one third-gender ooloi. The ooloi don’t make sperm or egg but manipulate male and female DNA as part of sex. They tell Lilith they must mate with other intelligent species or go extinct. The ooloi are so good at manipulating DNA that the Oankali can no longer evolve on their own, and must plagiarize genes from other species.

The Oankali don’t tell Lilith what they do with their perverts. What about Oankali who want twosomes, or the same sex, or who don’t want to reproduce? Considering their genetic engineering skills, I suspect the ooloi “fix” them.

If male and female Oankali mated with each other, wouldn’t they be able to make DNA mistakes and evolve? Do they have to rape humanity, or are the ooloi blind to another way? The ooloi insist on ridding humanity of its warlike nature, but they don’t seem too worried about the problems with Oankali nature.

I spent too much of the book rooting for some sort of compromise. I figured even the tentacle rape was a casualty of first contact, eventually the Oanaki would realize that humanity does better when negotiated with than manipulated, and they would back off. The last straw comes after a man Lilith has grown to love dies. An ooloi impregnates her with his sperm and some alien DNA because it’s what she would have wanted. Without asking her. Lilith’s human clan is sent down to Earth without her because she is no longer human enough to live among them.

The Oankali were never interested in compromise. I should have realized that and turned against them many chapters before. The ending left me asking whether Lilith’s clan is a bunch of hairless apes who wouldn’t see reason, or whether Lilith has turned into a monster. Lilith is likely asking herself the same question.

Mind of my Mind by Octavia Butler

116254-_uy475_ss475_Wild Seed was my introduction to Octavia Butler’s work. I loved it. My edition contained a large chunk of Mind of my Mind, the next book in the series, which left me eager to learn what becomes of Doro and Anyanwu.

Mind of my Mind takes place in the 1970s or so, about a century after the events of Wild Seed. Both immortals have settled in California. The story focuses on Mary, the latest of Doro’s breeding experiments. As Mary comes into her powers, the experiment gets out of hand.

This book is one of Butler’s early works (her second), and it shows. The book feels unfinished. The narrative skips over great gaps of time in the middle as Mary learns to control her telepathic network and the writing is so spare that it cuts into the bone.

Within that short text, though, Butler raises questions about power and control. The telepaths are a race of people who have to prey on others to survive. Should they exist? If they already exist, what kind of ethics can they hold on to? Is Mary a villain? What about Doro?

The climax of the story was rushed but brought a satisfying closure to the story of Doro and Anyanwu. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a classic one, following in the tradition of Frankenstein.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

968850They are the only two immortals in the word: Anyanwu, an Ibo woman who can repair her body at will, and Doro, a spirit who possesses bodies and devours souls. They hate each other with a passion; the loneliness of immortality makes them need each other.

I’ve kept hearing Octavia Butler’s stuff is really good. I only waited this long to read something of hers because I didn’t know where to start. Butler broke into print in 1976 with Patternmaster then wrote successive prequels to it. Wild Seed is the earliest in the sequence of events and regarded by John Pfeiffer as the best book she ever wrote.

The language of this book struck me right away. Check out this passage near the beginning:

Anyanwu looked away, spoke woodenly. ‘It is better to be a master than to be a slave.’ Her husband at the time of the migration had said that. He had seen himelf becoming a great man – master of a large household with many wives, children and slaves. Anyanwu, on the other hand, had been a slave twice in her life and had escaped only by changing her identity completely and finding a husband in a different town. She knew some people were masters and some were slaves. That was the way it had always been. But her own experience taught her to hate slavery. She had even found it difficult to be a good wife in her most recent years because of the way a woman must bow her head and be subject to her husband. It was better to be as she was – a priestess who spoke with the voice of a god and was feared and obeyed. But what was that? She had become a kind of master herself. ‘Sometimes, one must become a master to avoid being a slave,’ she said softly.

I think I count a dozen words in that entire paragraph with French or Latin origins. The rest of it is Ango-Saxon, emotional and gritty. She introduces complex ideas about slavery, gender, dominance and submission with deceptively simple language. And she keeps it up this way for an entire novel.

Wild Seed is also about game theory, since Anyanwu is trapped in a game with Doro she can’t win. And it’s about our relationship with our bodies, since Anyanwu’s super power is her body and Doro has no body at all. He’s fascinated with breeding human beings to each other because he’s impotent. The book is everything N. K. Jemisin was trying to cover with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but Octavia Butler is a master at it. The book will make you think. A lot of it you’ll wish you weren’t eating lunch while you were reading.

Wild Seed feels like an epic love story even though it’s a fairly short book. The ending was abrupt, especially for me, because my edition includes a big chunk of Mind of my Mind. I got three quarters of the way through the book, saw the end, and had to page backward looking for a climax.

Other issues include that you can tell it’s a prequel. Many aspects of the psychic humans are really only in there because of the psychics later in the series. And Doro’s breeding program has a surprising lack of Asian people considering that a) most people in the world are Asian and b) Doro’s willing to take advantage of all the genetic material he can get. But these are quibbles. This is a beautiful, thought-provoking, challenging book.