Celebrating Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn

octavia buter copyright andrew porter

In 1987, Octavia E. Butler shocked the literary community with her novel Dawn, the epic story of Lilith Iyapo, one of the few human survivors after a nuclear war on Earth. Rescued by an intelligent alien species, the Oankali, she was kept for centuries in a kind of suspended animation, while the Oankali rebuilt Earth. The Oankali are highly intelligent, sensitive, and powerful beings, tremendously different from humans in almost every way. But in order to maintain their genetic diversity, they must breed with other life forms. In their quest to preserve themselves, they travel the galaxy to find and enlist other races.

When Earth is deemed habitable again, Lilith’s tentacled captors/rescuers finally awaken her and introduce her to Oankani society, as a leader of a new human/Oankali colony. Lilith and other humans will be forced to breed with the alien species, or die. This choice only becomes more difficult when she is manipulated into awakening and training forty confused and angry humans to prepare them for Earth. Her fellow colonists immediately see her as a traitor to the human species. Her loyalties are divided: She wants to return to Earth, and to be accepted by her own species, but she has come to respect some of the Oankali. The humans are bitter, violent, and cruel, but the Oankali can be arrogant, careless about human feelings, and inconsiderate of human rights.

Dawn goes far beyond an adventure tale of alien abduction—like all of Butler’s work, it deals with challenging, timely social issues. Through the prism of the Oankali, the book investigates slavery, gender, reproductive rights, unconventional families, homosexuality, colonialism, and human rights—all wrapped into a compelling story of Lilith’s struggle for independence. Dawn became the first installment of a trilogy.

Butler’s science fiction helped open the sci-fi genre to women writers and more diverse authors. Her books have also inspired readers and writers outside the science fiction and fantasy worlds.

For example, Junot Díaz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, considers Butler his personal hero, and “a master of all seasons.”

To celebrate Dawn, as well as the rest of the trilogy, Open Road has created a mini-documentary, in which author N. K. Jeminsin discusses the novel’s lasting importance.

Image: Octavia Butler signing Dawn (1987). Photo by and copyright © Andrew Porter