The Novels

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the Xenogenesis series, Octavia E. Butler tells a story of confrontation and accommodation between cultures. One of these cultures is made up of human beings; the other, of far more advanced extraterrestrials called Oankali. After a war devastated Earth and killed most of its inhabitants, the Oankali transported the survivors to their spaceship, where they observed the humans for some two and a half centuries, finally concluding that human nature is so badly flawed that human beings will destroy any world they inhabit. Sensibly, the Oankali refuse to let human beings reproduce their own kind. They are willing, however, to absorb the human species by mating with human beings, removing human flaws through genetic alteration, and using human genes in the production of new life-forms. This means that the human beings in these novels are faced with a difficult choice: either to breed with aliens or to become extinct.

The first human to be offered this choice is a young black Californian, Lilith Iyapo. Dawn is her story. Even though it is a third-person narrative, the novel is dominated by Lilith’s consciousness; the plot is moved and governed by her changes in attitude. The four parts of the novel, “Womb,” “Family,” “Nursery,” and “The Training Floor,” describe the major stages in Lilith’s development.

After being reborn, or awakened from her drugged sleep, Lilith must learn to discard her human prejudices. Her first test is to learn to see beneath the reptilian exterior of her Oankali instructor Jdahya to his real wisdom and kindness. Then she can venture out to meet other members of his family, in particular his child Nikanj, who is an ooloi, a member of a third gender that heals illness and genetic defects as well as linking mates for sexual pleasure and generation. When Lilith helps Nikanj through its metamorphosis, she becomes even more closely bonded to it. Eventually, she becomes its mate.

The last two sections of the novel deal with Lilith’s attempt to select and train...

(The entire section is 838 words.)