Review: Dawn, by Octavia Butler

My rating: **** out of 5 stars.

It’s difficult to decide on a numerical rating for a book when you aren’t certain what you were supposed to feel about it. Have no doubt, Octavia Butler’s Dawn, the first volume of the re-titled Lilith’s Brood trilogy is a well-written piece of science fiction. Most who have read it would place it among the classics of sci-fi, and I wouldn’t argue with them based on how it was plotted and crafted. My problem is with the main characters.

You see, I hated all of them.

That by itself would normally send me permanently out of the book, were I not trying to learn something specific from the author. In this case, however, I suspect that maybe I was supposed to hate them all. Without spoiling the plot for those who haven’t read the books, Lilith, the protagonist, is among the few remaining humans who have been captured (they would say rescued) by the alien Oankali following a devastating nuclear war. Earth is effectively incapable of sustaining life, but the Oankali have decided to save the remaining human population. The catch is that the aliens only deal in what they call a trade: they will repopulate the Earth, but only doing so via a merging of their tentacle-creature DNA with humans.

The Oankali are immediately grotesque to Lilith, which is made clear via a bit of exaggerated prose showing the human’s fear and loathing. Eventually, however, she comes to trust at least one of them, Nikanj, with whom she forms a bond that includes what we are told is the alien’s form of sex. The problem is that Nikanj is never remotely likeable. His and his kind’s form of bonding is essentially chemical coercion combined with the humans’ having developed Stockholm Syndrome. Lilith is complicit and though the book reads as though we are supposed to be rooting for her and not those who oppose or want to harm her, I found myself agreeing with them at every point.

Now, were I to stop there, I would call this masterful. We see the story from her perspective, and though we try, we can’t love or agree with her. We are given the others’ viewpoints and embrace them. Except the others are horrid. One tries to rape Lilith. Others try to rape other females. So, I hate them even more than I hate her, but less than I hate the Oankali.

This is a book with no one to root for. I finished it and admired her ability to tell the story, but in this case, the kindly (slave Massa) Nikanj is odious, and Lilith, playing Uncle Tom with no Cabin, is just as odious. Given the author’s cleverness, I have to assume that is what we are meant to leave with–that survival requires us to make bedfellows that leave no heroes in the end.

It is a clever device, I suppose. However, I knew well that lesson before I began the book. And make no mistake; I didn’t like the book, not one little bit. I hated all of the characters, and though I started book 2, I hated those characters even more. I gave up on it. Perhaps I’ll try book 3.

Maybe I wouldn’t have liked Ms. Butler in person. Maybe too much of the author is in the book. Or, maybe she was a bloody genius, and I was supposed to feel exactly what she made me feel.

With that expectation in hand, I gave the book 4.0 stars. But I don’t have to like it.

4.0 out of 5.0 stars, but not a book I’d recommend to non-pessimists.