Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Spoiler-Free Book Review: "Dawn" by Octavia Butler

My reading project for 2014 is Speculative Fiction by Women of Color. To read more about this project, click here.

Even though I don't read a lot of sci-fi -- I'll take vampires, swords, and princesses over aliens and spaceships any day -- I couldn't start a project like this with anyone other than Octavia Butler. Whenever I Googled "Spec fic by women of color" or asked friends and family for recommendations, her name came up first and most often. And good reason: she's won just about every major award out there for her writing, including Hugos, Nebulas, a PEN Lifetime Achievement award, and a MacArthur Genius grant. Clearly, Ms Butler is not only a WOC sf writer, she's a damn good writer, period.

Part of the reason I'm doing this project - in fact, the biggest reason I'm doing it - is to demonstrate how fiction written by the "other" - any non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual, non-white, non-male - can be and usually is still universal. Not every author of color has to (wants to, or should) write about being a Person of Color. Not every woman writes about "feminine" topics. Some topics are universal, and science fiction, fantasy, and their subgenres are great places to explore that universality.

And Ms Butler's "Dawn," the first in her Xenogenesis/Lilith's Brood trilogy, masterfully exemplifies just that: the universality of themes like isolation, survival, and (quite literally) what it means to be human.

Lilith Iyapo Awakens in a strange room. As she comes fully Awake and her memories come back to her, we learn this is not the first time she's Awoken. She's been Awoken many times before, always in a different room, where she's questioned by unseen captors. She cannot leave any of her rooms, but she's not mistreated. Eventually, one of her captors comes into her room: an tentacled alien called an Oankali. As Lilith learns in the first few chapters, and we the readers along with her, the Oankali have "rescued" as many human survivors as they could from a nuclear holocaust that has devastated the Earth. For 250 years aboard their living spaceship, the Oankali have put humans into cryostasis and periodically Awoken them in order to ask questions, perform experiments to see how each individual reacts, and study them.

But, there is a price to the Oankali's saving of humanity: The Oankali consider themselves "traders" in genetics. They will rebuild humanity with certain Oankali modifications in order to spread their race to Earth -- whether the humans want them to or not.

None of this is a spoiler; all is found out in the first few chapters of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two thirds of the book, learning along with Lilith and discovering as she did the world of the Oankali. The pacing is good, the details unfolding in a natural rhythm.

My only complaint is the pacing of the last third of the book. There is a huge shift in time and events, and it felt too forced after the gradual revealing of the first two thirds. Whether this was done on purpose, to create in the readers the same sense of being overwhelmed that Lilith experiences in the story, I don't know. But it's a minor complaint for an otherwise near-perfect book.

After I read a few more books for my project, I'll almost certainly be returning to the Xenogenesis trilogy for books 2 ("Adulthood Rites") and 3 ("Imago").

Read my full GoodReads review of "Dawn" by Octavia Butler here.

Has anyone else read "Dawn?" What did you think?

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