Close Reading 3 of 12 (Humanity, a Mirror in Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn)

As part of my MFA, I have to complete twelve close readings. This is number three. For this reading, I chose to write about Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, the first book in her Xenogenesis Trilogy. If you haven’t read Dawn yet but you are planning to, this essay may contain some spoilers that you might otherwise wish to avoid. Just an alert!

I wasn’t trying to work out my own ancestry. I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people. — Octavia E. Butler

Science fiction novels have long been a means for writers to disguise social commentary as entertainment easily digestible by the masses, and Octavia E. Butler’s depictions of both humans and aliens, which she calls the Oankali, in Dawn, Book One of her Xenogenesis Trilogy masterfully weaves together the themes of xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and social hierarchy in a book that is deceptively easy to read. Tackling dark themes sometimes opens a writer up to criticism for being too political. It can also alienate those who might not agree with the author’s opinion. Butler manages to weave the heavy and disquieting themes of xenophobia and slavery into a novel in a way that creeps into the mind.

To read more, click the title above… my continue reading button is malfunctioning for this post for some reason!

In Dawn, Butler holds a mirror up to humanity and disguises it in tentacles. She uses the Oankali as an allegory for humanity’s behavior towards “others,” whether those others are culturally different, racially different, gendered differently, or even just a different species. Foreignness is wielded as both a bludgeon and a scalpel in Dawn. The picture painted is fascinating, its implication horrifying, and finally, clearly compares Oankali behavior and human behavior. In Dawn, humanity has all but completely wiped itself out with nuclear weapons, and the Oankali arrive to rescue the last vestiges of humanity from the poisoned earth. The species orbits earth in a giant spaceship, spending 250 years healing the planet and learning what it can from those humans that it has rescued and healed.

The Oankali generally keep the majority of humans in stasis, only awakening them to do to psychological tests on them. They study their biology while they sleep, healing them of cancers and other diseases, and they keep some humans, frequently war criminals and small children awake, letting them live among the Oankali on the ship. The goal is to repopulate the Earth with humans and Oankali together. The Oankali’s species survives by genetic diversification, called “divisions,” which recalls mitotic divisions. When humanity is ready to be restored to Earth, one third of the Oankali aboard the ship will go to Earth to oversee the reproduction of the Oankali-Human hybrids that will populate the Earth, and the other two thirds will travel on two separate ships in different directions, each taking both living humans and human “prints” with them.

The integration of the Oankali into human daily life, and more eerily, into human sexual reproduction, is not a smooth process. Humanity is terrified of the very “other” Oankali, which have no ears, noses or eyes and instead are covered entirely in gray, wormlike tentacles. The Oankali, in their own perception, are a peaceful species that “trades” with other species and sustains itself through genetic diversification. Although they are peaceful in the sense that they do not wantonly murder humans, they do enslave them. All of humanity is essentially at the mercy of the Oankali and are treated almost as humanity treats endangered species on Earth. Humans are held captive, their population artificially increased through breeding and cloning techniques, and they are studied for the potential genetic enhancements they can bring to the Oankali.

The questionable nature in which the Oankali manipulate humans into sexual encounters aside, the most unsettling aspect of the novel is how easy it is to draw parallels between the Oankali and the Humans.

“Is it an unclean thing that I have made you pregnant?”

She did not understand the words at first. It was as though it had begun speaking a language she didn’t know.

“You … what?”

“I have made you pregnant with Joseph’s child. I wouldn’t have done it so soon, but I wanted to use his see, not a print. I could not make you closely enough related to a child mixed from a print. And there’s a limit to how long I can keep sperm alive.”

She was staring at it, speechless. It was speaking as casually as though discussing the weather. She got up, would have backed away from it, but it caught her by both wrists.

She made a violent effort to break away, realized at once that she could not break its grip. “You said—“ She ran out of breath and had to start again. “You said you wouldn’t do this. You said—“

“I said not until you were ready.”

“I’m not ready! I’ll never be ready!”

“You’re ready now to have Joseph’s child. Joseph’s daughter.”

“… daughter?”

“I mixed a girl to be a companion for you. You’ve been very lonely.”

“Thanks to you.”

“Yes. But a daughter will be a companion for a long time.”

“It won’t be a daughter.” She pulled again at her arms, but it would not let her go. “It will be a thing—not human.” She stared down at her own body in horror. “It’s inside me, and it isn’t human!”

Nikanj drew her closer, looped a sensory arm around her throat. She thought it would inject something into her and make her lose consciousness. She waited almost eagerly for the darkness.

But Nikanj only drew her down to the log bench again. “You’ll have a daughter,” it said. “And you are ready to be her mother. You could never have said so. Just as Joseph could never have invited me into his bed—no matter how much he wanted me there. Nothing about you but your words reject this child.”

Butler, Dawn, pages 245-6.

In the relatively compact foregoing passage, the tenderness that Nikanj clearly holds for Lilith (the human woman who it has made pregnant) contrasts sharply with the overwhelming fact that Lilith has no choice in her current state. She has been made pregnant without her consent or awareness, and the feelings behind the actions taken by Nikanj cannot change the reality that she is powerless against the Oankali, her feelings aside. The reader also sees Lilith’s conflicting emotions. She seeks the control is some ways. She seeks to succumb to chemical sedation. The mutual care that the two characters hold for each other does not change the power structure between them. It is almost as if Lilith is a pet to Nikanj. There is real affection, but Lilith and Nikanj are not equals in Nikanj’s mind. Nikanj decides whether Lilith has a child. Nikanj decides what that child looks like, its gender, its “mix.” The themes in Dawn are complex, but Butler weaves them skillfully into every interaction between the Oankali and the Humans.

Lilith is terrified that her baby will not be human, but she is also dependent upon Nikanj for everything. Lilith cares for Nikanj, but she is still xenophobic about bearing a part-Oankali child. Nikanj likewise cares for Lilith, but he still enslaves her. The warped mutuality of their relationship is deeply discordant. The reader cannot fully stand behind humanity’s actions and feelings, because Butler does not pull punches when writing about how Humans behave. There is nothing altruistic about Lilith or the other Humans. Alternately, it is hard to stand behind the Oankali’s actions, as these actions directly contradict the deeply ingrained desire for personal freedom the exercise free will.

Butler skillfully accomplishes the major undertaking of weaving these complex themes into simple interactions and clearly written, clean prose. Each side of the argument resonates, but it is hard to adopt an “us verses them mentality.” Butler has intricately drawn both cultures, mirroring their good and bad qualities, and the expanse between is filled with a massive gray area between humanity and its reflection.

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