Pessimistic futurism: Survival and reproduction in Octavia Butler’s Dawn

Justin L Mann*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This article examines the critical work of Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction novel Dawn, which follows Lilith Ayapo, a black American woman who is rescued by an alien species after a nuclear war destroys nearly all life on Earth. Lilith awakens 250 years later and learns that the aliens have tasked her with reviving other humans and repopulating the planet. In reframing Reagan-era debates about security and survival, Butler captured the spirit of ‘pessimistic futurism’, a unique way of thinking and writing black female sexuality, reproduction and survival. Suturing concepts central to both Afro-pessimism and Afrofuturism, pessimistic futurism carefully considers how black female subjectivity and labour create the coming world. By linking human survival to Lilith’s own ability to adapt to the new and dangerous world, Butler offers scholars of black studies a vital interpretive framework for thinking about the points of contact between pessimism and futurism. Specifically, Butler presents a form of futurism brought back to Earth, grounded in the sensibility of the black female experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-76
Number of pages16
JournalFeminist Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 1 2018


  • Afro-pessimism
  • Afrofuturism
  • black feminism
  • reproduction
  • speculative fiction
  • survival

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies


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