Forbidden Tomes: DAWN by OCTAVIA BUTLER

Science fiction and horror often find a cozy home together, typically using a futuristic setting to comment on some nebulous terror of the present-day reader. One of the most realistic and harrowing examples of this pairing comes from the criminally underrated Octavia Butler, in the form of the first entry in her Xenogenesis series, DAWN.

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This corporeal nightmare begins with a woman trapped in a room without doors – she is one of the sole survivors of a nuclear war on Earth, and should be dead. But her situation becomes even more horrific when her captors reveal themselves: a tentacle-covered race of aliens who have saved the last remaining humans from death, but at a horrible price. Though the race is benevolent, Lilith knows that she has no hope of escaping. Trapped in a world vastly more advanced than her own, Lilith tries to retain her humanity – but the true monsters, aliens or humans, are hard to define.

Like all the best science fiction, Butler creates an intricate and astonishingly detailed world in which her moral dramas play out. The aliens are repulsive, yet so seemingly kind, and their abilities are at once exciting and terrifying. Butler gives them ultimate power over the humans, but they never use it to inflict pain. This is where the fascinating dilemma comes into play – questioning what it means to be human, and if that is something worth fighting for.

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At the center of this inner battle is Lilith, whose passion and intelligence carry the narrative terrifically. She is a strongly ambivalent character, stubborn but not stupid, given the task of cultivating the human survivors and helping them adapt to their new environment. The disturbing meat of the story really comes from these survivors and their responses to Lilith’s alien claims. Butler is extremely adept at dissecting human relationships and examining why they go wrong.

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And on top of all that recognizable drama are the aliens, who are all the more unsettling for their calm demeanors. There are several subtle moments in the book when Lilith (and the reader) realizes that their control over the humans is complete. They have become the lesser species, no better than animals to be bred. Butler, however, forces the reader to consider: is this such a bad price to pay for survival? Or is this fate worse than death? Especially because it isn’t black and white, with explosive species-on-species battles, this quandary becomes deeply haunting. It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table rule: don’t let it explode, or you’ll release the tension with shock, and lose your audience. Butler does not give the reader that release, instead tightening the noose slowly and imperceptibly until the damage is irreversible.

Because of this, the book isn’t exactly terrifying – it sits in the realm of disturbing allegory, transcending scariness. It’s the concept and the way it is explored that lends the book its horror. This one will stay with you, creeping up to ask its questions again and again, never satisfied with a comforting answer.

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