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.