Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

“Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages. The village was a comfortable mud-walled place surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees. But Doro realized even before he reached it that its people were gone. Slavers had been to it before him. With their guns and their greed, they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years.”

Considering the praise Octavia Butler’s novels consistently receive in the science fiction community, it is with some embarrassment that I waited until now to read her work. Wild Seed was one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read. In my opinion, there are few authors writing today, or even yesterday, that can match Butler’s talent for story-telling.

The story takes place during the slave trade and the establishment of the American colonies. It revolves around a love/hate relationship between Doro, an immortal mind force who transfers himself from body to body each time his host is killed, and Anyanwu, a three hundred year old shape shifter who specializes in healing and medicines. Others with psychic powers also exist who Doro calls seeds; he gathers these special beings and breeds them together to harness their powers, hoping to make them stronger with each new generation. Although many of these seeds have formidable powers, none are immortal like him.

One day, Doro discovers Anyanwu after arriving at a seed Village under his protection in Africa that had been destroyed by slavers. He convinces the woman to leave the only home she has ever known and to come with him across the ocean to his seed colony in New York, but soon she realizes all that this invitation entails enslaving her will to Doro’s. In his immortality, Doro has slowly lost any resemblance of humanity and expects all of those he saves to follow his orders without question, killing and possessing those who refuse. Anyanwu at first is amazed by this man older than herself, but soon rebels against his sadism and cruel demands that chafes against the social customs of her native practices and her individual freewill. The love/hate relationship extends centuries as Anyanwu flees from Doro after suffering from the horrors of his breeding project, until both immortals come to realize that they need each other.

Butler explores genetic breeding without degenerating into distracting scientific jargon. She connects Doro’s obsession with genetic breeding to the slavery occurring in the historical backdrop. Butler laces her exposition with commentary on slavery; she draws comparisons between the brutality of American slavery wand Doro’s benign demand for subservience and habit of breeding his people like animals. In one early scene on the African continent, we witness the harsh branding of slaves before they enter the slave ships, Doro describes the cruel conditions on the ships that travel the Middle Passage; the reader is able to compare this with the treatment the soon-to-be citizens of his seed colonies receive on Doro’s ship where nobody is in chains, everyone has plenty of good food, and people are mostly free to do whatever they want as long as they do not defy him. One on level, this juxtaposition exposes the exceptional cruelty of the American slavery. On another level, Butler also identifies Doro’s practices as a kind of slavery, even if benevolent in comparison to typical American practices. Anyanwu later in the novel points out that Doro’s version may be less cruel, but it is still slavery. If people in his villages disobey him they are killed. They still make their decisions based around fear of their master; it just happens to be a mostly benevolent master who cares only about breeding rather than forcing bodies to commit hard labor. They wear his invisible metaphorical brand just as much as the physical brand of a slave working in the American south. Other subtle forms of slavery permeate the novel such as Anyanwu’s culture shock at experiencing the restrictive and cumbersome clothes of European female dress and the gender expectations the European men have of their European wives, which is a kind of gender slavery. She even explores African slavery of other African, showing African tribes colluding with white Europeans, enslaving members of other tribes, and drawing on the past to show the imperialistic practices of Ancient Egypt in regard to Nubia that paints a complex picture that transcends a white versus black mentality. Butler skillfully weaves these smaller commentaries about the essence of slavery into the narrative to show slavery is multifaceted and comes in very subtle forms. Butler reminds us that you don’t necessarily need to be in literal chains to be slave.

Butler’s dedication to feminist themes is apparent not only through her commentary on gender oppression, but through the character of Anyanwu herself who is a strong black female who uses her power to stand as an equal partner with her husbands; it is only when Doro shows up that she finds someone who is capable of temporarily dominating her, although he fails in the long run. Anyanwu consistently rebels against the gender restrictions of African and European societies, functioning as a matriarchal figure of power, especially at the end of the novel when she establishes her own plantation. Gender-bending and bi-sexuality is examined through Doro’s ability to transfer his essence into other bodies and Anyanwu’s ability to shape shift. Attempted rape is also explored through a couple of incidents in the narrative and handled tactfully.

Running throughout the narrative is fear’s role in limiting our agency. Butler shows that we are really slaves to our own fears. Fear is what allows slavery to exist, preventing the more numerous slaves from rebelling against Southern whites. Fear is what inspires loyalty from Doro’s subjects. Fear over losing her children and her own life is what initially prevents Anyanwu from rebelling against Doro’s authority. Fear is what allows Doro to control others, such as powerful whites. Butler creates an implicit association between fear and power. Anyanwu’s fears, however, are based around her love for others. Her fear is for her children’s sake, caring little for her own life, with a few exceptions.

Anyanwu is a kind of Ying to Doro’s Yang; her immortality and the loss of her children make her appreciate them more, while Doro’s immortality and the loss of his children deaden his soul over time. Both Anyanwu and Doro are interesting and believable characters; the powers they possess are not just cool SFnal elements grafted onto stock character types, but an intimate part of their personality. Doro’s powers have corrupted him, proving Lord Acton’s words that, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Doro acts like a god and his own people revere him as a god. Anyanwu’s defiance and own immortality is what eventually humbles him since she is the only being like himself who is capable of reminding him that he is not a god; she is the key to restoring his humanity, which occurs at the slightly predictable, but powerful conclusion when Doro breaks down into an emotional flood of tears after Anyanwu threatens to kill herself because she is tired of the cat-and-mouse games and losing her friends to Doro’s sadistic pragmatism. Doro eventually falls in love with her. If one theme expressed through Doro is that absolute power corrupts absolutely than another theme is that no one has become so corrupt, so inhuman, that they cannot rediscover their humanity, that they cannot learn to love again. Butler sets up love in binary opposition to fear, with a few exceptions such as the character of Isaac, a son of Doro, who seems to both love and fear his father. Indeed, later in the novel Anyanwu establishes a plantation for outcast seeds, not for the purpose of pragmatic breeding like Doro’s settlements, but to offer people like herself a safe haven away from the world. Unlike Doro she doesn’t rule over them with fear, but she does lead them, relying on love, trust, gratitude, and mutual respect. Doro eventually stumbles on this plantation and learns a way other than his own cruel breeding practices for producing powerful seed. On her plantation. Anyanwu gets results without tyranny and forced breeding. Butler through the two different seed communities shows the two possibilities for community relations, one based on fear and tyranny, the other on love and respect.

One reviewer on Livejournal (http://community.livejournal.com/50books_poc/182162.html) sees Doro as “an extraordinarily effective allegory for (among many other things) institutional slavery, colonialism, investment banking and the patriarchy. It comes in many different guises but we always recognize – and however unwillingly, must obey – its voice.” He represents all these negative institutions and actions, but at the same time he represents the positive achievement of the African cultural legacy itself. The narrative tells us that he is a Nubian that is older than Christ and lived at the time of Egypt’s cultural bloom. He exists before the rise of European ascendency. He is Africa and all its cultures.  Butler links him metaphorically to Africa’s ancient past; he embodies forgotten wisdom and glory of Africa, calling the lie to white myths about the superiority of their culture.

“He was writing, and she knew from experience that he would be making marks unlike those in any of his books. ‘It’s a very old language,’ he had told her once. ‘So old that no one living can read it.’ ”

This clinging to cultural roots is perhaps the most important theme of all. Anyanwu’s strongest rebellion is not a feminist rebellion against patriarchy or a black woman’s disgust at slavery in its myriad forms, but her desperation to keep the customs, language, and cultural practices of her own African people without substituting it for European culture. She adopts certain practices out of necessity, but never forgets her African roots, naming her children with African names in the language of her people, balking at the restrictive European dress that women must wear, and refusing to sacrifice her old ways for new ones. All of these issues (feminism, racism, and cultural roots) are of course connected, but I wanted to identify the impulse that seems strongest in Anyanwu’s character.

Butler’s strength is that she can write about divisive social issues and it doesn’tfeel like she is writing about divisive social issues. The narrative never feels preachy; the issues she explores never get in the way of the story. If not exactly an innovative stylist or aesthetically mind-blowing, Butler still manages to write fluid prose that is effective at telling the story, and is still a cut above your average Science Fiction writer in terms of quality. She is an excellent story-teller with an uncanny ability to refresh old tropes and make other skilled science fiction writers look like amateurs.  This book stands as a stunning example of the possibilities inherent in the science fiction genre for exploring powerful social issues, while still telling a great story centered on interesting characters and ideas.

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2 thoughts on “Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

  1. Well…wow! This sounds like a formidable read and with complex insight. You probably know my TBR schedule is not very flexible, but sometime…I MUST tackle this. Great review!

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