DAWN by Octavia E. Butler // Thematic Analysis // #BookinItWithAhtiya

Read at your own risk. This is a thematic analysis, and there are some theme-related spoilers, as well as a major plot-point discussed in this analysis.

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler is indescribable in the best way possible. How Octavia Butler was able to pack SO MUCH commentary and introspection about the human condition into less than 300 pages, I will never truly know. First of all, let’s talk about the premise of this book: Human beings are no longer able to live on Earth due a devastating human-caused war, and aliens swoop down to save a select few in order to HELP US bounce back, but there’s a cost (because of course). Like WHAT?! I was so intrigued the entire time I was reading this because I just kept wanting to know what was going to happen next. In exchange, the aliens, the Oankali, are going to use the humans’ DNA to create enhanced future generations, as well as altering the DNA of the rescued human beings.

Understandably so, Lilith (our protagonist) is revolted by this idea. This conflict brings up one of the biggest thematic questions explored throughout the novel. Essentially: What makes us human? Is it our genetics or what we perceive as human nature? The core of the resistance to blending human and Oankali DNA stems from the humans’ fear that altering their genetics makes them less human. Butler, in this discord, poses the question Are we ever more than our biology? At what point are we allowed to define ourselves separate from the bodies we inhabit? What exactly is human nature and are we unknowingly confined by our desperation to hold on to our “humanity?” At what point is this insistence of maintaining how we are and how we’ve always been costing us the opportunity to develop and become better? This is similar to a theme that is prevalent in Butler’s Patternists series: the full potential of human beings. What happens when humans unlock our full biological and cellular potential (in the Patternist series, it’s more neurological), and why do we run from the opportunity to do so?

A paperback copy of the 2021 edition of Dawn by Octavia E. Butler held up against a blurred background of bookshelves.

The presence of the Oankali exacerbates this thematic question. I found this alien race to be incredibly fascinating. The Oankali are a race of humans who traverse the galaxy looking for our races to mix with in order to evolve and advance their species, as well as the species whose planets they colonize. The Oankali are similar to humans in that they rely on certain set roles and preconceived notions, while always trying to evolve and explore more territory. It just so happens that their roles taken on a different look than ours. The Oankali, as a race, mainly differ from the humans in the book because of their willingness and enthusiasm in regards to future generations being genetically different. For the Oankali, the highest goal in life is evolution at any price, and they have accepted that they cannot unlock their full potential without merging with others who are different. To the Oankali, human beings have something valuable genetically that they can use. Future generations would be both human and Oankali, and while reading, I began to wonder if this was a metaphor for what is traditional and “normal” versus the new and unknown. Irregardless of whether the humans like their new circumstances, the Oankali will get their way and genetic alterations are inevitable. Do the Oankali represent progress? Was Butler trying to implore her fellow humans to look at change as something nature and inevitable? Perhaps she trying to examine the concept that, in order to evolve, we either must adapt to and accept the unfamiliar or deny it and stay paralyzed; the world will go on whether we like it or not.

I can’t wait to continue on with this series and see how much deeper Butler took these themes in Adulthood Rites and Imago. Have you read Dawn or any of Octavia E. Butler’s other works? Which one was your favorite? Let me know in the comments!

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