250 years after the complete (nuclear) destruction of Earth and the human race. Any surviving humans were rescued by the Oankali, an alien race. The Oankali have kept them in stasis while they were studying them and started to heal the Earth, but now Lilith is among the first humans to be Awoken. The Oankali take her into one of their families and try to explain their mission: to ensure both the existence of the Oankali and the humans, they want to start to crossbreed – or trade, as the call it. Lilith is not convinced, but doesn’t really see any other options.
Dawn is very well written and fascinating. The Oankali are an interesting alien race and even though I didn’t always see eye to eye with Lilith (and generally had a few issues), she’s a great character. In short, it’s a book you can get a lot out of.
The world-building (or better, alien-race-building) in this book is awesome. The Oankali are fascinating, starting with their looks, but also the general outlook they have, the three sexes (male, female, ooloi), their genetic engineering… In short the way Butler shaped an entire society that fits together perfectly is absolutely brilliant.
And Lilith is a great heroine as well. I liked her a lot, though I didn’t always get her hang-ups (though just because I don’t share her hang-ups doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have an argument). For example, when she can’t even look at the first Oankali she encounters because it looks so freakish and that lasts for days I thought it was a bit much. She communicates with him (in English), so you’d think that she’d get over his appearance a little quicker. I also couldn’t quite understand why she’d be so freaked about the whole cross-breed idea. I mean, I get that cross-breeding with an alien race might not be on your Top 10 Things to Do Before You Get Old. But the humans are basically already extinct, apart from a few measly survivors. Mixing some strange genes into the pool so that at least some of humanity survives seems not the worst survival strategy in the long run, even if that means that there are no “pure” humans anymore. Plus, she doesn’t mind to sleep with them, which would probably be the part I personally would worry more about. That and the forced sterility – that just really isn’t okay.
Speaking of sex: [SPOILER] I have to admit that how sex between Nikanj and Joseph (and Lilith) was handled, I was really uncomfortable with. The first time, Nikanj actually rapes Joseph (so that he knows what sex with an ooloi is like), which, you know, alien moral standards and such… Nikanj doesn’t see it as rape, fine by me. (The same, btw, goes for Lilith’s forced pregnancy on the end.) That Lilith – who was almost raped herself – doesn’t object, but joins them, is less forgivable. And then the second time, when Nikanj gives Joseph a choice because now he knows what its like and Joseph explicitly says “no” and Nikanj tells him, “but your body says yes” and goes ahead anyway and Lilith watches with interest how an Oankali “seduces” somebody, I just wanted to slap them all. [/SPOILER] Those were the only times where I really called Lilith’s judgement into question and didn’t like her.
I also found it a little weird to read this in a book by a feminist like Octavia Butler. Like the general “men are aggressive and violent” rhetoric that got a bit much for me as well.
But even when I don’t agree with everything, I found Dawn to be always engaging, intelligent and thoughtful and I’m looking forward to reading the other two books.
Summarising: Good reading.