Octavia Butler’s stories are known for showing parallels between humanity’s history of violence and the dynamics of the alien societies she depicts.
Picture the worst possible scenario for humanity. Imagine that the current political conflicts that we read about in the news escalate even more and nuclear war begins. Then, a nuclear holocaust happens, and we all die. But that’s not the end. Hundreds of years pass, you wake up to discover that you were rescued, or captured, by strange creatures. You’re not sure which term describes your situation. You don’t know if you’re being saved from death or if your captors are prolonging your life in a way that will make you miss being dead. You’re already tense about the whole thing, mainly because your alien rescuers/captors have tentacles. But then they tell you that you have to have sex with them to stay alive. What do you do?
This situation happens to Lilith Iyapo, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Dawn. The humanoid aliens that capture her are the Oankali, “gene traders” that need to breed with other forms of life to gain the genetic diversity to adapt, change, and survive. Throughout the book, Lilith gets caught between her identity as a human and the complex relationship she develops with the Oankali after they keep her in solitary confinement for years and she discovers that they destroyed the last remains of human society.
Octavia Butler’s stories are known for showing parallels between humanity’s history of violence and enslavement and the dynamics of the alien societies she depicts. Pulling inspiration from our history, it would be easy to create villains and caricatures of evil, but Butler took the harder, more complex road, and wrote stories that observe human behavior with compassion. There are no good or bad characters in this novel. It’s not easy for us, as readers, to decide whether Lilith’s choices are right or wrong. We can only witness her situation with perplexity.
Would you do that same in the face of such a decision? The Oankali and the humans have to forcibly breed and produce many children to repopulate Earth. As we read the novel, we understand that Lilith doesn’t really have a choice. She accepts the fact that her children will have tentacles and that humanity’s future will be very different from what she used to know in her previous life. So how does sex work under these circumstances? And what does it say about our ideas surrounding sexuality and relationships?
Butler describes human-Oankali sex as super-orgasmic, but its purpose is not pleasure, only reproduction. Even though real consent is out of the question, Lilith feels a real bond with one of the Oankali. How is intimacy possible in such an oppressive environment? How does she come to terms with these contradictory feelings? Her situation is extreme, but we can all relate to the idea of negative and positive feelings living together in one mind.
Butler answers these questions through the Oankali’s opinion of humans: they find the combination of high intelligence and self-destructive tendencies monstrous and hard to understand. But the reality is that such contradictions aren’t monstrous at all, they’re only human.