I received a review copy of Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed” from the publishers via Netgalley. The book was originally written in 1980, and is being re-released as an e-book by Open Road Integrated Media.
Before I get into my review in which I gush about how awesome Octavia Butler is, I’d like to share this video which is a mini-documentary (it’s only about two minutes long) about her life and writing. It features Samuel Delaney and N.K. Jemisin talking about her books, and it makes me very happy.
“Wild Seed” is the first book in the Patternist series, but it was the last one published. It’s one of the C. S. Lewis type deals where the books don’t go in the order that they were written, and I’m okay with that. Apparently Butler didn’t like “Survivor,” so it hasn’t been reprinted since the 70s.
If you’d like to read the series chronologically, it goes:
- Wild Seed
- Mind of My Mind
- Clay’s Ark
“Wild Seed” describes a power struggle between two immortal mutants, Doro and Anyanwu. Doro was born in ancient Egypt, but he is able to switch from one body to another at a whim, killing the person whose form he takes. He is obsessed with trying to find others who could share his longevity, and so he begins a breeding program, gathering up psychically talented individuals in the hopes of creating a race of gifted mutants. This quest takes him to a small village in Africa, where he discovers Anyanwu, a shape-shifting medicine woman who has been alive for three hundred years. Anyanwu is lured by Doro’s vision and the hope that she could have children who would not die, and agrees to come with him to the New World, where she begins to realize that she has become his slave.
So, there’s the obvious slavery theme. Octavia Butler whacks you over the head with the realization of the emotional and psychological impact of slavery, not just in the moment that it happens, but also the way that it shapes future generations. She’s not gentle about it, and it comes with a bit of a shock. She makes sure her readers get it. She’s a very special writer because she is able to explore topics like slavery, race, and gender in her stories in such a way that she perfectly captures the dynamics of different relationships, but at the same time she’s not preachy about it. Her messages are organically woven into the story, and it’s brilliant.
“Wild Seed” is a mix of alternate-history/historical fiction/sci-fi. One of the things that I enjoyed was the way that Anyanwu’s powers were described; she has the ability to rearrange the molecules of her body to cure sicknesses or take different forms.
“There were things in your hand that should not have been there,” she told him. “Living things too small to see. I have no name for them, but I can feel them and know them when I take them into my body. As soon as I know them, I can kill them within myself. I gave you a little of my body’s weapon against them.”
And just like that, she gives Anwanyu knowledge of germ theory as she heals an infection in Doro’s hand. She can make antibodies. I can’t stress enough how cool that is. (Not that we can’t make antibodies, but she can do it better.) And with the ability to rearrange herself to take any form, Anyanwu isn’t helpless. Yes, she’s being psychologically manipulated by Doro, and yes, he could kill her and take her body quite easily, but at the same time she could rearrange her molecules to give herself incredible strength and then crush him. Doro and Anyanwu’s relationship is complicated. There’s the slavery dynamic, but there’s also the fact that both of them have psychic powers and are relatively evenly matched. You know that the two of them have to come to terms with each other because they’re the only immortals, even if that takes a couple hundred years for them to work out their differences and make peace with each other.
My favorite scene in the book was on the voyage to America when Anyanwu shape-shifted and swam with dolphins. Despite the serious tone of the book, it has its share of lighthearted and whimsical moments.
Octavia Butler is a powerful writer, and I am planning on reading the rest of the books in this series. I would highly recommend “Wild Seed” to anyone who’s interested in sci-fi that explores race and gender themes.