Dawn (Xenogenesis #1), Octavia Butler. New York: Popular Library (Warner Books), 1988 (publisher link is to a different, in print, edition).
Summary: Lilith is chosen to lead a handful of humans preserved after a thermonuclear war by an alien race but faces difficult choices when she realizes the price she and her people must pay for their survival.
She remembers periods of wakefulness, a strange interior, a voice questioning her, bland tasteless food, and then sleep. After she is awakened again, she finds a scar on her abdomen. Slowly it comes back. Husband and son killed in an auto accident. A then the war. The destruction of nearly all life on earth. The cold of nuclear winter.
Lilith discovers she has survived because she was taken by an alien race, the Oankali, aboard their ship, orbiting outside the moon’s orbit. Centuries have passed during which she was in suspended animation in pod-like organic containers that sustained her life. The Oankali are creatures covered with tentacles and her first challenge is to become comfortable being in their presence, a hideous sight at first for humans. Jdaya is the creature’s name. He tells her that she has been asleep apart from the brief periods of wakefulness for 250 years while Earth has been healed by his people. She has been healed as well from a cancer that they treated by altering her body to reabsorb it while they gained the knowledge of cancer, calling it “beautiful.”
As she becomes acculturated into the Oankali, she learns that their intention is that she lead a colony of humans back to earth to re-settle the planet. There is a price. The Oankali are traders, not of commodities, but themselves. As they cross the galaxy, they trade something of their genetic substance for the peoples they encounter. They will do this with Lilith and her people–no choice is given.
Eventually, she is matched up with a different Oankali, of a third gender, Ooloi, neither male nor female, and referred to as “it.” “Its” name is Nikanj, and it is a young member of the species, and part of her task is to accompany “it” as it sexually matures, leading to a bonding between them. She also is tasked with choosing and awakening the first group of settlers to be trained to go to earth.
And this is where it gets interesting. The awakened learn from but become suspicious of Lilith, because of “enhancements” that have already altered her. The awakened pair off and each is joined with an Ooloi in what turns out to be a highly pleasurable human-alien “three way,” But resistance grows both to the Oankali and to Lilith, dangerous resistance. She is faced both with danger and the dilemma of a better understanding the true situation of the control the Oankali hold, trying to make the group understand their only options to have a chance at freedom on their own planet. Meanwhile, she must wrestle with the bond that has formed between her and Nikanj, and her unwillingness to be part of any “trade” resulting in offspring even a little less human.
Butler takes the human-alien encounter in a fascinating direction, exploring and enlarging the range of emotions and experiences that might come with this. What kind of “intercourse” (in all the senses of the word) can happen, and is the price of giving something essentially human away one that should be accepted?
Furthermore, Butler explores the human psyche, and the tension between intelligence and distrust of hierarchies that exist among us. We both look to leaders and try to cut the legs out from under them. Can people shaped with this outlook, no matter how “enhanced” they may be, return to Eden and create a new civilization?
This is the first of three books in the Xenogenesis series, followed by Adulthood Rites and Imago. I look forward to seeing how all this plays out.