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Familiarity, Consent, and Symbiosis - Reflections on Dawn by Octavia Butler

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

Content Warning: This post contains references to sexual assault and violence.

Reading Dawn, I often found myself contemplating my emotional and mental responses to the text as I internally tried to articulate what made sense or felt right. But Octavia Butler’s storytelling consistently smears the boundaries of what we assume is right and, in doing so, asks why it is that we function on the epistemologies that we accept unquestioningly.

The story illustrates human reactions to an extraterrestrial species and, consequently, focuses on themes of identity and familiarity. When stripped of the social structures that guide humanity, similarity and difference become issues of survival. Lilith recognizes quickly that “the unknown” frightens her and she learns to adapt accordingly, unlike many of the other humans onboard the Oankali ship (18).

Part of what is so off-putting about the Oankali is that their appearance straddles the line of familiar and different, with both distinctly human and non-human characteristics. Lilith thinks to herself that Jdahya “could have been so much uglier than he was, so much less … human” (29). Beyond appearances, the biological and social qualities of the Oankali strike Lilith as bizarre and occasionally disturbing.

Communication, for example, is entirely dissimilar between these species. As Lilith states at one point, “I understand your words. Your meaning, though … it’s as alien to me as you are” (49). In particular, Lilith discovers that the Oankali rarely lie because their biological methods of communication make lying difficult (261). Instead, the Oankali withhold information when they want to. This continually frustrates Lilith because it reminds her that she is utterly helpless and cannot demand information (68).

Lilith experiences only a few interactions with other humans before becoming the parent for the first group. Consequently, she doesn’t have many opportunities to recognize why the Oankali choose her. Her experience with Paul Titus, however, clearly demonstrates the difference between Lilith and many of the other humans on the ship. She seems to have held onto the dignity of her humanity rather than a raw desire for survival and domination, fueled by anger and hatred for the unknown. When discussing the Ooloi in his family, Paul Titus stubbornly projects gender onto it, which Lilith sees as “a kind of deliberate, persistent ignorance” (100).

After Paul Titus brutally attacks and assaults Lilith, she blames the Oankali for Paul’s behavior, stating that, “He has no one to teach him to be a man” (113). His development as a social being was frozen in time, stuck somewhere between human and Oankali. He never adapted to the Oankali and clung to his memories without guidance or social pressure from other humans. The result being that he could never really belong in either place.

Lilith, however, “had learned to keep her sanity by accepting things as she found them, adapting herself to new circumstances by putting aside the old ones whose memories might overwhelm her” (146). Her approach appears to be the most healthy and balanced of any in the book, but it also makes her an easy target.

As she awakens the other humans, she is confronted with a reality that she had anticipated for a long time, “that she must struggle not against nonhuman aliens, but against her own kind” (164). By cooperating with the Oankali and allowing them to alter her genetics, she becomes different. And as Nikaj explains, “Different is threatening to most species. […] Different is dangerous. It might kill you” (206). Lilith was simply not human enough for many of the people who awoke on the ship (201)

This leads to another fascinating topic in the book, the idea of gender and sex. One of the first accusations made against Lilith is that she is not female, since she possesses too much strength to fit the other humans’ conceptions of femininity (162). This behavior resembles Paul Titus’ refusal to accept the Ooloi’s gender. Gender and sex are regular points of contention for the humans in Dawn, but there is also an interesting example where an Oankali also makes assumptions based on gender.

Kahguyaht tells Lilith that, “I didn’t want to accept you, Lilith. Not for Nikanj or for the work you’ll do. I believed that because of the way human genetics were expressed in culture, a human male should be chosen to parent the first group. I think now that I was wrong” (125). Kahguyaht accepted human social tendencies at face value, but later came to recognize the flaw in that. This is a different kind of ignorance than Paul Titus’ because it was acknowledges and accounts for its flaws.

Several strains of thought here relate to and can inform discussions about AI. Artificial Intelligence will likely always feel ‘alien’ to some extent and will consequently be met with fear. Even when people have been exposed to it for a great deal of time, they may be inclined to hold onto their biases and assumptions because familiarity is comforting. Suspicion can often be inspired by nostalgia and partial-memories.

As AI becomes more prevalent, communication will likely look different as well and may inspire confusion and distrust. We’ve already witnessed this with chatbots, for example. People who distrust unfamiliar entities, including AI, will treat ‘authentic human’ interactions as even more valuable and scarce. Ultimately, they are unlikely to recognize or value advances in communication or different expressions of intelligence simply because they are unfamiliar and therefore threatening.

There are two more ideas from Dawn that I want to address, the first being consent. This is a repeated theme throughout the book, for good reason. Like many aspects of Dawn, this topic feels uncomfortably blurry. Because the Oankali’s social and biological functions are different than our own, their approach to consent also differs. Yet, it is more often the humans whose actions blatantly violate consent.

At the beginning of the book Lilith is frightened by the fact that, “Even her flesh could be cut and stitched without her consent or knowledge” (11). She notices scars across her lower abdomen, which she is later told are there because she had cancer and they wanted to save her life. She could and arguably should have been asked for permission before they altered her body, but the Oankali often make decisions without verbal consent. One reason for why they do this is that they can supposedly predict or understand what a person truly wants or needs. In other words, they know better.

At the same time, however, when Lilith is allowed out of her room, Jdahya tells her that, “No one will touch you without your consent” (48). There seem to be inherent contradictions in the Oankali’s actions and they function almost like parents, giving their children the power of choice unless it goes against what the parents think is best for the child. In many cases, this leaves the humans feeling powerless and used and causes them to further distrust their captors. At the end, when Lilith finds out that she has been made pregnant and lashes out at Nikanj, it responds by saying, “Nothing about you but your words reject this child” (270).

Despite the Oankali’s controversial methods for confirming consent, they often uphold the principle of consent better than the humans onboard the ship. After Lilith is attacked by Paul Titus, she immediately accuses the Oankali of not intervening. Nikanj sorrowfully explains that they had not anticipated his behavior and had thought that they would choose to “share sex” (110). This was new terminology that Lilith had not introduced to Nikanj and it demonstrates the Oankali way of thinking about sex as a consensual action.

When Lilith possesses authority over her group of humans, she uses it to protect choice, saying, “There’ll be no rape here […] Nobody here is property. Nobody here has the right to the use of anybody else’s body” (198). The men on board, in particular, were attempting to use force to claim ownership of a mate. A little while later after Lilith is accused of not being human, she suddenly states, “This would be so goddam much easier if I weren’t human […] Think about it. If I weren’t human, why the hell would I care whether you got raped?” (200). I think she means here not that humans uniquely care about rape and consent, but rather that her proximity to them as a fellow human causes her to uniquely empathize with them and value their autonomy and dignity.

A final thought I want to touch on is the nature of the Oankali’s relationship to their ship. The following excerpt sums it up beautifully:

“Is it intelligent?”

“It can be. That part of it is dormant now. But even so, the ship can be chemically induced to perform more functions than you would have the patience to listen to. It does a great deal on its own without monitoring. And it …” He fell silent for a moment, his tentacles smooth against his body. Then he continued, “The human doctor used to say it loved us. There is an affinity, but it’s biological – a strong, symbiotic relationship. We serve the ship’s needs and it serves ours. It would die without us and we would be planetbound without it. For us, that would eventually mean death” (42).

It is incredibly tragic that our society often chooses to ignore our dependence on Earth or the opportunity we have to foster a symbiotic relationship with it. The societies and people groups who function on this understanding have historically and repeatedly been oppressed and silenced so that Western civilization could continue to “advance.” These societies are consistently treated as ‘other’ and suffer dehumanization and great violence alongside the environments that they seek to honor and protect. But if they are not listened to, we might also end up planet-less like the humans in Dawn.

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