Wild Seed: Two African immortals battle for supremacy in early America

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Wild Seed by Octavia Butler science fiction book reviewsWild Seed by Octavia Butler

Wild Seed (1980) was written last in Octavia Butler’s 5-book PATTERNIST series, but comes first in chronology. The next books, by internal chronology, are Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976). Butler was later unsatisfied with Survivor (1978) and elected to not have it reprinted, so I will focus on the main four volumes. Wild Seed is an origin story set well before later books and can stand on its own. It’s one of those books whose basic plot could be described in just a few paragraphs, but the themes it explores are deep, challenging, and thought-provoking. I’ve read a lot of academic discussion of the book, but my approach is always on whether the book is engaging as a science fiction/fantasy story.

Wild Seed is the story of Doro, a being who inhabits and discards human bodies at will, who first arose in the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt. Initially he was a just the sickly youngest child of 12 siblings, but when he was dying he accidentally took over his mother and father’s bodies to survive. After that he spent millennia continually switching bodies and creating seed colonies in West Africa where he attempts to breed people with psychic abilities, creating more and more powerful beings. However, if they ever become a threat to him, he destroys them without hesitation. For reasons unknown even to himself, he takes the greatest pleasure in taking the bodies of such psychic beings.

One day Doro detects the presence of Anyanwu, a powerful black female shape-shifter and healer. She can heal her own body and change into the shape of any animal or person, and has lived for over 300 years. Doro knows her genetic abilities could be tremendous if he breeds her with the right partners, because Doro thinks of humans merely as livestock intended to further his psychic breeding projects. Ayanwu is a proud creature, but she recognizes that his power is even greater and more lethal, so eventually she agrees to be taken to the New World on a slaver ship, taking the Middle Passage that so many slaves from Africa travelled. But because Doro rules the crew, who are mostly his ‘people,’ including his white son Isaac, they don’t make the trip in chains. During the trip, Anyanwu, who knows no English or Western customs, is slowly taught the ways of the New World.

Upon reaching the New World, Doro mates with Anyanwu but then decides that she should marry his son Isaac, as he thinks this union will produce the most promising offspring. Initially she is unhappy with this situation, but as she learns that Isaac is a decent man and nothing like his ruthless immortal father, she settles into this new life in the town of Wheatley. It turns out that Doro has numerous seed communities, and they revere and fear him as a god-like being who can take their lives at his whim. But he also provides them protection from Indian attacks and sometimes from white racism. Sometimes he takes white bodies, other times black bodies, but his freedom of movement is better with the former. So he comes and goes, checking on each place, mating with the most promising women, and then moving on.

The relationship of Doro and Anyanwu is an uneasy one — he knows that she does not love him and resents his ruthless killing and domination of his people, yet he recognizes her value as a breeder. She is also a strong-willed woman who does not easily submit to him, a situation unthinkable for an all-powerful being like himself. One day fateful events involving Isaac and their daughter Nweke drive her to turn into an animal and run away, since Doro cannot track her in that form.

A hundred years later, Doro discovers Anyanwu in a Southern plantation colony, where she has been conducting her own version of a seed village, one lacking the fear of death and oppression of Doro. When he tries to force himself into this community, Anyanwu threatens to kill herself, the only viable threat for Doro. He agrees to back off and be less contemptuous of his seed people, but it is an ambiguous victory.

There are so many themes and dichotomies to explore here: master vs slave, man vs woman, white vs black, killer vs healer, Africa vs New World, African tribal networks vs modern Western communities, colonialism vs autonomy, coercion vs cooperation, etc. The genius about Butler’s books is that they dive into these complicated themes without resorting to convenient moralizing or stereotypes. The book is almost exclusively focused on the relationship of Doro and Anyanwu, but it is a constantly-shifting one. Certainly Doro is a capricious killer and parasite, treating his people like livestock that exist for his convenience only. But once he encounters the strong female presence of Anyanwu, whose powers manifest as a healer and protector of families and communities, he has to reassess his millennia of cruel behavior. And despite Anyanwu finding herself in the slave position initially, she does everything in her power to resist in a peaceful and reasoning way.

Their relationship is all about the struggle for control. Whether this plays itself out in gender, skin color, master vs slave, Old vs New World, we are constantly confronted with this dualism. And while Doro could be easily categorized as the dominant male, slaver and killer, he also has a paternalistic attitude towards his peoples. He also has a conflicted connection with race, taking over both black and white bodies, and understanding the New World ways of America but having millennia of experience in Africa and the Old World. Meanwhile, Anyanwu is in many ways like Dana, the protagonist of Butler’s Kindred, a strong woman forced into submission by a cruel and paternalistic master, but still retaining her resilience and strength, fighting to protect her family and children from harm. It is part of the centuries-long struggle that black women have fought against slavery and domination. This is a book that demands repeat readings, analysis, and reflection, but also remains a compulsive reading experience, a tight story focused on the complicated entwined fates of these immortal African beings.

I listened to the Wild Seed audiobook narrated by Dion Graham, a gifted voice actor who has appeared in a number of films and dramas including The Wire. He is given a very difficult assignment here, which he pulls off magnificently. He needs to give a strong African identity to his two lead characters, Doro and Anyanwu, and also convey their immortal perspective. But once they reach America, they encounter various settlers and communities, and Doro himself is constantly switching bodies, so I was very impressed that Dion also switched accents accordingly.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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3 comments

  1. I own almost all of Octavia Butler’s books but haven’t read a single one of them. I made a resolution to read her this year.

  2. I think Wild Seed is a good one to start with to see if you like her work. I plan to read all her major books this year if I can.

  3. Great fantasy story but so many crappy covers. http://loveyalit.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/WildSeedCoverChoices.jpg I bought the one on the left.

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