Saturday, August 10, 2019
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
I’ll start by saying Wild Seed is one of my favorite books; I reread it once a year. It’s the first Butler book I read, and it is not a bad place to start. Certainly if I thought I could only convince someone to read one Butler book, it would be this one.
It is the first book of Butler's Patternmaster series chronologically. It was written after the later books in the series, though. It could be read as a standalone. But the brilliance of what she pulled off here can only be fully grasped in the context of the later books. Her first published novel, Patternmaster, was a far future dystopia in which three groups of people existed: a web (pattern) of connected psychics controlled by the strongest of those (the Patternmaster), mutes (regular humans with no psychic ability), and Clayarks (centaurish bearers of a disease that will turn mutes or psychics into Clayarks). It is easily the weakest of the series. That’s not to say it’s not good. It is. In the prequels, though, she reverse engineered what it would have taken to get to that dystopia and those books are ingenious. Each is a different genre. Mind of My Mind establishes the origin of the pattern in 1980’s California. It’s a near future scifi with some elements of a mainstream approach to character. It’s very good. Clay’s Ark, which talks about how the Clayark virus hit earth combines pandemic disease from outer space thriller and home invasion horror against a sort of Mad Max background. It’s great. She always plays fair and doesn’t change anything about implied by Patternmaster. Each book ends with a bittersweet bleak ending. But the knowledge of what they are setting up gives them a harder edge than they would have in isolation.
Then came Wild Seed, the best of the series. It reads like a literary fantasy novel beginning in Africa and travelling to antebellum slave-holding America. It feels like folklore, like myth with elements of superhero comics and slave narratives. By this point Butler’s prose was flawless. She was really in control of her themes of slavery, gender and the power dynamics that come from those. But she is never didactic here (the main flaw of her more famous Parable of the Sower, in my mind). These themes all emerge from the story. That story pits two long lived people against each other in a variety of capacities. The dominant one is master/slave. The backdrop of that power struggle is pure scifi; a centuries long genetics experiment.
Anyanwu is 300 years old at the beginning of the story. She’s a shapechanger and can heal herself. She presents as an old woman to reduce the scrutiny and fear of her people, who revere her as a healer and fear her as a witch. Doro is unbelievably ancient. When he dies he jumps to the nearest body and lives through them. Over the centuries, he has cultivated people who have abilities trying to create a species of psychics; he has bred them like cattle, and unsurprisingly is drawn into the slave trade. He is originally from Africa, but is making America the center of his efforts. He manages to coerce Anyanwu into his fold; she is the only person he’s discovered over the years who has the potential to be as long-lived as he. He threatens, cajoles, seduces. He sees people as valuable seed, values them for their potential to forward his genetic goals and kills them when they rebel or go crazy. She sees them as people, values them as family and attempts to heal them. She is “wild seed.” Her genetic mutations happened outside of his control.
Their long struggle forms the narrative of the novel, and it is a great one. I’ve only got a couple more Butler novels before I’ve read them all. She is among my favorite writers, and to my mind, this is her greatest book. Beautiful and brutal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.