Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
First thing is first. Dawn, by Octavia Butler has one issue in that it sometimes over explains, labors too much on a point or returns to it again and again. In that, this book can sometimes be frustrating, slow, a bit of a slog, and so on.
However, these parts are sparse enough and the ideas and characterizations within it are powerful enough to make these dull bits easier to plow through.
So then, tell me, if the world were going to end, humanity about to exterminate itself, and you woke to find yourself saved, cured of a gene that would lead you to your own demise, by some alien race, and all that was asked was that you would be changed and be used for their purpose, how would you feel? Would you find this to be a fair trade? Would you rebel? Would you kill yourself, or struggle on, even if that meant the end of the human race as it was absorbed into another, jellyfish like race?
These are a few of the questions at the heart of this novel, the first in a series. When Lilith finds herself as the chosen leader of a group of humans, being trained and taught to do this, she must confront these questions. In this story, she is given so much, is even treated kindly, yet there is some insidious nature to it. As if her alien captors, despite their kindness, view her and humanity at large, as somehow lesser, as pets, as subhuman.
Even as they change her and give her more freedom they ignore her reluctance, telling her again and again that she will choose to obey their wishes. Even as she holds onto this reluctance she knows her only chance is the return to earth, where humankind may live or die by its own hand.
Naturally I cannot speak to Butler's intentions when writing this novel, I know little enough about her on the whole and, very tragically, she died young. However, what I really got from this novel is an exploration of what it feels like to be in a society where, perhaps you are not treated as we might classically associate as slaves being treated, but nonetheless, the characters are treated as slaves. As property, their autonomy denied in favor of a select gene.
Even Lilith's gain of freedom and power is just reward for being a good slave. She does as she is told and learns well. Even what love she might feel for one of her captors seems to be, on some level, a calculated necessity for survival.
It is apt then, that Butler choose a black woman to represent these experiences, to better convey the horror and dehumanization that goes hand in hand with being altered as greatly as she is. Indeed, this book is both unbelievably smart and intensely horrifying. A truly great read that everyone should take part in.
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