Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: Dawn

Dawn Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had Butler’s work on my radar for a long time, and I understand a lot of its appeal. She takes a lot of what works in classic science fiction (from the Arthur C. Clarke era) and crosses it with concerns about race and gender. There’s a lot to think about here, and it mostly works: Lilith is one of a small number of humans to survive a nuclear holocaust, and an alien race rescues and then selects her to lead a group of humans who will repopulate the earth.

I suspect the radical take on sexuality grabbed a lot of people when this came out almost a quarter century ago (yup – time flies). The alien race has three genders, males, females, and a third race that processes the genetic exchange during sexual reproduction. These aliens aren’t on earth for pure generosity, though; they want to exchange some genetic material with us to improve their species as well as ours. As a consequence, the first humans to be born in this new world will have five parents. Two humans and three aliens. That’s intriguing, and it raises a lot of social questions without seeming to force them on a story that can’t accommodate them.

On top of that, the aliens explain that we are a fatally flawed species. Our need for hierarchy, with all the conflict and eventual violence it promises, means we will never be able to leave our world and move onto the greater freedom of the stars. Maybe our new children, graced with some of the aliens’ genes, will overcome that and move on.

The radical idea I prefer, though, is the notion that these aliens have little interest in technology as we know it. Instead, they have a capacity for genetic modification that permits them to cause organic life to become its spaceships, suspended animation cells, and food producers. That’s a smaller part of the plot, but I think it’s even more radical and likely more distinctive.

So, the context here is terrific, as rich as anything I know of from that classic 1950s to early 1970s sci-fi era. But the plot…well, this is ultimately a fairly slow novel. Like a lot of the Clarke I’ve seen, this novel is so enamored with the ideas it brings into play (and, to be fair, for good reason) that its characters and actions seem to fade away. We know from an early point that Lilith is scheduled to be part of this new repopulation effort. And, at the risk of betraying a few spoilers, I’d say that’s more or less it.

Things do happen, but we spend a lot more time having one or another character filling us in on facts of this new and changed world. The ratio of lecture to movement is pretty high, and I found myself squirming in places. The ideas of this books haven’t aged, but the story structure has. Not enough happens to carry the weight of this interesting challenge to what we think we know.

I do recommend this in general, but I doubt I’ll go on to the rest of the trilogy. Instead, I have another of Butler’s novels queued up, and I’m looking forward to it in the coming months.

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