University of Cambridge
Lilith began at the beginning of a certain kind of world. She is a shadow at the margins of Christian and Judaic origin stories, and a figure invoked in arcane and esoteric arenas – mother, child destroyer and knowledge seeker rather the reluctant victim of a serpent’s guile. Lilith is the other of Eve. Coalescing around her is a set of myths and stories, potencies and potentialities, in which generation, descent, and inauguration figure largely. Across the centuries Lilith has been glimpsed in the spirit-worlds that humans have made, and she is often identified as an actor breaching boundaries between the magical and the real. In Octavia Butler’s Dawn novels, known as the Xenogenesis trilogy, she has a new instantiation and a newly augmented body; Lilith Ayapo is an African American woman. Awoken by alien ‘traders’ after the end of total nuclear war she finds herself off-world and after the end of human history; what is left for humans on earth is only a kind of time-limited after-life.
The aliens have rescued humans and restored the earth, but it soon becomes clear that the earth is not to be given back but will be repaired and strip-mined. It has been salvaged for later use. Humans, it turns out, are also salvage, collected up and refurbished, and then invited to partake in a trade – to join and mix with their hosts who relish their biological make-up – who want literally to sample them. As numerous commentators have pointed out the invitation is not one that can be reasonably refused; which is to say that consent is meaningful only when the context makes it so. Lilith ‘consents’ and becomes the handmaiden of new times.
Lilith produces hybrid children who will contribute to the re-making of the alien species. By doing so they will contribute to the extinction of Lilith’s own kind as her kind; xenogenesis being defined as the supposed production of children permanently different from their parent.
Lilith is often seen as a betrayer but also as the one who chooses life – even at the high cost at which it is offered, through a trade which is not one, which is so radically uneven as to make the term meaningless. This Lilith then is once again the mother and the destroyer – a giver and a terminator of life. In Butler’s work however the actors and their motivations have shifted; the series is intended as, and is read as, an allegory of colonisation and slavery and is powerful as a mediation on what follows; what possible futures there may be, and for whom?
Lilith Ayapo was there at the start of that coalescence of ideas came to constitute Afrofuturism (a marker of the origins of which, at least for SF writing, might be Mark Dery’s 1993 Black to the Futures article). Lilith breaks with what came before and recognises it as no longer available dead end. She finds an opening – if not for her then for her children’s generation. But it’s also clear that Dawn might be viewed through the lens of Afro pessimism – central to which is the sense that there can be no moving on, that particular kinds of trade foreclose the possibility of any kind of future.
In the end the human survivors are offered an uncertain chance on chilly, unforgiving Mars, of continuing something human. For many – including Lilith – this comes too late; the trade has been made; going forwards there already hybrid offspring, entanglements, even love between aliens and humans. Butler lets this be felt – but she also makes it clear that a bitterness remains. Justin Louis Mann (Mann, pp 61-76) has explored Dawn as an example of ‘pessimistic futurism’ and this seems apt.
At the end of the trilogy Lilith’s last role is as a witness to the process by which agreement is tentatively reached for the enablement of the continuance of construct human/alien ‘maker’, a process through which the conquest of that which was purely human will finally be completed; when full xenogenesis will come.
Witnessing might be all she can do. In the series Lilith often has the right to speak –and takes it when she does not, but she does not ever have the right to be heard; her orientation, her opinions, her sense, is disregarded in favour the attention that is paid to her bodily responses; Lilith is read. Or rather, as other humans are, she is eaten, savoured, wanted. But she is not heard, listened to, or given voice. Aliens audit, sample, collect; including collecting (what they define as) human exotica; cell-lines, mutations, DNA. But what they collect they do not give voice to in meaningful ways. Central then to this account of colonial violence is the question – and I also acknowledge that in writing this, in the act of narration, I should also ask this of myself – the question of who has the right to speak?
Mann, Justin Louis (2018) ‘Pessimistic futurism: Survival and reproduction in Octavia Butler’s Dawn’ Feminist Theory, Volume: 19 issue: 1, 61-76,