The Give and Take in Octavia Butler’s Dawn

Posted by on October 26, 2011 
Filed under ENGH 451-Science Fiction

Octavia Butler’s Dawn is a novel that, on the surface seems to be commenting on humans’ instinctual drive towards corruption. For example, the group of people Lilith awakens from suspended animation, despite being unfamiliar with their surroundings, is determined to establish a hostile environment wherein its members must choose a faction to support in addition to adapting to their strange new lives. The group’s need to maliciously divide itself instead of creating a social environment free of oppression and politics would suggest Butler is making a comment on humanity’s natural tendencies toward empowering itself as stemming from an ingrained egotistical drive. Jdahya says as much when he tells Lilith, “You are hierarchal…when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem…That was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing” (39). Jdahya’s statement, on the surface, is telling her that humanity cannot help its nature because of its naturally large ego. However, within this statement lies a deeper comment on humanity, that of humanity’s persistent nature to believe it will always possess the ability to be an agent of its collective future.

The humans Lilith awakens believe they possess the power to be agents of their destiny. They demonstrate this belief through their repeated attempts in the nursery, and the training jungle, to usurp Lilith and the Ooloi. Peter and Curt’s attempts to stage a coup within the group against Lilith and the Ooloi are two examples of their irrational belief in their “capacity…to exert power” ( in their situation. They cannot see past their false feeling of agency because they still believe they have “mental and emotional freedom” (Butler 227) within their environment. They cannot see that they now share a symbiotic relationship with the Ooloi wherein each requires the other’s consent in matters concerning the prospect of any significant change to either race. For example, the Ooloi need the humans’ consent to begin to imprint (191) on the humans. Likewise, the humans need the Oolois’ consent to be able to journey to Earth because the humans must follow the Oolois’ protocol to achieve the right to re-inhabit their home.

In essence, Butler’s Dawn is showing that there is no agency without consent, and no consent without someone or something having agency. The humans need the Ooloi just as much as the Ooloi need the humans. However, the Ooloi err by not considering humanity’s ingrained belief that it will always be agents of its destiny in their initial plan to re-populate Earth. It is this error that leads to the human uprising which injures two Ooloi. Yet it is also this error that contributes to the Ooloi achieving their goal of hybridizing the human race with the Oankali. If the humans had not revolted against the Ooloi, Nikanj would not have been able to inseminate Lilith because “it” would not have felt the loss of Joseph as being the impetus for creating Lilith’s pregnancy. Likewise, the humans err by thinking they are agents of their destiny on the Ooloi ship because, had they not felt this way, they would not now be eternally dependent on the Ooloi to “unite…human sperm and egg” (245). It is these ironic circumstances that lead me to believe Butler could be commenting on our world’s selfish tendency to think of itself as the center of the universe. It is a tendency that alienates us from each other because it creates billions of tiny and individual worlds of selfish humans merely bouncing off of one another without actually establishing any meaningful connection.

Works Cited

“Agency.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Web. 26 October 2011. <> Butler, Octavia E. “Dawn.” Lilith’s Brood. New York, NY: Grand Central, 2007. 1-248. Print.


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