Review: “Dawn” by Octavia Butler

As a lifelong sci-fi geek, I thought I’d seen every variant of alien contact narrative the genre had to offer, from the invasion epics to the misadventures of benign visitors to thinly veiled social allegories. Even the enjoyable ones often rely on predictable tropes. But Dawn, the first installment in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, captivated me from the first pages with a vision unlike any other I’ve encountered.

Lilith Ayapo awakens to discover the final world war ended centuries ago…and the human race along with it. She’s survived as a specimen on board an extraterrestrial ship. Her captors, the equanimous Oankali, call themselves traders, and their wares are their genes. They blend their DNA with that of other species they encounter, conferring advantages like improved health and longevity while propagating their own traits.

With Lilith as their ambassador to the others they rescued, the Oankali plan to reintroduce homo sapiens to Earth. Lilith doesn’t completely trust her new acquaintances, but learns to interact with them as an individual. When she begins awakening other humans, however, dangerous group dynamics take hold. Not everyone is willing to accept the aliens, or their plan to alter the future of humankind.

Although the plot is largely unadorned with twists and turns, Butler’s mastery of human psychology creates absorbing drama. Lilith is an empathetic heroine with keen powers of observation. We share her initial revulsion at the Oankali, her evolving curiosity about their world, and her ruthless determination to prepare the other humans for a primitive lifestyle on Earth.

In some ways, Dawn is really a survival story, exploring the physical and emotional resilience of the nearly extinct human species. The inevitable question of biological humanity versus compassionate humanity becomes a bit heavy-handed towards the end, but it doesn’t detract from the narrative’s impact. Sci-fi fans will enjoy the introspective take on the first contact theme, while readers who might otherwise eschew a book about aliens will appreciate Butler’s quietly epic examination of the human spirit.

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