If you look over into our sidebar where we keep track of the genres we read at Shelf Love, you’ll notice that Teresa and I read a fair bit of what we call “speculative fiction.” That forgiving term includes a lot. It can mean everything from Tolkien to Connie Willis to Jo Walton to Stephen King to Isabelle Allende — anything that takes place in another world, or goes bump in the night, or gives a sideways look at what this world would be like, if only.
What we don’t read much of around here is real science fiction (none since November 2009 unless you count Slaughterhouse Five.) I feel hesitant to read it, not because I don’t like it, but because so much of it is crummy, more attention paid to the logistics than to the writing or the people or the way the story works . But Sturgeon’s Law is true of every genre. Why not seek out the best here, too?
And Octavia Butler is some of the best. I’ve read two other novels of hers, ones that are not strictly science fiction (Fledgling, that deals with sort-of vampires, and Kindred, that deals with time travel), and found them terrific. Dawn is the first of her trilogy called Lilith’s Brood. The premise is that human beings have brought themselves to the brink of extinction on Earth (how is not made clear), and the Oankali, a friendly but gruesomely tentacular race, have stepped in to help. Lilith Iyapo is chosen to help the other surviving humans understand: the Oankali want to make a genetic swap, to hybridize themselves with humans. They are a race of genetic traders, and this is the non-negotiable deal.
Lilith moves from sheer terror and rage to understanding, even if she never likes the situation she’s in. The writing reflects her emotional state, going from short, flat sentences to longer, complex paragraphs as she’s able to think her way through relationships with the Oankali as well as with the people she awakens into a nearly-unfathomable situation. (Her physical situation reflects this complexity, as well. In the early days, she’s given only bland foods, and cannot speak the Oankali language, like a baby; later, she’s given delicious fruits and nuts and sauces, and her brain is slightly altered so that she can both speak and understand the language.)
Butler does a wonderful job of describing the Oankali and their ship without ever weighing down the prose or depending too much on her world-building to carry the plot. Lilith is someone who is in the most foreign culture you can imagine, as if you were kidnapped and taken to… where? Where is foreign to you? Inner Mongolia, maybe, for me, only a thousand times more so; Inner Mongolians are people. Anyway, she’s there against her will, but she’s trying hard to understand everything she can, for her advantage and for her people. Still, she can’t help making relationships with the Oankali, too. It’s alien and fascinating and repellent, all at the same time.
What makes this book more interesting than a mere story about Lilith and the Oankali is what Butler is talking about, but never says aloud. The Oankali have come to this warring, vicious “tribe,” to rescue them from themselves, and bring them the gifts of civilization: peace (maybe), a restored ecosytem, and genetic gifts. But we, the tribe, will be inevitably and totally changed by those gifts. How? We don’t know. For the better? Maybe. Will we still be ourselves if we allow the change? What makes us into ourselves? Our culture? That’s gone anyway. Our memories? Mostly gone. Our language, our food? Untenable. Our genes? That’s all that’s left. Do we prefer total destruction to hybridization? Do we have a choice? Butler is talking about slavery and mastery, here, about hegemony and colonization, and she’s doing it so quietly, so subtly, that you could read the entire book and never notice.
The writing in this book is middling to quite good. It’s not John Crowley; it’s not going to blow you out of your socks. But it will grab you, I promise. You’ll care about the characters. And (note to Other Jenny here) it’s got plot coming out its pockets, plot given away on street corners, plot for free! I am really looking forward to reading the sequels. Try it! Try Octavia Butler, even if you think science fiction isn’t your thing. This might really be your thing.