"You'll begin again. We'll put you in areas that are clean of radioactivity and history. You will become something other than you were."
In this passage, Jdhaya explains to Lilith what is going to happen to her and the rest of humanity thanks to Oankali intervention in their lives. The Oankali picked up the remaining surviving humans after a deadly nuclear war that wiped out most of the human race. Most of those humans are currently in an induced sleep on the Oankali spaceship, which is currently in orbit around Earth. While the humans sleep, the Oankali preserve their health and will intervene in their genetic code if they believe it will improve their longevity. This is what happened with Lilith. She was genetically predisposed to cancer thanks to her family lineage. The Oankali discovered cancer within her body and removed it. Additionally, they changed her genetic structure so that her body will never produce cancer again.
Humanity has a similar future in store for it. The Oankali will allow the surviving humans to return to Earth, now that it is 250 years later and the world is inhabitable again. The human ruins have been cleared away by the Oankali and with them all of humanity's history. The Oankali will give humans the tools they will need to survive in this new environment. However, humanity is not returning to Earth the same as how it left. They will return having been genetically changed by the Oankali while they slept. The human women will also be carrying half-human, half-Oankali babies which will constitute the new generation on Earth. In a sense, humanity will die out completely as a result of this genetic mixing.
Jdhaya's assertion that Lilith and the rest of humanity will "become something other than you were" is seen as a blessing in the eyes of the Oankali. However, Lilith responds with terror to this idea. She, along with the rest of the humans aboard the Oankali ship, is not ready for humanity to be eradicated completely. She is also not ready to see a different version of herself which has mutated thanks to Oankali intervention. However, thanks to what the Oankali did to her body while she slept, she is already going down that path no matter whether she consents to it or not.
"Then I suppose it would eventually have killed me."
"Yes. It would have. And your people were in a similar position. If they had been able to perceive and solve their problem, they might have been able to avoid destruction. Of course, they too would have to remember to reexamine themselves periodically."
In this passage, Jdhaya is explaining to Lilith the inherent contradiction in human nature that caused their destruction through nuclear war. According to Jdhaya, and the rest of the Oankali, humanity is genetically coded with two opposing characteristics. First, they are intelligent. Jdhaya tells Lilith that humanity is perhaps one of the most intelligent species that they had encountered in Oankali history. Second, they are hierarchical. This second characteristic is what causes problems between humans and impedes their advancement as a species.
Jdhaya sees a similarity between Lilith's cancer and human nature. Ignoring cancer will not save a person from its negative effects on their health. Jdhaya tells Lilith, "'When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all . . . That was like ignoring cancer" (37).
According to Jdhaya, if humanity had been able to recognize their problem, they might have avoided the nuclear war that destroyed their existence. Perhaps Butler's Dawn constitutes a warning to humanity. Butler may see this series as a warning to humans not to drive head-first into their own destruction. The fact that she wrote this text during the Reagan administration, under the threat of global nuclear war, suggests that this was in fact one of the purposes of this text.
The suggestion that humanity is genetically coded to destroy itself is controversial, to say the least. However, in the world of Dawn, humanity did kill itself off and hurt the Earth in the process. When the Oankali first encountered humanity, they believed that humans had made a suicide pact and their extinction was intentional. This truth about humanity—that they are hierarchical and prone to commit violence against each other—is proven again and again within the text, as the human captives hurt and try to hurt one another as much as possible. In particular, those with "more" power (the male humans and the women who are physically larger) are able to command over those with "less" power (generally, the smaller women).
In a very real sense, she was an experimental animal. Not a pet.
As Lilith begins to live among the Oankali, she realizes that she is not seen as an equal in their eyes. This is most apparent to her when Nikanj takes her out to show her off to its friends, who poke and prod her without her permission and ask her through Nikanj to take off her clothes. Initially, this experience makes her feel like Nikanj's pet, but she realizes later that her relationship to the Oankali is not one of "pet" but instead one of "experimental animal."
The Oankali remove her autonomy so that she will act in accordance with their wishes. They want her to reproduce and repopulate the Earth with a new race of half-human, half-Oankali hybrids. Lilith has no choice in the matter. In the same way that we take animals that are almost extinct and force them to breed in zoos, she is being forced to do something that will "further" the existence of "humanity." Her wishes in this instance are irrelevant; she is as voiceless as an experimental animal that cannot speak.
As Lilith wonders what will happen to her at the hands of the Oankali, she sees the connection between her experience and the experience of other animals that were forced to breed in captivity in the past. She notes: "Humans had done these things to captive breeders—all for a higher good, of course" (58). The "higher good" that motivated humanity was to ensure that certain species do not go extinct on Earth. The Oankali's "higher good" is genetic manipulation and genetic trade with humans. They will contribute to the extinction of the human race in favor of their "higher good."
"You're filled with so much life and death and potential for change," Nikanj continued. "I understand now why some people took so long to get over their fear of your kind."
In this passage, Nikanj is speaking to Lilith after she wakes up from a procedure that it performed on her brain. Before this moment, Nikanj has spent a lot of time cajoling Lilith to let it perform the procedure and warning her that its parent, Kahguyaht, will "surprise" her with it. The procedure gives Lilith more-than-human abilities: her memory is significantly improved and she can suddenly speak Oankali with fluency. This transformative procedure is one of many that the Oankali perform on Lilith. In the next section of the novel, "Nursery," these transformations will cause tension between Lilith and the Awakened humans, some of whom have a hard time believing she is "one of them."
The passage above gives us more background on how the Oankali see humans. They consider humanity worthy of conducting gene trade with, and as Jdhaya tells Lilith in "Womb," humanity is one of the smartest species that the Oankali have ever encountered. However, they do not seem to mind that they are subjugating humans and denying the humans in their "care" bodily autonomy or choice about their own futures. The Oankali have also colonized Earth and mediate humanity's interactions with their home planet. They seem equally interested in and repulsed by the human race. The Oankali have strong, visceral reactions to humankind.
One of Butler's central themes throughout Dawn is human nature. Time and time again, the Oankali stress that humanity's genetic structure is flawed. This results in contradictions: they are intelligent, but they are hierarchical. They have incredible potential, but they are self-destructive.
He stared at her for several seconds and she feared him and pitied him and longed to be away from him. The first human being she had seen in years and all she could do was long to be away from him.
Before Lilith meets Paul Titus, she is excited about the thought of seeing another human being. She has not seen or been in contact with another human—besides the young boy that joins her in her cell, Sharad—in two hundred and fifty years. When she finally sees him, she is almost in awe: "A human being—tall, stocky, as dark as she was, clean shaved. He looked wrong to her at first—alien and strange, yet familiar, compelling. He was beautiful. Even if he had been bent and old, he would have been beautiful" (84).
Unfortunately, Lilith's meeting with Paul Titus goes all wrong. He had been promised by his Oankali family members that Lilith would "mate" with him. When she rejects his advances, he attacks her and fully intends to continue the sexual act without her consent. Lilith has to fight him off and goad him in order to get him to stop. He ends up breaking a bone in her wrist.
Even though Paul had chosen to stay on the Oankali ship rather than stay on Earth, it is clear that a lifetime of living among the Oankali has caused deep psychological scars in him. He knows that the Oankali have used his DNA to reproduce with other humans. Technically, he has over 70 children that he has never met. He is paranoid that the Oankali have used his DNA to inseminate his mother and sister, a primordial fear that Lilith touches on as he attacks her. Like Lilith, being aboard the Oankali ship has changed him. It has made him less human and willing to harm and sexually assault Lilith.
As human males commit violence against human females and each other throughout Dawn, we are left wondering what Butler's message is. Does this kind of violence occur because these males are left powerless at the hands of the Oankali, and they are therefore lashing out? Is this violence truly coded in our genes? Is it endemic to the human race, or can we be taught out of it?
Lilith hesitated, then put Leah's folder atop Victor's. Leah, too, sounded like a good potential ally, but not a good one to Awaken first. She sounded as though she could be an intensely loyal friend—unless she got the idea Lilith was one of her captors.
Anyone Lilith Awakened might get that idea—almost certainly would get it the moment Lilith opened a wall or caused new walls to grow, thus proving she had abilities they did not. The Oankali had given her information, increased physical strength, enhanced memory, and an ability to control the walls and the suspended animation plants. These were here tools. And every one of them would make her seem less human.
This passage appears at the beginning of "Nursery," as Lilith looks over the dossiers the Oankali have given her. Each dossier contains information about the 80 sleeping humans that are currently in suspended animation in her room. Her task is to Awaken forty of these humans; the Oankali will not let Lilith or the new humans leave the room until she has completed her task. From the beginning, Lilith has misgivings—she worries that the people she will Awaken will see her as part of the Oankali. Her worry—that she will be grouped with the "them" rather than the "us"—turns out to be true. The reasons she gives in the passage above support the humans' reasoning that Lilith is on the Oankali team. Even though Lilith will try, time and time again, to convince the others that she is also a prisoner, some will not believe her when they see the abilities she has been given.
As the novel progresses, the humans will split into two different groups. There will be those—with Curt at the lead—who believe they can fight back against the Oankali. They believe that she is a tool for the Oankali. The other group of humans, led by Lilith, believe they need to submit to Oankali whims in order to survive.
"And in spire of all that," Lilith said, facing Tate, "I'm a prisoner just as you are."
"More like a trustee," Tate said quietly.
In this passage, Lilith has just Awakened the first other human, Tate. When Take wakes, she is immediately distrustful of and aggressive towards Lilith. She watches, trembling, as Lilith closes the plant that Tate was hibernating in and pushes it back into the wall. In the passage above, Lilith tries to explain that despite her extraordinary power, she is in the same situation as Tate. She uses the word "prisoner" to emphasize their lack of agency aboard the Oankali ship. Tate, having just seen Lilith manipulate the ship with her own hands, is less sure that she and Lilith are on the same level. She responds that Lilith is more like a "trustee," implying that she is acting on behalf of the Oankali. In a certain sense, both Lilith and Tate's assertions are true: Lilith is a prisoner, and her agency is extremely limited. She has no choice to do what the Oankali tell her to do. Despite this, she has grown accustomed to the Oankali way of life and is working on their behalf to bring the other humans under their control. She does not have complete power, but she does have more power than the other humans she will Awaken.
"Peter was right," he said angrily.
She frowned. "Peter? Right to try to kill? Right to die?"
"He died human! And he almost managed to take one of them with him!"
She looked at him. "So what? What's changed? On Earth we can change things. Not here."
"Will we want to by then? What will we be, I wonder? Not human. Not anymore."
By the end of "Nursery," Joseph has come to the realization that the leader of the opposition, Peter, actually had the right idea all along. Since he was Awakened, Peter fought back against Lilith's message of cooperating with the Oankali so that they can safely make it to Earth. Peter fought back against Lilith from the very beginning, creating a group of supporters that did not agree that the best strategy was to sit on their hands and see what happens to them. When the ooloi arrive to mate with the humans, Peter is docile until the Oankali drugs wear off. Then, he is enraged, feeling as if he had been "humiliated and enslaved" (192). Peter feels emasculated after mating with his ooloi: "His humanity was profaned. His manhood was taken away" (193). His immediate reaction is to fight his ooloi, which causes the ooloi to instinctively shock Peter and accidentally kill him.
Though Joseph's body enjoys the pleasurable sensations that mating with Nikanj gives him, he intellectually does not like mating with Nikanj and also finds it hard to swallow. However, he does not fight back, and instead allows himself to be cajoled by Lilith and Nikanj to enjoy the experience. Joseph understands that exposure to the Oankali and gene trade with them has a disastrous consequence: it makes humans less human. The passage above, therefore, is a sort of warning to Lilith that humanity will no longer be itself if the Oankali has a say.
There was an indoor fire, hot and smoky. That was the way the people looked. Hot, smoky, dirty, angry.
They gathered outside the shelter with axes, machetes, and clubs, and faced the cluster of ooloi. Lilith found herself standing with aliens, facing hostile, dangerous humans.
In this passage, Lilith has joined the Oankali to find Curt and the other dissenters' settlement. They have just found Joseph's dead body. Lilith is extremely upset. Before, she might have sided with the humans over the Oankali. After Joseph's death, however, she is now solidly on their side. The language in the passage above demonstrates Lilith's choosing of sides. Rather than stand with the humans, Lilith sees them as separate from herself. She is "standing with aliens" facing "hostile, dangerous humans" as if they were a different species.
Immediately after the passage above, fighting breaks out between the Oankali and humans. When Nikanj is injured, Lilith lays down on the battlefield to try to heal it. Lilith understands that this will cause them to see the side she has taken: "Lilith stripped, refusing to think of how she would look to the humans still conscious. They would be certain now that she was a traitor. Stripping naked on the battlefield to lie down with the enemy. Even the few who had accepted her might turn on her now" (231).
However, unlike the others, the decisions that Lilith makes are not motivated by an "us vs. them" mentality. Instead, Lilith sees the humans and Oankali as equals, which causes her to align herself with individuals rather than groups. In this way, she justifies her decision to lay down beside Nikanj: "But she had just lost Joseph. She could not lose Nikanj too. She could not simply watch it die" (231).
"You'll have a daughter," it said. "And you are ready to be her mother. You could never have said so. Just as Joseph could never have invited me into his bed—no matter how much he wanted me there. Nothing about you but your words reject this child."
"But it won't be human," she whispered. "It will be a thing. A monster."
In this passage, Nikanj has just informed Lilith that it has impregnated her without her knowledge. The child is a half-Oankali, half-human hybrid. Lilith is repulsed at the thought of this being inside of her, but Nikanj asserts that she actually does want the child. Here, the overarching theme of consent comes to a head. Even though Lilith did not verbally consent to becoming pregnant, Nikanj took "signals" from her body to assume consent. It underscores the power it holds over Lilith, reiterating that Lilith does not truly have a choice in the matter: "'You could have never said no.'"
With this revelation, the novel ends on a horrific note. Throughout Dawn, Lilith has held on to the hope that the humans will eventually be able to escape the Oankali once on Earth. There, they could rebuild humanity. However, Nikanj has just revealed to Lilith—along with the news that she is pregnant—that the Oankali have sterilized the humans. They can no longer reproduce without Oankali intervention. On top of that, they find each others' touch repellant, meaning that it would be very difficult for them to try to reproduce without the ooloi, anyway. Lilith understands what this means: this is the end of humanity.
Dawn Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Dawn is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.