“Dawn” by Octavia E. Butler

Summer Reading

Octavia Butler’s Dawn, the first in her Xenogenesis trilogy, is a strange novel. Like all good science fiction, however, it leverages that strangeness as an opportunity to explore fundamental questions about what it means to be human and how humanity responds to an uncertain future. Lilith Iyapo, one of the only survivors of a nuclear apocalypse on Earth, has been “rescued” by the Oankali aliens. Yet from the moment of her reawakening, Lilith questions the narrative of her alien saviors, asking what price must be paid for their generosity, pointing out that the refuge they offer is more akin to a prison cell, and that the “trade” they request–to mix genetically with humans–is a form of forced assimilation. Lilith is both intrigued by and uneasy with the Oankali, perhaps mirroring an uneasy ambivalence that the novel provokes in many of its readers. Written by a visionary Black feminist author, the novel is especially interested in questions about consent, autonomy, gender, agency, and free will in a world that feels little need to regard the primacy of such issues. But it offers neither Lilith nor the reader any easy answers.

Dawn is a challenging book. Published in 1987, and acting in part as a meditation on the threats of U.S.-U.S.S.R. competition, the novel examines the costs of maintaining hierarchies. In the process, Butler evokes histories of colonialism, racism, and imperialism, raising questions that are as much about the past and present as about the future. In a time of great precarity, when the decisions we make today will either prevent or accelerate ecological disaster in the near future, the novel’s challenge is prescient. Like Lilith, we are at a crossroads, and by discussing and debating her choices, we might be able to see the choices that we face with greater clarity.

Content Warning

Dawn contains both references to and scenes that feature sexual assault. Lilith and other characters repeatedly emphasize the importance of consent, a subject that seems irrelevant to the Oankali. Octavia Butler did not shy away from these issues; rather, she felt a need to address them directly. We want to highlight pages 105-106, 179-181, and 208-216 in particular as containing sensitive content. In addition, Dawn presents a critique of masculinity and heteronormativity; as it does so, it includes characters who hold to heteronormative views, and a derogatory slur, reported second-hand and related to homosexuality, is referenced on page 179. Lilith also contemplates suicide (p. 46) instead of remaining a captive of the Oankali. If you have concerns or questions, please reach out to Studio Coordinator Chris McVey at cmcvey@bu.edu.

Summer Book Club

Studio instructors would like to offer an optional opportunity for students to share their thoughts on the novel in a summer book club meeting on Zoom on Tuesday, August 15th, from 4-5:30pm EST. We’ll facilitate an informal and open conversation about the novel, focusing especially on questions 2-6 as noted above. All students are welcome to attend.