Dawn, the first in Lilith’s Brood or Xenogenesis trilogy, is excellent Afrofuturism. It’s also Octavia Butler at her best. Although published in 1979, Butler envisions a future for the Earth that’s not just possible but probable. And amid the futuristic story, she writes about top-of-mind topics in our century.
We follow the story of Lilith Iyapo, a woman of color who survives a nuclear holocaust on Earth. She’s being kept alive on a massive spaceship by the Oankali. And they need her help to execute their plans for repopulating the earth. And she needs their help to survive the cataclysm. It’s a delicate and symbiotic balance, with an edge of danger always nearby.
Butler teaches her readers through Lilith’s experiences. This book made me examine what it means to be human and how another race of beings might see us. Lilith faces more than one crisis that’s so intense that it feels existential. Not only is her life at stake, but she also begins to wield power. And power always holds a darker side, especially when human behavior is involved.
I love Butler’s blend of groundbreaking ideas and philosophical mindset. She writes about the Oankali as if she knows them intimately, including their nonbinary genders. The descriptions of the ship on which most of the story takes place are vivid and imaginative. But at the heart of Dawn is Lilith, and perhaps she holds clues to how Butler imagines she’d behave in a similar situation.
Working my way slowly through Butler’s work is both rewarding and frustrating. Every book makes me want to stop the world and dive into her imaginative work. And yet, I’m also sad she’s not here to continue adding to her stories. Pair this with the rest of the trilogy or other works by Butler.
If you’re interested in knowing more about her life and work, this interactive article from New York Times is a beautiful summary. Sadly, it’s also behind a paywall.