Review: Dawn

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.

Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published 1993).

Summary: Lauren Olamina, whose life has been spent in a guarded enclave from a violent society, flees with two other survivors when it is destroyed, the core of an Earthseed community, the outgrowth of a religious vision.

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God is Change.

Lauren Olamina is a most unusual founder of a religion. Brought up by a Baptist father and distant stepmother trying to survive in dystopian southern California in a radically deteriorating United States, she is forced to take a hard look at the beliefs she embraces, around the core ideas that open this book quoted above. She also struggles with hyperempathy–when others are in pain, she feels it. And if she must use violence against another, she feels that as well–until the other dies.

Her father’s approach was to try to preserve his religious beliefs and some form of community within the walled cul-de-sac he and a collection of inter-married families live. Then her brother is brutally murdered and her father disappears. The fabric of society is shredding with social inequities, widespread poverty, and a particularly scary substance addiction called pyro or ‘ro, in which users are impelled to set fires engaging in the orgiastic destruction of property and people, followed by the looting of anything remaining of value. Lauren has been preparing, formulating ideas, learning about survival, and creating an emergency pack. She envisions creating resilient communities that not only survive this dystopia but spread humanity to the stars.

Yet even she is surprised when the pyromaniacs attack and destroy her enclave. She and two other barely survive, beginning a flight to who knows where and a fight to survive on the road. Slowly they gather others, more guns, and form a kind of community life around Lauren’s ideas. Bankole, a doctor who owns land up north occupied by relatives, offers a place of refuge. But will this rag tag group that includes escaped slaves (yes, there is slavery in this dystopia) and children, fend off murderers, maniacs, and fire?

Butler does not explain the reason for the deterioration of the social fabric of the country, apart from a prescient anticipation of global warming that leaves California drier, warmer, more prone to catastrophic fire (she wrote this in 1993). Yet there are suggestions that she is anticipating the outworking of the growing economic inequities in America that we see–debt slavery, a permanent underclass, growing substance abuse and violence.

It is unsettling to read this amid a pandemic, particularly where we see the rapid unraveling of an economy in literally days. While it seems resources are being mobilized to help those on the margins, it makes one pause to think what may happened if the illness or the economic factors lead to the exhaustion of resources and increasing hopelessness and desperation.

Butler portrays two contrasting responses. Lauren’s father tries to hang on to the old ways, creating an enclave in both mind and physical circumstances, building the walls spiritually and physically and setting guards to keep out those who would endanger their increasingly fragile lifestyle, while trusting in the protection of God.

Lauren believes that the only God is Change and that human beings are meant to be Change-makers, those who make God by their actions. She forms a community committed to each other believing that their actions, the changes they make as they set out on the road. Will self and mutual reliance be enough?

I find myself wondering if the dichotomy Butler offers is too simple. Are our only two choices enclaves and change-making? A more troubling question is how believing communities of any stripe exist when order breaks down and violence reigns. The use of violence in defense is the one thing both “communities” share in common in this story.

Perhaps the warning in this book is to act before social order breaks down. Most of us don’t think a breakdown of the social fabric similar to what is portrayed in this book can happen, and we become complacent toward rhetoric and economic structures that accentuate divides. Parable of the Sower, which occurs in 2024 in the United States is just too close to home not only in time and place and social conditions. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”