Review of Octavia E. Butler’s “Dawn: Book One of the Xenogenesis Trilogy” & Tea Recipe

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Be sure to check out the special literary tea recipe below, inspired by Octavia Butler’s “Lilith’s Brood” series!

Inadvertently, I was introduced to this gem of a science fiction novel, all due to lead woman Charlotte Wessels, from Dutch metal act Delain, citing this series as the main source of inspiration for the title and concept of Delain’s recent album “The Human Contradiction.” Having just seen the band live and being blown away by their very energetic performance, I bought myself a copy of the album, and have been listening to it incessantly since last Friday, without any serious doubts, whether my interest in the album will suddenly wane. The premise and themes behind some of the lyrics only deepened and crystallized in my mind, as I was reading Dawn by Octavia Butler, carefully and conscientiously, for the last few days. This was one of those rare, paradigm-shifting books, much like Interview with the Vampire, which greatly enlightened me on the deeper directions fiction can take, or the different perceptual angles of our own humanity, that can be conceived, through the rich, fluid tapestry of a science fiction story, that allows much more sociological and psychological depth and imagination to enter the area of exploring other intelligent, self-conscious species, other than ourselves.

Let’s face it! Aliens, in popular media, are most often insipid, and completely leeched of any psychological or sociological depth, there is almost an inverse relationship in many alien films (including the famous film Aliens) that the only beings capable of technological ingenuity of any kind must somehow be monstrously depraved. As a human race, we are eminently arrogant enough to circumscribe our alien characters to the mold of being entirely dimwitted, monstrous, easily domesticated, and easily eradicated above all else. We do the same thing all the time, when some people think about God, they bestow their empty God mold with such undesirable, antiquated characteristics, that usually curiously reflect more about the believer in this God themselves, more-so than any real authentic portrayal of something that is eminently more intelligent than ourselves. Our imaginations are lapsed, and stupidly muddled in tropes and dogmatic ways of thinking, when it comes to conceptualizing aliens. We make them insectoid, reptilian and amphibious, as though letting them serve as placeholders for our own fear of nature than anything else. We have this dogged belief-a ridiculous silly notion- that we are most powerful in the universe, to the extent where our scriptures, codified knowledge, and our own silly, muddled, arrogant ways of thinking somehow has more power than any other form of intelligence in the universe. So when we are given the imaginative power to think of anything that thus is more intelligent than us, or holds more profound, very different (alien) ideological or sociological ideals, we perplexedly make these creatures as monstrous as possible, giving us the power to  imaginatively crush and subdue higher intelligence.

Our alien stories- these generic, almost reductive vengeance novels against higher intelligence-  explains why we killed our most wisest role-models, who had more enlightened ideas- Jesus, Socrates, etc. The irony about Jesus is that Jesus almost doesn’t even factor much in some extreme forms of Christianity, which has long abandoned deep contemplation over ideas like pacifism, forgiveness, and empathy, which are dangerous ideas and seriously irrelevant in a more agrarian, hierarchical way of thinking.  Most religions start out ideally, but progressively become more overblown, abstruse, and eventually die out, and they eventually become outmoded, as a result, once human society finally decides to slowly take up some of the ethical principles that have long been preached to the point of absurdity. Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, much like many Greek myths, Christian scriptures, shows our selfish propensity to destroy, distrust, and eventually misconstruct higher ethical ideals. The aliens, in this story, are very deeply developed, and very believable; they have higher sensory abilities, they have the ability to manipulate genetic information, and they don’t have the same ridiculous notions of race, gender, and sexuality, which are almost deified in the world of humanity.

Xenogenesis, as the trilogy title implies, is very much like a poetic reenactment of the Genesis drama, but we are talking about a much more metaphorical reenactment, not a literal one which some churches use to stymie deep ethical contemplation. Octavia Butler brilliantly uses the template of the story of humanity, to retell their tale of Genesis, or a resurrection of sorts, by the aliens that salvage them from a planet that was completely destroyed by the human vices of hubris (very Greek, more importantly, very ancient in the world of myths, in principle). Lilith is the one that is called out to be a leader of the surviving humans, who are being rehabilitated from their violent pasts, and being given the chance to restore humanity, by adhering closely to the ancient moral rules of selflessness, empathy, forgiveness. Predictably (as the Genesis myth goes), the human beings question, fear these aliens, and revolt against them, and even commit the first sin of murder all over again, which Octavia Butler makes us beg the question: Is murder and selfishness, intrinsic to our humanity; are these aliens perhaps being too hopeful and idealistic, when believing humanity, even when encountering higher intelligence or higher ways of nobler/ethical thinking, can really follow these things. As much as people bemoan and deride the Jewish or Christian scriptures, or any other myths from humanity, they are far too entrenched in patterns of stupid thinking, not being able to see the deeper glimmers and reflections of our humanity, as seen in all these stories. Rather, we construct our own rules, which sometimes have no grounds in reality. We tend to reconstruct our own history, even to justify genocidal violence against other groups, really believe that variance in human sexuality is a sign of the devil.

Undaunted by tropes and ridiculous conscripted archetypes for alien characters, Octavia Butler’s novel never just takes the Hollywoodized message that humanity is the only eminent species in the universe. She is much like Madeleine L’Engle (who wrote an other thought-provoking science fiction trilogy, called The Time Quintet Series with eccentric, wise alien characters), in that we are given a much deeper, more profound vision of the universe. This is not some stupid space opera story, where the aliens are again technologically advanced or imaginative, but are somehow ridiculously/inexplicably primitive in their sociological or ideological progression.  Maybe, the fuddy-duddy way of envisaging aliens as not being either sociological or ideological progression (and as automaton invaders, just seeking “clean” water….Stephen Hawkings), reflects Octavia Butler’s intentions for writing this novel. Her novel ideas were sparked by a horrible B-Rated science fiction movie, when she realized that she could write something better than what is being served out to people. Like myself, she was sick of all the unimaginative alien stories, like the abduction ones (almost always a psychological recreation of our dreaded fear of dentists), or the terrible alien invasion ones (though, I do have a fondness for the late seventies Alien film; it’s a classic for a reason..). And, I actually kinda liked Avatar, for at least putting the psychoanalysis back on us, and not showcasing human beings as somehow the smartest, or even the most advanced species, in terms of our ethical ideals.  Was it still somewhat cliche-ridden, and silly? Kinda. But, it was still much closer to what Octavia Butler manages to do with this novel is bravely subvert this alien narrative principle that humanity is always the most valiant and pure of heart, and that the dreaded alien dragon must be vanquished, without ever being given the chance to give voice to their beliefs and customs.

Interview with the Vampire revolutionized the vampire genre, much like Octavia Butler powerfully revolutionizes the way science fiction stories are written; the aliens, or the species that was once othered and ostracized, is now being given a chance to speak their mind, and even show humanity in an entirely different, more scrutinizing light. Dawn is a very layered story, acting as a recreation of the Genesis  or creation myth on one level, serving as a story that encapsulates the core of our human struggle to transcend out primeval, antiquated, somewhat conservative structures that hold us back;and above all, it is a story that treads the same group as a Sophocles or Shakespeare play, by once again pointing out that the classic tragic flaw of our humanity is our hubris, and our ability to render other people around us as being undignified, and worthy of being marginalized and enslaved. And, this is a story that deeply resonated with me, because it is really, really hard to find stories that go beyond the conventional limits of genre ghettos, and escape into the much wilder world of unexplored terrain in science fiction novels. What are purists, except for those that wish to limit the creative potential of our stories? (I’m talking to you silly vampire purists, who mistaken vampires as a true entity, where they’re really fictitious, in essence..) These same people are that way about their alien stories, and nostalgia for more conventional ideas of aliens is fine. Nostalgia can be very cathartic,but if all our alien tales are about the inherent superiority of humanity over all other forms of self-conscious, sentient life; we need to rethink this more, if we are ever going to allow our alien stories to evolve.

And thank goodness, the science fiction world had Octavia Butler to daringly encroach upon the grounds of deeper, more innovative imagination, and allow science fiction to explore issues of gender, race, sexuality, and all the pertinent struggles of our humanity, in ways that can be really uncomfortable. She does it all with very clean writing, devoid of verbiage, and lays out a brilliant, very heart-wrenching at times, poignant, methodical reflection on What it means to be human? I highly recommend this first novel, and I plan on exploring subsequent books in this trilogy, as Octavia Butler’s novels are a resevoir of very deep ideas, and anyone that wants their fiction to go beyond the bounds of somewhat boring nostalgia retreads, of the same old tropes, into perpetuity, then you need to do yourself a favor and pick up an Octavia Butler book!! Even if you don’t even like science fiction, her books are focused primarily on deep character exploration, to the extent, anyone that loves such novels that allow quieter moments of precise, extremely subtle character development to  lull you into a a beautiful story, much like a brilliant Hayao Miyazaki film, will enjoy the hell of this book, and find it hard not to want to read all three books in this genious trilogy in one full, eye-opening reading session, outstretched to last yourself a week or more.

Lilith’s Brood Tea Recipe- Brought to you by Tea at Reverie!

Lilith’s Brood” Tea, inspired by Octavia Butler’s amazing series. This one has both honey and molasses, representing the polarizing forces in social relationships between human beings that sometimes limits our growth and progression. These are themes that are vital to Octavia Butler’s fantastic scifi trilogy.

Here is the surprisingly tasty/interesting tea-recipe- You’re the final judge of the molasses, whether or not that is something that drastically detracts from the sweet taste of the tea. I feel it adds a bold undercurrent to the sweet, slightly flowery taste of the Organic Wildflower Honey. Also, the contrasting tastes allow your tea palate to have a different, somewhat tenuous grasp of the psychological complexity of humanity, if that makes any sense, but it does make sense if you’re thinking and pondering this, while sipping this tea, in the midst of reading Octavia Butler’s novel.

Picture of this wonderful tea, which tastes wonderful, alone and separate from the below literary tea recipe
Photo courtesy of Celestial Seasoning’s tea website

Lilith’s Brood Tea Recipe:
-2 Tea Bags of Fair-Trade (trying to go all fair-trade, even though it’s pricey) Gypsy Zhena Lavender Rooibos Tea
-1 Tea Bag of Celestial Seasoning’s Jammin Lemon Ginger Blend
-Small spoonful of Organic Wildflower Honey
-Small dollop of molasses (keep the amount minimal, but enough to darken the tea just a tad, make the taste a bit more subtly bold)
-Dash of Sage

I put a lot of thought into this tea, on my way home from evening Paralegal courses, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I’ll just say trains are the best place for writers, readers, and philosophers!

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