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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Book review: Wild Seed (Patternist #1) by Octavia E. Butler

 


Book links: Amazon, Goodreads

OCTAVIA E. BUTLER (1947–2006) was the renowned author of numerous ground-breaking novels, including Kindred, Wild Seed, and Parable of the Sower. Recipient of the Locus, Hugo and Nebula awards, and a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award for her body of work, in 1995 she became the first science-fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius Grant’. A pioneer of her genre, Octavia’s dystopian novels explore myriad themes of Black injustice, women’s rights, global warming and political disparity, and her work is taught in over two hundred colleges and universities nationwide.

Genre: Sci-fi First Published: 1980 Page count: 321 



Published in 1980 as the fourth book of the Patternist series, Wild Seed is chronologically the earliest book in the Patternistr world. Butler wrote it as a prequel. As far as I know, there are two ways to read the series: in order of publication or in chronological order. I opted for the latter.

Wild Seed is about two immortals: Doro (a body snatcher) and Anyanwu (shapeshifter with healing powers). Doro recognizes Anyanwu as Wild Seed and wants to use her in his breeding program. He’s a possessive and dangerous bastard with destructive powers. His goal? To create immortal superhumans. 

Doro persuades Anyanwu to travel with him to America. He plans to impregnate her (you can’t call his intentions more elegantly), but he also wants his favorite son, Isaac, to have children with her. No problem, he'll share. Yup, love and empathy aren’t Doro’s strengths. He has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve, and no one will stand in his way. 

I loved Butler’s unique take on racial and gender issues. Wild Seed works as an exciting thriller about people with super abilities (telekinesis, shapeshifting, healing), but it also tackles serious themes like eugenics, colonialism, slavery, power struggles, racism, patriarchy, and feminism. Butler explores them with sensitivity, but some readers may feel uncomfortable reading Wild Seed, anyway.

The characters are great and nicely fleshed out. As a shapeshifter, Anyanwu isn’t particularly bound by gender or age. Nor is she tied to a race or species. The descriptions of her gifts impressed me with their imagery and the idea behind them. Anyanwu can alter her body in extreme ways, but also learn to heal diseases by experiencing and understanding them on an almost molecular level. She’s driven by love (for her children and life) and concern for others. To protect her offspring and give birth to immortals like her or Doro (so she doesn’t have to witness the death of her children), she agrees to be treated like a breeding animal. Again, some readers may find it uncomfortable, but I bought her narrative and justification for everything that happened.

And Doro... Doro is despicable; he creates reproductive colonies (“seed villages”) to further his project of creating superhumans. He approaches humans as subjects with more or less interesting traits or powers, which he seeks to strengthen through reproductive control (including inbreeding). Those who resist him or run away end up dead. Killing someone who’s no longer useful is Doro’s second nature. His relationship with Anyanwu and his favorite son Isaac is painful but fascinating - both are among the few people who can awaken traces of humanity in Doro (though that doesn’t mean he treats them well). Many readers will loathe Doro, but I think some of them accept that humans inbreed animals to create “sweeter” pets or better food sources. A thing to consider.

Butler's writing is great. I love her clear and direct style that makes reading the story effortless and addictive. The tense and compelling plot makes Wild Seed a compulsive read. Ultimately, you can read it simply as an exciting story (in which everyone nice suffers) or as a treaty on racial and sexual power dynamics, as well as, the ethics of genetic tinkering. 

Wild Seed is my first Butler’s book, and I’m hooked. It proves speculative fiction knows no boundaries and can tackle serious themes in an exciting (and often disturbing) way.



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