Tuesday, 5 August 2014


Octavia E. Butler Dawn (1987)

I'm not sure if it's me or her, but each Octavia Butler novel I read seems less satisfying than the last. I recall thinking that Parable of the Sower was tremendous, and that Mind of My Mind had its moments even if it wasn't quite so convincing, but this one became a chore after the initial novelty of the premise had worn off.

The premise is that the Earth is fucked following some sort of war, and the human race has wiped itself out but for a few survivors rescued by an advanced and apparently altruistic alien species. The Oankali as they are known keep these survivors in a craft resembling a primal Eden, and are reviving them one by one, here and there making improvements at a genetic level which will aid in their survival once they all get to go back to Earth. Among the first to be revived is Lilith, the symbolism of whom is probably fairly obvious, herself being named after the Biblical Adam's first wife according to sources you're all perfectly capable of investigating under your own steam. You would think she might appreciate not only being alive, but the Oankali having cured her cancer and given her a sort of healing ability to ensure that it will neither trouble her nor anyone upon whom she lays hands ever again; but the narrative is preoccupied with coercion, things done to people against their will ostensibly for their own good, power dynamics and the like, and so Lilith is none too happy about it. As the novel increasingly comes to resemble an episode of The Outer Limits, others are revived, and none seemingly any happier about the situation than Lilith. They don't really trust her, or the supposed goodwill of the Oankali. They don't believe they're on a spacecraft. Dawn doesn't quite stoop to an angry Ernest Borgnine demanding to be let off of this stinking ship because he gots a business to run, but it comes surprisingly close.

Now, Lilith decided, was the time to Awaken two more people. She Awoke two every two or three days, no longer worrying about Awakening men since there had been no real trouble. She did deliberately Awaken a few more women than men in the hope of minimising violence.

Very wise, because you know how those men can be quite rapey at times, and who knows what could happen? If it has a penis the chance is that it will thump someone and take their dinner money before the day is over. I understand that the circumstances of the novel are supposed to be weird and exceptional, and Butler is dealing in metaphors up to a point, and as a black woman author it might be deemed fitting that she should address certain subjects traditionally ignored by other writers, but Jesus - just a little bit of faith in human nature really would have gone a long way here, as opposed to just assuming that everyone, left to their own devices, is going to try to screw you in one way or another. The sheer misanthropy of this tale, or specifically in the portrayal of its human characters makes Ayn Rand look like Martin Luther King. It reads like the work of someone who never left the house at all in some unfortunate respects.

That said, I suppose as part of a trilogy there might be some purpose to such a bleak view being given in the opening act, one which may only become apparent in the second or third instalments; but even so, as an author so frequently praised for her wonderful characterisation, there seems to be precious little of it here. The Oankali are nicely written, particularly as a plausibly alien species with three genders, but then they aren't really explored to any extent greater than that of Lilith's resentful bewilderment. Considering Dawn as the work of an author who was quite clearly more than capable of holding both sentence and story together, I'm astonished at how little I found myself caring about any of this one.

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