QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

Today we’ll start discussing our second trilogy for the summer: Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis, also published as Lilith’s Brood. (The first trilogy featured was Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder.) Even though there have been a variety of science fiction books with three- or more-gendered aliens before this novel, Dawn—originally published in 1987—is one of the most prominent works to feature this trope before the current wave of trans speculative fiction.

As human civilization works on destroying itself in yet another world war, humans come into contact with the Oankali: grayish humanoid aliens with sensory tentacles growing from their bodies. The Oankali stop the conflict and save humans from the devastated ruins of Earth—but what do they want in exchange? They are travelers, traders, genetic engineers whose technology is mostly biologically based. They can grow spaceships, and are able to manipulate the genetic material of other species as well as their own with their specialized organs. The Oankali choose Lilith Iyapo, a Black woman, to start awakening humans from protective sleep and to return them to a regenerated Earth—but not unchanged.

This first volume of the trilogy shows us Lilith’s perspective, from the first moment of her abduction where she is not even sure who has captured her. She soon comes into contact with an Oankali, Jdahya, and (once she is allowed greater freedom on the Oankali spaceship), Jdahya’s son Nikanj.

The Oankali have a social and gender structure which is entirely distinct from that of humans. They have three sexes: male, female, and ooloi. It is the ooloi who perform most of the genetic manipulation; also during reproduction, a male-female pair (usually siblings or close relatives) need an ooloi to avoid unfavorable traits that could stem from inbreeding. All reproduction is mediated by the ooloi, and the humans soon find themselves slotted into this structure too—in increasingly complicated ways. The trilogy traces the coexistence of humans and Oankali across multiple generations, but in the first volume, the focus is firmly on Lilith. She interacts both with the Oankali and the first generation of humans chosen to return to Earth.

The Oankali have an entirely different mindset from humans—something they often discuss. They consider humans fascinating and dangerous, because humans are both intelligent and hierarchical. Oankali are not hierarchical—at least so they claim—and they make decisions by mind-to-mind consensus. They also have a strong desire to get to know other lifeforms, and to heal suffering beings… even if said beings don’t necessarily want to be healed. Out of the three sexes, it is the ooloi in particular who have this drive to heal.

All this leads to a radical departure from classic alien-invasion stories in which the aliens win by superior firepower or weaponry. The Oankali do not use firearms, and though they possess advanced technology, it is biological and requires care, just as any other living being requires care. The Oankali are also friendly—sometimes eerily so. Yet, with all this in mind, they are still a colonizing power, operating with a colonizer’s mindset that is even more explicitly tackled in the following volumes.

The Oankali also do not understand metacommunication. They are shocked to find out that humans can say something and their body language might indicate something else. This leads to both sexual and nonsexual situations in which human consent is dubious at best or not given at all, and the kind of bloodcurdling ‘but you wanted it’ type of argument familiar from a million abusive situations. The Oankali are not shown to be morally superior, at all, even if they might believe themselves to be. Instead of physical violence, they are fond of manipulation. In the meanwhile, the humans… well, they bring their usual behaviors and practices, displaying both the good and the truly awful aspects of humanity.

Both aliens and humans are shown to be complex, difficult, and problematic, and their interactions are often as conceptually grating as gears grinding against each other. They also all struggle against their species characteristics, and the way their own biology restricts them—or the way they might use their biologies as an excuse for their behavior. It all reads as very contemporary even now, in a similar fashion to how Tiptree’s takes on biological determinism also read as being very much of the current moment.

The book has not aged well in one way, and this will be striking even to those who might be casually browsing through the novel: The ooloi have the pronoun “it” in English, and characters bemoan the lack of choices. In reality, “it” as a personal pronoun is generally considered an insult, though a small number of people do use it for themselves. This is one of those moments when the author was clearly not hostile; she thought about the choice and its implications—ooloi pronouns in other languages are discussed in later volumes—and simply other solutions have become acceptable since the book came out (and since Butler, of blessed memory, passed away). Besides the singular “they,” neopronouns existed at this time, but were used in SFF only five times in the years preceding Dawn that I know of.

This is also the point where Dawn managed to surprise me. This book has been an important read for me, and one I have repeatedly returned to over the years. (I wrote about this in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler.) I assumed that I would not find much novelty in it when I reread it for this column, but then something happened. This was my first reread since trans SFF really became big, and in that time I have done a lot of thinking about gender-related tropes in speculative work. One of the classic tropes related to aliens who do not fit into binary genders is that these types of stories generally do not show humans who don’t fit into binary genders, either. It’s only the aliens who get to be gender nonconforming in some way. I confess that I slotted Xenogenesis into this category in my mind—and thus my surprise was all the greater when I came upon the following passage, which I did not recall noticing previously. Upon introducing Tate, a major character throughout the trilogy, we read the following about her: “But in the end, the ooloi had admired her. It thought she was more like an ooloi than like a female.” (p. 123 in the Xenogenesis omnibus.) Rereading the trilogy with this detail in mind gave me a very different perspective.

In fact, both Lilith and Tate push against gender conformity and normative gender readings, in different ways. Lilith is read as a man by some of the other humans because of her physical strength, a result of Oankali intervention: “He sat down next to her. ‘She’s telling people you’re a man. She says only a man can fight that way.’” (p. 144) Throughout the books, Lilith and Tate have an uneasy, often antagonistic relationship, but neither of them is painted as the antagonist by the narrative. They have different motivations, and their choices stem from those differences and drive them apart. They are strong and capable—and they need to be, because the Oankali are masters of the rhetorical sleight of hand. By emphasizing that they themselves are (again, supposedly) non-hierarchical, they deflect discussions of the very obvious and blatant power imbalance between the two species.

Xenogenesis is similar to Butler’s other work in the sense that it engages with this aspect of power imbalance in great, chilling detail throughout the series, repeatedly subverting readers’ expectations and ever deepening its investigation of its own themes. It’s a truly unsettling read, and I feel like my review here barely scratches the surface of all the Whys and Hows involved. Butler doesn’t didactically support or criticize characters’ takes on their own situation—we readers are left to make up our minds, or to simply read on with a shifting mix of terror and curiosity…

The next time, we will discuss the second book in the trilogy, Adulthood Rites—a coming-of-age narrative (usually more typical of first books in a series).

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.


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