Diversiverse: Wild Seed – Octavia Butler

Book Cover: Wild Seed by Octavia ButlerThe second of my reviews for Diversiverse 2014, this SF classic deserves every mention it gets (and a few more that it doesn’t. It should get all the mentions). Anyanwu discovers she isn’t the only immortal in the world – but her potential partner through the ages is ruthlessly pursuing a program of eugenics. Is his companionship worth the cost?

I’ve been meaning to read this scifi classic for a while, and I’m glad I finally got round to it. I found it a little hard to engage with initially as the prose struck me as slightly stilted, but as I soon got sucked in it stopped mattering. In some senses, this felt like backstory / history – a recounting rather than a storytelling. I’ll be intrigued to try other books by Butler and see if the style differs.

Doro is immortal, a cruel, controlling spirit moving ever further from his erstwhile humanity as he hops from one mortal body to the next (destroying the original inhabitant). Drawn to people with special abilities, he is determined to breed a super race who he hopes will one day be immortal as he is.

Anyanwu is as immortal as Doro, an entirely human shapeshifter with total control over her body and bodily processes. Doro recognises her potential and fears her resistance; the book explores their fiery relationship over the subsequent 200 years as she rebels against his assumed authority.

This is fascinating stuff, not least because Anyanwu forms a moral core to the tale without having inflexible prejudices (except about drinking milk). Butler also throws gender, race and sexual orientation in the air, because her 2 leads can both be anything they choose. There’s lots to like: people of colour, fluid gender and a strong central female character.

But the central theme is control. Doro’s attitude to his people is proprietary; he engages in eugenics and he doesn’t hesitate to kill those who he no longer considers useful to his gene pool. Anyanwu correctly accuses him of being no better than a slaver; he doesn’t value human life or recognise that his people have any rights. His own desires are the only thing that matter.

Moreover, Anyanwu identifies as female (although she can and does take male shape and even fathers children) and Doro generally appears male in the narrative. This makes much of the tale a study of a strong, stubborn woman fighting to retain her identity and principles in the face of an oppressive man who holds all the cards – he can kill instantly without even a touch, and has no qualms about threatening her children to force her to his will.

Technically, then, this is a book about abuse (and reads equally as a portrayal of slavery/emancipation or domestic abuse). Anyanwu’s ferocity and independence obscures it to a degree: she refuses to be a victim, and her submission to Doro feels like a temporary accommodation, but I found it difficult to overlook, and it frequently made for an uncomfortable read as well as making me quite ambivalent about the ending.

There are other issues, not least the treatment of the disabled (arguably period appropriate in the broader strokes, but the conflation of mental powers / mental instability / (attempted) rape also bothered me), but overall this was a good challenging read and I do want to explore the Patternist books further.