by Logan D. A. Williams
I'm an engineer and social scientist that loves science fiction. My favorite authors as a child were Octavia Butler and Anne McCaffrey. Octavia Butler's Dawn, I originally took off of the shelf in my public library because it had my name in the title. Don't judge me! (Wait, how did you peruse the spines of hardcover books as a teenager?) Subsequently, Dawn became this Black woman's favorite book. A win-win-win for title, character and content as far as I was concerned! Apparently, I had good taste: Octavia Butler was a Black American woman who won Hugo and Nebula Awards and was the first science fiction author to win a MacArthur genius grant. Anne McCaffrey was an Irish-American who was the first woman to win Hugo and Nebula Awards. Both were inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
When reading Dawn you will likely find yourself responding along a spectrum from rejecting to embracing the strangeness. Way back in the 1990s, I had a similar response to what Kevin describes for Goodreads in 2017, "I've never really read anything like this before. It had some of the most alien aliens I've ever come across, and it spends a lot of time exp[l]oring their physiology, gender, sexuality, and society, all parts that I really enjoyed. The whole thing is very unnerving, blunt, and extremely uncomfortable."
Yup! And now, almost thirty years later, I really resonate with this response from Zanna for Goodreads in 2015 "I guess I need to give in and accept that speculative fiction with feminist consciou[s]ness is my true love." Yes, it is. Especially Black feminist consciousness. Happy sigh.
I love Dawn because of the compelling details and complex world-building, the scientific logics and facts embedded throughout, and how it upends traditional science fiction narratives. Instead of Earthlings going out to bravely explore (read: colonize and exploit) new worlds, the book starts with our world imploding in nuclear war and Oankali explorers picking up our pieces. Beginning with humans as vulnerable and second best was very unique in comparison to all the science fiction I had read earlier, and much of the science fiction that I have read since. Likewise, I was intrigued by the ambivalence with which the humans interact with Earth's Oankali rescuers. The distributive-justice-favoring Oankali's disdain for Earthlings (because of our war-favoring genetic tendencies) was shocking for me as a dependent of Armed Forces service members.
Finally – the Oankali grow their houses and spaceships. These organisms are bio-secure, they know if you are part of their family or an outsider. Yeah, they're alive.
Kind of like the Leviathan in that television show Farscape, except that Dawn was first, and Dawn is better. So you can see the aesthetic of the world-building is just very different in Dawn. It's great!
But Warner Books, really? Why didn't you put a Black Woman on the 1987 cover? There are plenty of white, Asian, Hispanic, and, of course, Oankali characters in the story, but the heroine is Black and you put two white people on the cover. I understand you, and every other publisher, are all about making money from book sales, but sheesh that's deceptive advertising. I blame you, Warner, for why it took until my second reading for me to realize the main character of Dawn was Black. Sometimes, I wonder what Octavia E. Butler thought of your cover design for her book. Judging by what she wrote in her books, she was a woman who was very grounded in reality. Therefore, I doubt she was surprised even though I'm sure it still stung. At least the 1997 Dawn cover corrected this error.
Now, as an adult engaged in anti-racist technology design training, I am deliberately seeking out science fiction stories that I can use to introduce or emphasize themes of anti-black racism and black-centered anti-racism in architecture, art, science, technology, and urban planning. The genre of Afro-futurism has developed since the 1990s in novels, music, videos, architecture and art installations and I am excited to learn more. The genre of African-futurism aims to decenter the West from Afro-futurism which is also exciting. Since I study technology and development, I am very interested in "innovation from below": when marginalized people are creating and diffusing technological solutions or technological change (Hess et al. 2016, Williams 2019). Afro-futuristic and African-futuristic science fiction novels and films are one way to access black-centered socio-technical imaginaries and the original innovations of Black people. Plus they are fun! I have read a few of the eight authors (Butler, Hopkinson, Jemisin, Okorafor, Onyebuchi, Reynolds, Smith, and Solomon) listed below, but most are new to me and I look forward to reading them.
These books emphasize the inequitable results of environmental racism colliding with climate change to negatively impact Black lives. Faith in something (science and technology, or the supernatural, or self-definition) helps to drive narrative here.