My life in outer space

Wild Seed – Octavia E Butler (1980)

Wild Seed (Patternmaster, #1)

‘HE COULD NOT DIE:

Doro was a mind force who changed bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex – or design. He roamed Earth, gathering the genetic Wild Seed: the tormented, mad thought-readers, seers, and witches. Some he helped. Some he destroyed. But Doro bred, ruled, owned them all. He feared no one – until he met Anyanwu.

SHE COULD NOT BE KILLED:

Anyanwu was an old woman, a young woman, a man, a leopard, an eagle, a dolphin – a shapeshifter. She could absorb bullets and make medicine with a kiss. She gave birth to tribes, she nurtured and healed – but Anyanwu would savage any who threatened those she loved. She feared no one – until she met Doro.

TOGETHER THEY WERE LOCKED IN A WAR OF WILLS.

From the African jungles to the colonies of America, Doro and Anyanwu were the father, mother and gods of an awesome unborn race. And their love and hate wove a Pattern of destiny that not even immortals could imagine…’

Blurb from the 1988 Popular Library/Questar paperback edition.

From Butler’s debut with ‘Patternmaster’ in 1976 one would never have suspected that she would produce a novel – a prequel at that – of such power and intensity as this.
perhaps of all Butler’s work, this is the novel that best explores the concept of slavery, the theme that runs through nearly all of her work like a dark thread.
The story begins in the late eighteenth century, in Africa, where Anyanwu has already lived for three hundred years. Anyanwu is a shape shifter, a talent which Butler cleverly explains in Anyanwu’s frustrated attempts to describe her own powers, a description which makes a satisfyingly logical sense to readers familiar with the concept of DNA. Anyanwu can taste the flesh of a creature and is able to transfer her DNA into theirs. She can also repair her own body and so has become virtually immortal, as well as being able to analyse poisons and diseases and produce cures and antidotes.
It is here she is discovered by Doro, a creature far older than herself. Doro is a human life-force able to move from body to body, killing each one in the process.
For over three thousand years he has been seeking out those humans with special gifts: telepathy, telekinesis, psychometry, the whole panoply of psychic abilities, and bringing them together to breed. They have become both his children and his slaves, in some cases quite literally since Doro has become heavily involved in the slave trade, using it as a cover to bring the residents of his ‘seed villages’ to America.
For Doro, Anyanwu is a very valuable find, mentally stable, unlike many of his people, terrifyingly strong and able to change sex at will, or into a leopard, eagle or dolphin.
Anyanwu has become a combination of priestess and goddess to the local people, many of whom are her descendants.
Realising her emotional attachment to them, Doro promises not to harm any of her people if she will return to America with him. However, as Anyanwu discovers, Doro considers her to be ‘Wild Seed’ and plans to kill her once she has served her usefulness by providing children for his people.
This book certainly deserves its place in Pringle’s ‘100 Best SF Novels’ since, like all the best SF novels it employs the conventions of SF to explore the depths of human nature. Butler understands, more than many writers, the capacity for humans not only to enslave others in various ways, but to willingly submit to that slavery in some cases. She is not hesitant about pointing out that the Africans themselves were complicit in selling their own people, and chillingly portrays the way in which Doro’s people love him as a combination of God and Father even though he breeds them like animals and regularly kills them when they are of no further use to him.
There is also a bleak savagery about the people and society that Anyanwu is thrown into. Indeed, it is Anyanwu who shines throughout the novel as a healer, a person full of compassion and love, despite the fact that even she is forced to kill occasionally to protect herself and her children.
Butler uses the device of longevity to take her two main characters through a period of over a century. It’s a common device, used notably in Kress’s ‘Beggars in Spain’ and Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but here it’s employed not only to have a character observe a changing society but to accentuate the transient nature of individual human lives. Doro adopts bodies like new clothes and disposes of them just as easily. Anyanwu has seen at least ten husbands grow old and die, as well as countless children. There are many deaths in ‘Wild Seed’ and yet, each one is keenly painful to those who have to deal with the grief or other consequences.
Above all, Butler writes characters with all the flaws, warts and all. This makes for a novel not, as one might expect, doomful and depressing, but one that is full of power and fury, mining gold from the depths of the human soul.

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