"Womb," the first part of Octavia Butler's Dawn, opens in Lilith Iyapo's perspective as she wakes up on an alien ship. Though this is not the first time she has Awakened in this room, she is not aware yet that she is on an alien ship. She does not know who her captors are or what they look like. Sometimes, they speak to her, and she can hear their voices from the ceiling. This time, Lilith takes notes of her surroundings when she wakes up. She is in a dimly-lit room with very little furnishings. There is a platform that Lilith just woke up on, meant to be a bed; another, taller platform that functions as a table; and a bathroom, where there is a toilet, sink, and shower. On the table, Lilith recognizes the food her captors always give her: "the usual lumpy cereal or stew, of no recognizable flavor" (4). Lilith sees that her captors have given her clothing and she puts it on with excitement. She tries not to think about the long scar on her abdomen which appeared suddenly during one of her Awakenings. She knows that her captors probably performed surgery on her and she is uncomfortable at the thought of what they did to her body while she was unaware. Lilith eats her food and looks around her room for a means of escape despite the fact that she knows it is futile. She knows that her captors will begin asking her questions soon. She thinks about her theoretical answers to these questions and we learn more about Lilith's character and surroundings. She is twenty-six, she used to have a husband and son who died in a car crash, and there was a deadly war that wiped out most of the human race.
As Lilith sits in her room, she performs exercises to pass the time and takes many naps. She remembers her previous Awakenings: during the first Awakening, she did not answer her captors' questions. They left her in her room for a long time, and the silence got to her. She began unwittingly speaking to herself, afraid that she was losing her mind. During her second Awakening, she answered her captors' questions. As time passed, her captors' questions became more complex and became more like conversations with Lilith. Once, they put a child named Sharad in her room with her. He did not speak English and was terrified. Eventually, she convinced him that she was not dangerous and began to teach him English. In her next Awakening, Sharad was gone. Lilith sits down to wait for her captors to begin to speak with her. She hears someone call her name but realizes that it does not come from above as it usually did. Instead, there is a shadowy figure standing in the corner of her room. This being tells Lilith that he is here to take her outside of her room so that she can begin a new life. He notifies her that he is not a man or a human being—he is an extraterrestrial. The alien tells Lilith that she has to look at him when she is ready. Lilith is not afraid to look at him; she is more afraid of the unknown.
However, when the alien brightens the light in Lilith's room so that she can see him clearly, she is afraid. He looks nothing like a human and instead is covered with moving tentacles all over his body. Lilith asks the alien if it is a male or a female. The alien tells her that it is wrong to assume that he would be a sex that she is familiar with, but he is, in fact, a male. He tells her to take a step closer to look at him more fully, but she cannot bring herself to. He tells her that the tentacles covering his body are sensory organs like her ears or eyes. They move in response to his needs and emotions, or to outside stimuli. Lilith is disgusted at the sight of this alien. When he stops talking, she becomes even more uncomfortable because it makes him seem all the more alien. She asks him how he speaks English so well. He responds that other humans taught him. He also tells her that they are on a kind of alien ship that is currently in orbit around Earth. Any human that survived the war is now living on the ship; the alien tells Lilith that they collected as many surviving humans as they could. He also informs Lilith that Earth has been healing since the humans left and that the aliens have been restoring it. He tells her that the surviving humans will eventually make their way back to Earth with the aliens' help. He tells Lilith his name: Jdhaya. Lilith asks him the cost of their help. He tells her that it is more than she can understand now, but the human race has something that the aliens value.
Lilith asks Jdhaya how long she has been asleep for. He does not answer. Instead, he comes closer to her and takes a seat. Lilith tells Jdhaya that she is confused as to why she is so uncomfortable in his presence. He tells her that he is there to acclimate her to being around aliens and that she is doing better than most. Some humans have tried to kill him. Jdhaya explains to Lilith that even though he does not have eyes he can see. In fact, he can't not see as he does not have eyelids to cover his eyes. He also tells her that the aliens sleep, but not in the same way as humans do. Finally, he reveals to her how long they have kept her sleeping: about two hundred and fifty years. He tells her that she was like Earth—she needed time to heal. He tells her that when they started Awakening others many tried to kill themselves. They considered that it was because of isolation, so they started putting several humans together. However, when they did that, the humans would hurt each other. In the end, "'isolation cost fewer lives'" (17). Lilith asks Jdhaya what happened to Sharad. Jdhaya tells her that Sharad is with his family. Jdhaya tells her that she will be able to see him when she can walk among the aliens and not panic.
Jdhaya spends some time in Lilith's room so that she can get used to him. She finds it very hard to sleep while he is there. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot get used to his alien nature. She asks him about the scar on her abdomen and he tells her that they performed surgery on her several years ago in order to remove cancer from her body. She asked what she lost along with her cancer and he said that she did not lose anything that she would want to keep. One of Jdhaya's relatives performed surgery on Lilith. Jhdaya tells her that this alien is neither male nor female—it is a third sex, called ooloi. The ooloi understand the humans better than any of the other aliens because they have special organs they use for observation. Jdhaya tells Lilith that his relative induced her body to reabsorb the cancer using chemical signals. Jhdaya offers Lilith food and Lilith steps in his direction to receive the meal. It is incredibly hard for her to receive the meal from Jdhaya by hand—she spills half the food because her hand is shaking. She does not understand why it is so hard for her to be around him.
Lilith asks Jdhaya what his people call themselves; he tells her they are called the Oankali. One of the meanings of this word in their language is "traders." She asks him what they trade and he says they trade themselves. She asks him to explain what this means but he remains silent. Lilith tells Jdhaya that he is like a human. He tells her that this is because he grew up alongside a human doctor that was on the ship who was like another parent to him. The doctor lived until she was 113 years old because the Oankali were able to help her stay alive. He also tells Lilith that she is two years older than she thinks she is—about twenty-eight years old. Jdhaya tells her that she will live even longer than the doctor lived and her children will live even longer still. As he talks to her, Jdhaya's tentacles smooth so that they look like a second skin. She is able to stomach his appearance like this, and she ventures forward to touch him. It is easier than she thinks it will be. Jhdaya tells her that Oankali smooth their tentacles in a gesture of amusement, like a human smile. He says that he was pleased because he could tell that she did not want to die. He tells her that he will answer all of her questions as soon as she can bring herself to leave their room. She tells him to release his tentacles again and the feeling of panicked revulsion returns. He reaches out and grabs Lilith's hand.
After eleven meals, Lilith is allowed to leave her room. Before that happens, Jdhaya refuses to answer any further questions that Lilith has. He gives her a present that greatly pleases her: a banana. Sometimes, he makes her leave the bed so that he can sleep. As he does so, she does exercises on the floor. He tells her that the Oankali can breathe underwater. He also informs her that he can sting with his tentacles and that an Oankali sting is deadly to humans. Later, Jdhaya brings Lilith an orange. She shares a piece of fruit with Jhdaya and he touches her with his tentacles. When she does not react with panic, he tells her that they finally can leave her room. He touches the wall with one of his tentacles and a hole appears which widens into a doorway. She can see many different colors through the hole. He tells her that the wall—as well as the rest of the ship—is a living being.
Lilith and Jdhaya emerge into the world of the ship. She can see vegetation, trees, and animals in the distance that are the size of German Shepherds. Jdhaya takes her hand and leads her away from her room. When she looks back, she discovers that her cell was in what looks like an enormous tree the size of an office building. Jdhaya tells Lilith that the food she was eating in her room came from the tree. It was designed to fulfill her nutritional needs. The food that the Oankali has been feeding Lilith has kept her alive and healthy for so long. Jdhaya also tells Lilith that her genetic inclination to grow cancers has been fixed—the Oankali have inserted correcting genes into her cells. He tells her that Earth is currently wild—without human intervention, the vegetation has grown. While many animals that the humans were used to have gone extinct, several animals have survived. She has work to do before she will be allowed to return to Earth. In the meantime, she will be living with Jdhaya and his family. Her job will be to Awaken a group of humans and train them so that they will be able to survive once they return to Earth. They will have to learn how to fend for themselves, including harvesting their own food and hunting for meat. She tells Jdhaya that humans used to treat animals the way the Oankali treat humans. He tells her that the humans will need to be careful when they return to Earth because the world they once knew has changed. He also tells her that the Oankali have destroyed any human-built ruins that were left on Earth. This upsets Lilith. She tells him that they destroyed something that was not theirs. He responds that she is still alive, implying that she wouldn't have been if it weren't for Oankali intervention.
As they walk towards Jdhaya's home, Lilith takes in her surroundings. Jdhaya tells her that the ship is both plant and animal—and something more. It exists in a symbiotic relationship with the Oankali and they care for each other deeply. There are three different groups of Oankali aboard the ship: the "Dinso" will stay on Earth with the humans until it is ready to leave generations from now; "Toaht" will leave in the ship; and "Akjai" will leave in a new ship that they are growing on this new one. Lilith notices groups of Oankali all around her that keep their distance. They have tentacles in different formations; some of them, like Jdhaya, look more humanlike while others look entirely alien. Lilith begins to feel uncomfortable at the fact that she is surrounded by Oankali. Jdhaya tells her that there are no other humans Awake where they are going. He gives her his hand to hold and she takes it. She asks about his home planet and he says it no longer exists. The Oankali consider it a womb that they had to leave in order to further their development. Lilith tells him that there were humans who thought of Earth in the same way and that the ultimate destiny for humans was to live in space. Jdhaya tells her that they would have never advanced to that state because human genetics handicapped them. According to the Oankali, humans have a "mismatched pair of genetic characteristics" that cause destruction (36). Humans are intelligent—perhaps one of the most intelligent species that the Oankali had ever found. However, they are also hierarchical. The intelligent and hierarchical nature of humans was what eventually caused their destruction.
They arrive at Jdhaya's home. He tells her that none of his family members will touch her without her consent. She realizes that wanting Jdhaya around for comfort makes her dependent and it angers her. She demands to know what the Oankali want from the humans. Jdhaya tells her that the Oankali trade the essence of themselves—they trade their genetic material for human genetic material. This is a kind of genetic engineering through the ooloi, who have special organs to do it with. Rather than being hierarchical, the Oankali are acquisitive. They "acquire new life—seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it" (39). Eventually, as a result of this trade, humanity and the Oankali will change. They will become more like each other. The thought of a new generation of half-human, half-Oankali children disgusts Lilith. In her mind, this will lead to the end of the human race; the Oankali will finish what the war began. Jdhaya tells her that they are committed to the trade; it is a biological process for them, like breathing. Lilith cannot do anything to stop it. Lilith tells him that she wishes they had just left her on Earth to die. Jdhaya sits down and tells her that if she asks him to, he will sting her with one of his tentacles and she will die. Lilith knows that he does not want to do this but he is offering her the choice. She cannot bring herself to touch his tentacles. She continues to live.
The first section of Dawn, "Womb," opens two and a half centuries after a nuclear war that almost wiped out the human race. Those humans who survived the nuclear blasts and the nuclear winter that followed were scooped up by an alien race called the Oankali. In this section, we learn about the Oankali and what they want from the humans. We also get to know our protagonist, Lilith, who will be given a pivotal role in the Oankali's mission. When the book opens, Lilith has no idea where she is or who her captors are. She only has her memories of the past. She knows that she is twenty-six years old and that she previously had a husband and son who died in a car crash before the war. She also remembers the war itself: "Did she remember the war? Insane question. Could anyone who had lived through the war forget it? A handful of people tried to commit humanicide. They had nearly succeeded" (6). As the book progresses, it is worth keeping in mind that the humans we meet have been forced to live through a world-shattering event caused by human violence. They have been away from their planet for a very long time even though for them it might have only felt like a handful of months or years. They are traumatized by what they lived through and are being forced to succumb to the whims of an alien race and learn to survive in an alien world. Lilith explains her attitude towards life following this kind of disaster: "Humanity in its attempt to destroy itself had made the world unlivable. She was certain she would die even though she had survived the bombing without a scratch. She had considered her survival a misfortune—a promise of some lingering death" (13).
The Oankali take their time revealing themselves to Lilith and take even longer to tell her what their purpose is with the humans they have on their ship. For much of the time that Lilith is in her room, they merely respond to her questions and demands with silence: "At her first Awakening, she had called out during her search. Receiving no answer, she had shouted, then cried, then cursed until her voice was gone. She had pounded the walls until her hands bled and became grotesquely swollen" (5). As literary analyst Naomi Jacobs points out in "Posthuman Bodies and Agency in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis," the Oankali's silence is an indication of how much power they hold. Jacobs writes, "[Lilith] is interrogated. Her own questions are met with silence, for power need not explain itself to the powerless." The theme of knowledge and power extends throughout the text. It takes a while for the Oankali to give Lilith enough knowledge so that she can understand her surroundings. And they only do so in reward for her submitting to their commands. Lilith is powerless to change the score or make demands of her own. When she does so, she is merely met with silence: "He showed no impatience or annoyance when she urged him to take her out. He simply fell silent. He seemed almost to turn himself off when she made demands or asked questions he did not intend to answer" (25). Throughout the novel, this silence is a good indication for us of the Oankali's true nature. They purport to be benevolent captors who can neither cause harm nor lie. However, they are rigid with the humans aboard their ship and, as we will soon see, they are capable of using silence to lie by omission.
In the first moments of the novel, Lilith is utterly powerless. When the Oankali place a human child in her room, she is powerless to protect him. She and the child bond until suddenly he is removed from her room without warning: "She worried about him and wondered how to protect him. Who knew what their captors had done to him—or what they would do? But she had no more power than he did. At her next Awakening, he was gone. Experiment completed" (9). The more that Lilith learns about her surroundings, however, the more power that she gains. This is true throughout the entirety of Dawn. Part of the reason for this is because Lilith's lack of knowledge about her surroundings leads to fear: "She had gotten over being frightened by 'ugly' faces long before her capture. The unknown frightened her. The cage she was in frightened her" (11). Part of Lilith's revulsion at the fact that the Oankali operated on her without her consent is that she does not understand them. She tells Jdhaya, "'It scares me to have people doing things to me that I don't understand'" (31). As Lilith's lack of knowledge makes her powerless, the Oankali are all-powerful because of their vast knowledge. They have spent centuries studying humankind and yield that knowledge to make humans act according to their wishes. At first, Lilith does not believe that they can know more about humanity than humans themselves. She asks Jdhaya, "'How can you teach us to survive in our own world? How can you know enough about it or us?'" (31). He responds that his knowledge of humanity is deeper than that of humans themselves: "'How can we not? We've helped your world restore itself. We've studied your bodies, your thinking, your literature, your historical records, your many cultures. . . We know more of what you're capable of than you do'" (31).
Lilith is afraid of the Oankali because she does not yet understand them. Additionally, their sheer alienness is hard for her to stomach. The Oankali are covered with moving tentacles. Though they are slightly humanoid, they look nothing like an animal that would be found on Earth. Lilith is disgusted by Jdhaya's appearance: "She imagined small, tentacled sea slugs—nudibranchs—grown impossibly to human size and shape, and, obscenely, sounding more like a human being than some humans. Yet she needed to hear him speak. Silent, he was utterly alien" (12). Despite the fact that Jdhaya speaks perfect English and is a calming and gentle presence in Lilith's room, it takes her a long time to get used to his presence. Lilith knows that the Oankali want her to get used to Jdhaya so that she can leave her room and live among them. The mere thought of that prospect terrifies her: "He could have been so much uglier than he was, so much less . . . human. Why couldn't she just accept him? All he seemed to be asking was that she not panic at the sight of him or others like him. Why couldn't she do that? She tried to imagine herself surrounded by beings like him and was almost overwhelmed by panic" (21). Lilith understands that what she is feeling is a "true xenophobia"—a fear at the otherness she sees in the aliens (22). Humans are not alone in this kind of emotional response. Jdhaya explains to Lilith that at first the Oankali were repulsed by humans as well. When she asks him whether he understands what happened to humanity, he responds: "'I'm aware of what happened. It's . . . alien to me. Frighteningly alien'" (14). Later, he tells her that when a human doctor went to live at his household, several of his family members had to leave because of their revulsion: "'some of our family found her so disturbing that they left home for a while. That's unheard-of behavior among us'" (24). According to Jdhaya, part of the reason that the Oankali feared the doctor was because of human nature: ''They had never before seen so much life and so much death in one being. It hurt some of them to touch her'" (25).
Humans and Oankali are inherently different species. The Oankali describe these differences by looking at genetics. Only the ooloi (the third Oankali gender) are able to look closely at a species' genetic code. They have special sensory organs that allow them to do so. As Jdhaya explains, "[the ooloi] observe. They have special organs for their kind of observation" (20). The ooloi went to Earth when humanity was dying out in order to study human nature: "'On your world there were vast numbers of dead and dying humans to study. Our ooloi came to understand what could be normal or abnormal, possible or impossible for the human body. The ooloi who went to the planet taught those who stayed here. My relative has studied your people for much of its life'" (20). Not only are the ooloi the reason why the Oankali understand human makeup and genetics, but they are also an essential link for the relationship between Oankali and humans. As we will see later in the novel, male and female Oankali depend on the ooloi to relate with, create families with, and eventually breed with humans. They are an integral link for Oankali intervention in human lives.
Thanks to the ooloi, the Oankali believe that they understand humans better than humans understand themselves. In particular, the ooloi discovered a flaw in human genetics that inevitably led to the destruction of humanity. Jdhaya explains, "'you have a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics. Either alone would have been useful, would have aided the survival of your species. But the two together is lethal. It was only a matter of time before they destroyed you'" (36). The first genetic characteristic is intelligence. Jdhaya tells Lilith, "[y]ou are intelligent. . . That's the newer of the two characteristics, and the one you might have put to work to save yourselves. You are potentially one of the most intelligent species we've found.'" However, this intelligence becomes dangerous when paired with the second characteristic: a hierarchal nature. Jdhaya explains, "[y]ou are hierarchical. That's the older and more entrenched characteristic. . . 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). Lilith expresses skepticism at the idea that every human would be genetically coded to be both intelligent and hierarchical. Jdhaya does not express frustration at Lilith's skepticism and instead says that it is also thanks to her nature: "'intelligence does enable you to deny facts you dislike. But your denial doesn't matter. A cancer growing in someone's body will go on growing in spite of denial. And a complex combination of genes that work together to make you intelligent as well as hierarchical will still handicap you whether you acknowledge it or not'" (38).
In the Oankali view, humanity's intelligence and hierarchical nature should have balanced each other. Instead, they created conflict that grew until humanity was wiped out by a nuclear war. In "Blood, genes, and gender in Octavia Butler's Kindred and Dawn," Nancy Jesser highlights the comparison that Butler makes in these passages between human nature and cancer. Jesser explains the Oankali worldview through this lens: "Like a cancer treatment where the cells that are malignant must be removed, watched, or changed, so must malignant human social behavior." Part of this genetic makeup is the human propensity for violence. The Oankali experienced human violence firsthand when they began Awakening humans aboard the ship. Jdhaya tells Lilith, for example, that several humans tried to kill him when they saw him for the first time. Similarly, humans who were forced into isolation would often try to or succeed at killing themselves. The Oankali tried to combat this by putting humans together, but when they did so, "'many injured or killed one another'" (17). The Oankali ended up keeping the humans in isolation because, in the end, "isolation cost fewer lives" (17). We will see this violence continue in later chapters, particularly once Lilith starts waking up other humans in the hopes of training them so that they can return to Earth.
A major theme throughout "Womb" and the entirety of the novel is that of consent. In "Womb," Lilith has many things happen to her without her consent. The most frightening, however, is the fact that the Oankali performed surgery on her while she was asleep. Lilith is rattled by the fact that she knows she was operated on but she has no idea why: "Opening and closing her jacket, her hand touched the long scar across her abdomen. She had acquired it somehow between her second and third Awakenings, had examined it fearfully, wondering what had been done to her. What had she lost or gained, and why? And what else might be done? She did not own herself any longer. Even her flesh could be cut and stitched without her consent or knowledge" (4-5). Jdhaya also tells Lilith that the ooloi inserted "correcting genes" into her cells in order to stop her propensity for cancer. They have also made other changes to her system: "'We've strengthened your immune system, increased your resistance to disease in general'" (31). When Jdhaya tells Lilith that they have changed her genetic code, she understands that they did so without her consent: "This was one more thing they had done to her body without her consent and supposedly for her own good" (31). The ooloi have been inside Lilith's body and, as a result, understand her deeply.
The Oankali's power to change human genetic code at their will speaks to their larger purpose in interacting with humans—a truth which Lilith learns in the last pages of "Womb." The Oankali intend to trade their genetic material with that of the humans. "'We trade the essence of ourselves,'" Jdhaya tells Lilith. '"Our genetic material for yours. . . We do what you would call genetic engineering. We know you had begun to do it yourselves a little, but it's foreign to you. We do it naturally. We must do it. It renews us, enables us to survive as an evolving species instead of specializing ourselves into extinction or stagnation'" (39). The Oankali drive to genetically mix with other species is encoded into their DNA: "'We're not hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life—seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a minuscule cell within a cell—a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies'" (39). Finally, Lilith learns the truth: the Oankali intend to mate with the humans on their ship and create a new race of half-human, half-Oankali children.
In this way, humanity's new existence as tied to the Oankali is characterized by mutation. The humans are mutated as they sleep into genetically superior versions of themselves. Meanwhile, the Earth that humans destroyed through nuclear war is mutating, as well: "'There are new plants—mutations of old ones and additions we've made. Some things that used to be edible are lethal now. Some things are deadly only if they aren't prepared properly. Some of the animal life isn't as harmless as it apparently once was. Your Earth is still your Earth, but between the efforts of your people to destroy it and ours to restore it, it has changed'" (32). Humanity, too, will change. Jdhaya tells Lilith: "'You will become something other than you were'" (32). This change will happen in each human aboard the ship and then it will happen to humanity as a whole, as humans breed with Oankali. Later, he expounds on this fact: "'Your people will change. Your young will be more like us and ours more like you. Your hierarchical tendencies will be modified and if we learn to regenerate limbs and reshape our bodies, we'll share those abilities with you. That's part of the trade'" (40). Lilith reacts with horror at this information. She sees it as the end of humanity forever. She accuses Jdhaya, "'You'll finish what the war began'" (41). As the novel progresses, we will see how the other humans aboard the ship react to the knowledge that the Oankali intend to breed with them. As you can imagine, they do not react in a docile manner. Naomi Jacobs touches on the Oankali's drive for mutation and metamorphosis in her essay, "Posthuman Bodies and Agency in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis." She highlights that the Oankali's desire to change their genetic makeup is constitutional to their identity: "The Oankali's goal is not to preserve an essential species identity, but always to be transforming themselves into something else. For them, restriction to an unchanging shape or fixed identity would mean the end of life." Jacobs also notes that Butler's name for the alien species might be related to a Hindu goddess: "The name of Oankali recalls the Hindu goddess Kali, emblem of creative destruction; adorned with shells and dancing upon dead children, she kills in order to bring about renewal and rebirth."