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

Reposting to include Marion’s new review.

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.

~Stuart Starosta


Wild Seed by Octavia Butler science fiction book reviewsI reread Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler, recently. It is the only book in THE PATTERNIST series that I’ve read, and it held up — more than holding up, this exploration of various types of power may be as relevant in this historical moment as it was in 1980 when it was published.

Wild Seed is the story of Anyanwu and Doro. While it was written after the other books in Butler’s PATTERNIST series (Mind of my Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster,), it starts the story of the unusually-powered humans that comprise the patternist world by introducing us to Doro, a man who is at least thirty-seven hundred years old when the story starts. As a youth, Doro suffered a terrible physical episode, called a “transition,” which led, in his case, to the death of his physical body and the “jumping” of his consciousness into his mother. “Transition” is an experience all the super-powered people go through, and it is more than occasionally fatal.

Doro survives by possessing the bodies of people. When the book starts, Doro is clearly no longer fully human. He feeds on the energy of the person whose body he takes. Doro realizes that this is just one of several types of power some people have (others include telepathy and telekinesis) and sets about finding them and breeding them. Doro is basically a rancher; he is attempting to breed an advanced race of humans, but many are primarily for his own personal use. He speaks of “taking” people and “wearing” bodies as we might wear a sweater.

In the midst of the European invasion of Africa and the growing slave trade, Doro encounters Anyanwu, who he sees first as an aged widow, the sole survivor of a slaughtered African village. He has traced Anyanwu by his ability to sense her talent, and when confronted by him, Anyanwu reveals the truth. She is about three hundred years old. Her normal form, when she hasn’t disguised it, is that of a twenty-year-old woman. Anyanwu is a healer, able to heal her own body even from fatal wounds, and uses her own body to synthesize compounds that can heal others. She is the only such healer, and near-immortal, that Doro has encountered. By threatening her children and grandchildren, Doro extorts her into coming with him to America, where he has several breeding colonies.

From the beginning, Doro sees Anyanwu as expendable, as a resource, not a person. He plans to make her one of his “breeders,” and will dispose of her after she has fulfilled that purpose. This is Doro’s standard treatment of the humans he thinks of alternately as “his people” and “his children.” Only a few of them, like his son Isaac, stir any genuine affection or love. Anyanwu finds Doro’s threats to her children frighteningly real. She is a powerful woman who can survive fatal injuries, does not age, and can take any animal shape, but she is unable to best Doro. The story is largely the story of Anyanwu’s power and how it competes with and complements Doro’s.

Doro demands complete obedience from his “people” and expects to be treated like a god. In the emotionally shocking centerpiece of the story, Doro and Anyanwu fight over a man named Thomas. Doro has decided to punish Anyanwu because she will not worship him. She does everything he demands, giving him the children he insists on even though he has married her off to his son Isaac. She is unfailingly obedient, but she does not hide her anger from him. To punish her for this, Doro demands she mate with Thomas, an ignorant, racist white man who is interpersonally and physically repugnant because of his ill-health. Thomas demeans and insults Anyanwu. He’s physically filthy. Anyanwu responds to this by starting to heal him. Seeing this, seeing her connect and uncover the sadness and pain that makes Thomas lash out verbally, Doro takes an act of savage vengeance.

Years later, when an elderly Isaac dies, Anyanwu takes animal form and flees, escaping Doro for a hundred years.

When Doro finds her again, she has set up her own compound, taking the disguise of a white man and buying a plantation. It is peopled with her children, and others who have powers. She is not trying to create a new race; she merely sees that people with abilities need help and support from people who understand them. Unlike Doro, she does not kill to “feed,” to punish or create fear. She doesn’t kill at all unless it’s self-defense. And, in fewer than one hundred years, she has made greater genetic progress than Doro has. When Doro does track her down, intending to kill her, it is this fact alone that makes him stay his hand.

Anyanwu has met no other immortal in her life except Doro. Isaac told her once that Doro is still human but his long life is walling up his humanity like a tortoise shell. Without Doro, Anyanwu is looking at centuries of loneliness and loss; but, Doro is a cold killer who threatens everything she cares about in the here-and-now. Watching her navigate that conundrum makes for fascinating reading.

I was startled by how realistic Wild Seed was when I read it in the 1980s. Anyanwu, practically a goddess, is not capable of beating Doro through magic, strength or guile. The fact that Anyanwu makes connections with people and cares about them gives her a different kind of power, one that Doro only comes to understand at the very end. Is morality different for people with different powers? Should it be? This is sociological science fiction, looking at societies and how they react to change, to the different.

There is also some scientific prescience, as when Anyanwu says to Doro, “You cannot know how well people’s bodies remember their ancestors.” In light of recent theories of the effect of generational trauma on DNA, this is a startling accurate insight.

I found some of Anyanwu’s choices disappointing, some of them shocking, and all of them realistic within Butler’s world. And I loved that she never sank into passivity. Even her final bargain with Doro, which could be seen at first glance as despairing, is really Anyanwu giving up on an attempt to “manage” Doro and choosing her own way. And Doro does change, coming to realize that she is a person, not just an object.

A note for some people who are bothered by particular themes: most of the sexual pairings within the book are incestuous. There is no graphic or even very suggestive sex in the book, but the story is very clear about the familial relationships, so be aware.

Butler’s prose is clear and fluid; Anyanwu is a real person even with her powers. Wild Seed left me with a lot to think about. Moral choices, in a real world, are not always easy, and Butler is fearless when it comes to asking the hard moral questions and exploring those answers.

~Marion Deeds

Published in 1980. As the acclaimed Patternist science fiction series begins, two immortals meet in the long-ago past—and mankind’s destiny is changed forever. For a thousand years, Doro has cultivated a small African village, carefully breeding its people in search of seemingly unattainable perfection. He survives through the centuries by stealing the bodies of others, a technique he has so thoroughly mastered that nothing on Earth can kill him. But when a gang of New World slavers destroys his village, ruining his grand experiment, Doro is forced to go west and begin anew. He meets Anyanwu, a centuries-old woman whose means of immortality are as kind as his are cruel. She is a shapeshifter, capable of healing with a kiss, and she recognizes Doro as a tyrant. Though many humans have tried to kill them, these two demi-gods have never before met a rival. Now they begin a struggle that will last centuries and permanently alter the nature of humanity. Hugo and Nebula award–winning author Octavia E. Butler’s sweeping cross-century epic places her “among the best of contemporary SF writers” (Houston Chronicle). This ebook features an illustrated biography of Octavia E. Butler including rare images from the author’s estate.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, 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 lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 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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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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5 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.

  4. Thomas Lemberg /

    Take me off your damn site!!!!!!

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