Friday, 19 December 2014

Dawn by Octavia Butler

This is the book that finally convinced me to get off my ass and find pictures of book covers for each post. There's a reason.

This is Octavia Butler:

This is the cover of Dawn as I got it out from the library:

Now, there's no reason why Octavia Butler might not have written a book with a white main character, but still, it made me do a double-take. Particularly when I thought I'd seen a more recent cover for the book with a Black woman on the cover. Oh wait, there it is:

I tried to reserve judgment, but paid particular attention to the main character, Lilith, and how she was described. It's not mentioned often, and it's subtle, but she's Black. Yeah, the cover from 1987 shows her as white. That's unmistakeably a scene from the book, sexed up a bit, but there Lilith is, white as white can be. At least she has dark hair.


Oh, science fiction. Stop freaking out about having to have icky women or scary non-white people or god forbid, sexualities and gender identities other than straight and cisgendered in your playground. This is fucking science fiction, people. The literature of fucking possibilities.

I'd like to think we'd gotten better than this, but the blow-ups in the science fiction world of the last couple of years make me want to weep. And keep reading those authors who actually push the boundaries instead of manning the fences to keep science fiction their own private preserve.

This cover made me depressed, but it's not like it isn't something that's still going on.

Okay, enough about my issues with the cover. What about the book within? It's a challenging one, in the very best way. It's only my second venture into Octavia Butler's canon, and I'm delighted to be back, after The Parable of the Sower knocked me off my ass a few years ago. And I should be reading all three in this particular trilogy in fairly short order, as they were books my science fiction group picked as the first read in our Women Science Fiction Authors Group Reads. I'm a bit behind, as we've now moved on to Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey trilogy.

The world has ended. Probably in nuclear fire. A few survivors are still around, far from the epicenters. Although most of them, or at least the ones Lilith chooses to awaken, seem to have been from the First World, and Westerners, who were caught vacationing or teaching or something far from the prime targets.

Lilith awakens in a blank room, to blank-sounding questions. Eventually, she finds out she's on a spaceship - or at least, that's what she's told, and this will be more or less difficult for her and the other Awakenees to accept. The Oankali are a race of gene traders. For most races in their death throes, the Oankali would leave them to their suicide, but they decide humans might be salvageable. For a price. That price being, their genes, to mix with the Oankali and make something new and different. This is something the Oankali do everywhere, but humans are given no real choice in the matter, so it's not really trading in this instance.

They'll return humans to Earth, where they will bear children that are part human and part Oankali. Some Oankali will stay with them. Some humans will be sent with the Oankali who leave.

And the Oankali have three sexes. Procreation, and indeed, sexual pleasure, only happen through the intermediary sex, the ooloi, who control their genes on a very high level, where male and female Oankali do not. The society Butler creates is fascinating, and it's even more fascinating because we're seeing it from the perspective of humans who have no real reason to believe the Oankali. It does seem a bit hinky, and the ooloi version of consent is troubling. It's supposed to be.

By the end of the first book, I both am intrigued by the Oankali, and worried about their motives. We'll see how it plays out over future books. One quibble is that there are no human characters who accept the Oankali proposal. Every single one is planning on doing a runner when they reach Earth. In fact, the Oankali know this - that's why the ooloi have made them sterile without ooloi intervention. Humans have no control left over their own bodies, but I still think there would be at least one collaborator.

It's not a mistake that it's the men that have the most trouble accepting this lack of control over their own procreation - the women don't like it, but there's definitely a hint of resignation. Is it really that much different from what they've experienced? It's a level of control more, but it's not like they aren't used to their bodies being used as pawns in the battle over who gives birth when and how.

The other humans around Lilith, when they're Awoken (she is awoken first, and then given the job of being the human intermediary), form a predictable playground hierarchy. It's that hierarchy that the Oankali say is their racial flaw to begin with, and one that the ooloi will breed out. It's that hierarchy that led to nuclear war. It's that hierarchy that leads to attempted rape, and successful murder. It's hard to argue that it's a good thing.

That's just it. There are no good guys in this. There are sympathetic individuals, but there is so much of people trying to control other people. The Oankali say they don't have hierarchies, yet they have complete control over the reproduction of others, and wield it ruthlessly. Humans fall into predictable patterns. It's not a hopeful book.

We'll see where she goes from here. I hope the other covers aren't as annoying, but what's within them is fascinating.

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