Dawn by Octavia Butler

This post was developed and authored by Christina Katopodis, Ph.D.

Core Text

Octavia Butler, Dawn (Xenogenesis, Bk. 1). Warner Books, 1987.

Summary

Lilith Iyapo wakes up in a spaceship orbiting Earth to find out that humans have destroyed the world and made it unlivable and an alien species, the Oankali, have saved the few humans who survived the war. Lilith is charged with waking her fellow humans to establish a new Oankali-Human society on Earth.

Teaching Resources

  • Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University Minnesota Press, 2018. This text is available to read online in Manifold, so it is easily accessible to students. Yusoff’s interdisciplinary approach draws from climate change, colonialism, and slavery to bring Black feminist theory and geology into conversation to contextualize the politics of the Anthropocene in terms of race, materialism, and deep time.
  • Stephanie LeMenager, “To Get Ready for Climate Change Read Octavia Butler,Electra Street, November 2017. In this article, LeMenager details Butler’s vision of the future where climate change and capitalism collide in her books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. For those who have read Dawn but not Butler’s other work, this article could be a good entry point to get a sense of Butler’s oeuvre and help raise questions and connections between climate change and events that take place in (and before) the time of the novel.
  • Andrew Plisner, “Arboreal dialogics: an ecocritical exploration of Octavia Butler’s Dawn,” African Identities, vol. 7, no. 2, 2009, pp. 145-159. In this article Plisner argues for a “hybrid African Diasporic/ecocritical assessment of Butler’s Dawn … The first section syntactically critiques the book’s – and trilogy’s – title(s), and how they relate to notions of hegemony. The second section mediates self-identity in relation to social and ecological environments, particularly corporeal invasion and colonial subjectivities. Finally, the third section highlights the Afro-Diasporic voice represented in Dawn and its relation to cultural memories. Through these topics, the author not only explores ecological dialogics presented by Butler, but also intersections between gender, culture, society and nature – transcending traditional binaries in order to present a heteroglossia of ecocritical critiques.”
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, “Introduction,” in The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace Books, 1969): xiii-xix. In this Introduction to her novel, Le Guin challenges us to think about science fiction as not predictive but descriptive of what already is. Le Guin’s perspective on sci-fi literature provides us an entry point for thinking about Dawn as drawing from things already happening in the world (e.g., genetic modification, in vitro fertilization). This could open a conversation with students about non-heteronormative relationships, third gender identities in various cultures such as pre-Victorian Japanese culture, some First Nation societies, and more.

Discussion Questions

  • Octavia Butler’s Dawn is often regarded as offering a positive, Afro-futurist imagining of climate collapse and apocalypse because the novel imagines human survival and Black survival post-apocalypse, but survival comes with the price of losing control, and losing consent. Do you think the novel envisions a positive future for humanity? How does lost control and lost consent complicate this future?
  • In Le Guin’s “Introduction” to The Left Hand of Darkness, she writes, “In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it” (xviii). What do you think she means by this? Was there a moment in reading Butler’s Dawn that felt like this for you?
  • In Dawn, Butler introduces us to three-creature relationships and a third gender. The novel focuses especially on the transition of Nikanj. Where, on present day Earth, do we find examples of Nikanj? Of non-heteronormative relationships? Of non-binary or third genders? What do you find new, freeing, complicating, or limited about gender, love, and sex in Butler’s novel?
  • Le Guin, in her Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, writes: “I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are [androgynous]. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing” (xviii). How might Butler’s third gender or Nikanj’s transition influence how we think of gender and sex in society today?

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