Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
19 November, 2013
‘I am here,’ she said in the same quiet voice. ‘You have me.’
‘As much as any man could.’
Black, feminist and the first science fiction writer to be a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Octavia E. Butler is a writer I have long been meaning to read but of whom I was a little too much in awe. Such a deceptively small book, and yet Butler’s Wild Seed tackles some very troubling subjects in a surprisingly accessible manner. It’s not an easy thing for any writer to do. And yet she does it with such ease.
Wild Seed is the story of Anyanwu, chameleon-like, long-lived and with the power to manipulate and change her body, absorbing pain and healing herself and others. When she meets Doro, an equally enigmatic character who is drawn to her special powers, she is afraid but curious. But Doro is different from her; ancient, sly, dangerous, a parasitic spirit who kills to survive. He succeeds in persuading Anyanwu to leave her village in Africa and travel back to his settlement in the New World as his wife and she agrees in exchange for his promise that he won’t touch her family. But soon she realises that Doro has an agenda and will do anything to succeed. He is trying to breed a new people with special powers and has been traveling the world collecting specimen. And as a wild seed, one that he cannot fully understand and therefore control, Anyanwu must use her inherent survival skills in order to protect her descendants and remain free in every sense.
Wild Seed is more than just a tale of migration and different cultures. Butler tackles the issues of possession, slavery and gender in a startlingly honest way. It’s savage and ugly and you wonder at the brutality of people so brilliantly magnified and realised by the spirit that is Doro – he would do anything to get what he wants and he knows just how to go about it.
Doro followed, thinking that he had better get her with a new child as quickly as he could. Her independence would vanish without a struggle. She would do whatever he asked then to keep her child safe. She was too valuable to kill, and if he abducted any of her descendents, she would no doubt goad him into killing her. But once she was isolated in America with an infant to care for, she would learn submissiveness.
And that is exactly the chilling lesson Anyanwu learns. Doro knows her weakness and that is her children.
Living for so long, death, morality and love mean something entirely different to him if at all. Anywanwu is the human, ethical side as Doro is the animal, biological. But this dichotomy is too simplistic for what Butler is trying to achieve. For life is all about the fight, the will to assert power, to pursue what you think is right and most of all, the search for companionship. And eventually, after many centuries, both Anyanwu and Doro find an uneasy truce, but not before her heart has been broken many times and Doro learns an unexpected lesson: compromise.
Wild Seed is storytelling at its richest. It’s harsh, chilling and brutal but not much more than what is recorded in history. Butler tackles the issues of slavery, possession and freedom but does this in a multi-layered, sensitive manner. A complex history deserves a complex treatment and that is exactly what she has achieved.
Doro had reshaped her. She had submitted and submitted and submitted to keep him from killing her even though she had long ago ceased to believe what Isaac had told her – that her longevity made her the right mate for Doro. That she could somehow prevent him from becoming an animal. He was already an animal. But she had formed the habit of submission. In her love for Isaac and for her children, and in her fear of death – especially of the kind of death Doro would inflict – she had given in to him again and again. Habits were difficult to break. The habit of living, the habit of fear … even the habit of love.
I’m not sure whether I can forgive Doro as Anyanwu does, although she doesn’t do it easily. But then imagining how one can sustain hatred and anger for hundreds of years isn’t easy and the idea of forgiveness in order to move on becomes something that one needs to think about. But for Anyanwu and Doro who only have each other, their love/hate relationship is stripped bare with time as they watch their loved ones and acquaintances die one after another.
I don’t think I’ve read anything like Wild Seed before. It’s not easy reading but it’s bold and imaginative and with echoes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a dash of X-Men. It’s a tale of strength borne of suffering and I strongly urge you all to read it. I am now keen to read more by Butler including Kindred and Parable of the Sower, two of her most famous novels.
I read this as part of Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe 2013 Challenge.