Wild Seed, by Octavia E Butler

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Publication date – June 1, 1980

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex or design. He fears no one until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. She fears no one until she meets Doro. Together they weave a pattern of destiny unimaginable to mortals.

Thoughts: First of all, I would like to say that many moments in this book made me profoundly uncomfortable. This book is not the kind of book one tends to read when they want a comfort read. This is the kind of book one picks up when they want their mind challenged, their limits tested, and their perspectives shattered and put back together again. It made uncomfortable. It was supposed to.

Butler writes many themes into this book, but the chief ones are race relations, gender politics, and obedience. There’s also a strong touch of “the ends justify the means” running through the tale, too, especially in Doro’s millennia-long breeding experiment. What he’s seeking from this breeding experiment remains elusive during the story, and the closest we ever really come to his goals are finding out that he wants to breed people with supernatural abilities, “witch powers” who will be as long-lived as he will. But more often than not, Doro comes across as somebody who has been doing something for so long that he’s forgotten his purpose, and only keeps doing it because that’s what he’s always done. He cares little for people beyond their use in his breeding experiment, a means to his somewhat nebulous goal. Breeding brother with sister? Well, that’s just essential to get the right qualities in a person, isn’t it?

Then there’s Anyanwu, healer and shape-changer from Africa, who agrees to go along with Doro in the beginning partly out of interest and partly out of fear. The story is really Anyanwu’s, but Doro plays such a strong role in her life that it’s equally his. Anyanwu travels with Doro to America, where he sets her up as a wife to his son, but not before getting her coerced agreement that when he brings men to her, she will breed with them. And she will turn her head when he takes her husband away to breed him with other women.

See what I mean about this book not being a comfort read?

Anyanwu is what Doro calls “wild seed”, meaning that she has powers of her own, but she isn’t from any of his breeding programs or villages. Taming her is heavily on his mind, and many times he says that she’s so troublesome that he would kill her if she wasn’t so useful as breeding stock. He demands utter obedience from her, as he does from all his people. And as much as Anyanwu does obey him, as time goes on she does so less out of interest and fascination with him and more out of fear, fear that he will harm her many children.

Being set mostly within the past 400 years, it’s easy to see how race relations play into the novel, especially when Doro decides he’ll be taking Anyanwu to America. Within Doro’s own villages and groups, most people accept Anyanwu, albeit a bit grudgingly at first, because Doro has been breeding them with others of every skin tone imaginable. But there’s still the omnipresent worry that in public, in “decent society”, blacks breeding with whites, or even interacting with them on an equal level, will bring about unwanted attention and wrath. Ditto the gender politics, as women of the times were expected to be submissive and obedient.

And Anyanwu is anything but.

I admit, as much as I felt like I couldn’t put this book down, some things really did annoy me, and not just on a moral level. Doro’s demands for obedience, for one thing, felt very repetitive. And I know that was kind of the point, that he was pushing Anyanwu harder and harder to submit to him. But there are only so many times you can read variations of, “Obey me,” before it starts to wear on the nerves a bit.

Also, the ending was bothersome. Anyanwu and Doro come to accept that they need each other, that in their lives they are the only things that will not fade and die, and Doro really only realizes this after Anyanwu is on the very edge of suicide. But the final scenes felt very rushed, as though they were put there because an ending was needed for the book to not run on for centuries more, not because there really was an ending. It felt like Doro especially wasn’t the Doro I had spent an entire book reading about. The guy who had spend over 3000 years acting much the same way suddenly had a heel-face-turn and admitted that he needed Anyanwu on a close personal level. It wasn’t unexpected as an event, but it seemed to come on too quickly, an attempt to end the book because it needed ending. Little more.

I feel like anything I really say on this book would be inadequate. I could talk at length about this book, the themes, how they made me feel, how they reflect history, how they reflect the present attitude, but ultimately, writing a book about a book won’t properly convey what it is to actually read the book, to really experience the scope of it. You can’t read this book and not come away from it changed in some way. You get an eye-opener, a disturbing look into an uncomfortable history that’s horribly accurate even when you take into account the fact that you’re reading about generations of people with psychic abilities. If you want a fantasy that will make you think, that will test your viewpoints and your courage, then read Wild Seed.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)