Octavia E. Butler
Grand Central Publishing
Wild Seed is, chronologically, the first book of Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series and I wouldn’t quite call it science fiction. While the stories that occur later in the series have more SF elements, Wild Seed is more of an anthropological fantasy. Nonetheless, Butler’s novel contains themes relevant to those we have talked to in class and introduces new ideas about race, patriarchy and eugenics, and control.
Wild Seed begins in the mid 1700s following Doro, an immortal “man” who has incredible powers; he is able to transfer his consciousness from one body to another (an act that is later revealed to feel pleasurable) which extinguishes the consciousness of the target body. In other words, he kills, and, because the bodies he inhabits don’t last very long, he kills often. The gender, race, religion, whatever, of the body doesn’t matter; it is only a simple matter of jumping from one body to the next.
Doro’s goal is create a race of humans with abilities like his own. He is a collector of sorts. He senses individuals who have powers (mind reading, telekinesis, healing, etc) and puts them into colonies, breeding them like sheep to get their best attributes, trying to make individuals who have both stronger powers and greater control over them. His sheep see him as god, the ultimate patriarch. They give them their undying loyalty. He is never particularly or overtly cruel to his flock, but the threat of an instantaneous death as a punishment for disobedience is a constant pressure in all his colonies.
At the opening of the novel, Doro comes to collect Anyanwu. Anyanwu is an African women who has lived for the last 300 years. Her powers, aside from immortality, include shape-shifting (her favorite forms beside her woman form are men, dolphins, or birds), precise molecular control of her body, and incredible strength. In Doro’s ~4000 years of existence he has never seen an individual like her. She is the only other immortal being he has ever met, and, unlike the majority of the people he breeds, she has absolute control over her powers. Doro considers her incredibly rare, the best kind of “wild seed,” or new genetic material outside of the human lines he has bred. Despite having 47 children, her immortality has never been passed on. She has outlived most of her kids.
Anyanwu is the quintessential mother character who has established a loose matriarchy in Africa. Doro manipulates this character to get her out of Africa. He tells her “If you come with me, I think someday, I can show you children you will never have to bury. A mother should not have to watch her children grow old and die” (23). Anyanwu also sees what a threat Doro is to her community; he would be able to kill anyone of her living children until she agrees to go. So, out of both curiosity and martyrdom, Anyanwu marries Doro, and, expecting to have his kids and be his equal, she leaves Africa for America.
Doro and Anyanwu take a slave ship overseas and on the ride over, Anyanwu meets Isaac, one of Doro’s most favorite sons. Isaac takes a romantic liking to Anyanwu and Anyanwu laughs this off as a boyish crush. However, as Doro, Anyanwu, and Isaac arrive in America, Doro gives Anyanwu to Isaac. This pisses Anyanwu off to no end; she thought that she was Doro’s equal, not something to be given to whomever Doro pleases. As it turns out, Doro is much more concerned with human breeding then actually respecting Anyanwu’s wishes or desires. She refuses to marry Isaac, and Doro is on the verge of killing her before Isaac intervenes and talks to Anyanwu. Isaac eventually convinces her to marry him and keep on living. But from that day forward, Anyanwu considers Doro a bitter enemy.
I won’t reveal the ending a significant amount but it is somewhat unsatisfying. After developing her characters for 200 pages, putting Anyanwu and Doro at each others throats, Doro always on the verge of killing Anyanwu and Anyanwu bitterly unhappy with her situation, Butler flips a switch. For some inexplicable reason, Doro starts trying to undo all of his past harms to Anyanwu. When Anyanwu threatens to kill herself it shocks Doro into repentance and he no longer tries to control her. He decides that he cannot handle immortality without her. Anyanwu, for some inexplicable reason besides being an incredibly empathetic soul, forgives him. I found this resolution to the intricately constructed conflict uncharacteristic of both Anyanwu and Doro. It was clear that from about a quarter into the story that this wouldn’t really be a traditional love story then in the last five pages it suddenly changes its mind.
Still, despite the characterization issues, Wild Seed gives us a lot to think about. There is the matter of gender and consciousness. Both Anyanwu and Doro have gendered consciousness yet they don’t necessarily have gendered bodies. Or, how Doro’s abduction of strong individuals and his purposefully breeding of them is reminiscent of both slavery and eugenics. How living in a patriarchy effects with who, what, and when we breed. And, more than anything, what it means to be human. Butler seems to argue that a sense of empathy is required to be human. It is only when Doro starts repenting and actually feeling his actions does he become a likable character. Again, this change doesn’t make much sense in the context of the rest of the book, but the theme is still there.
Overall, I would recommend reading Wild Seed. Butler has a great writing style and somehow includes a tremendous amount of information and world building in a small amount of space. The story flows smoothly, is engaging, and challenges us to think about our societal limitations and expectations about passing on our genetic material.