She knew some people were masters and some were slaves. That was the way it had always been.
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
A long time ago, I was uninterested in sci-fi as a genre, especially those works that describe in detail alien planets and yet nonexistent technologies. I found it boring and simply not to my taste. Since then, I’ve learned to embrace sci-fi, especially those works that use the genre to comment on modern society. I took a class in college where we focused on sci-fi works through the ages (Frankenstein, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, etc.), and one of the assigned books that I ended up loving was Octavia Butler’s Dawn. Dawn uses a typically sci-fi premise (a human woman wakes up to find her destiny controlled by alien beings and must decide whether to cooperate or rebel against her captors) to address relevant themes such as racism, post-colonialism, feminism, and eugenics. Although the prose wasn’t my style, I found the content thought-provoking and deeply disturbing.
I felt the same way about Wild Seed. Instead of aliens, Wild Seed revolves around two immortal Africans: Doro and Anyanwu. Doro extends his life by killing those around him and then assuming their bodies, while Anyanwu is a shapeshifter, able to take the form of any human or animal. The two are irrevocably bound together in their immortality while their friends and families die naturally (and often unnaturally) around them, continuously producing children of varying races and magical abilities as the years go by.
I read the majority of Wild Seed while camped out on a beach without a pen or Post-Its, but I can imagine that if I read it in my usual setting I’d have scribbled an essay or three’s worth of notes. (The Kindle, while lightweight and convenient, doesn’t inspire me to take substantial notes.) There’s simply so much going on in this novel.
As an English Lit major, I’ve been trained to analyze books from a post-colonial and feminist perspective. With Anyanwu and Doro both constantly shifting gender and race (and in Anyanwu’s case, species), the novel raised some interesting points. In one passage, Anyanwu becomes pregnant, only to have Doro then kill the father, assume the father’s body, and designate himself the father of the child, while Anyanwu disagrees since he was not the father at the point of conception. The novel urged me to rethink my own values, and consider the fragility of our society’s definitions of what is acceptable and what is not.
Anyanwu and Doro are constantly at odds throughout the novel, especially since Anyanwu disagrees with Doro’s practice of breeding family members together to create more beings with magical powers. But is this so wrong, if Doro, their forefather, constantly changed bodies anyway? Does this make his descendants more or less related to each other? And where does Anyanwu’s morality stem from? At the end of the novel, Anyanwu runs her own plantation in the guise of a white man, buying slaves she feels interested in in order to “protect” them from less benign owners. Is owning slaves “okay” if it is done benevolently? While I’m still unsure where my thoughts lie on the many questions the novel poses, I’m glad that the book led me to think about such topics.
YES OR NO?: YES. This novel, despite feeling somewhat dated in its concepts, provides a thorough and sometimes uncomfortable look at eugenics, slavery, colonialism, gender relations, etc. through a sci-fi lens. That being said, Butler’s prose is not my favorite. It often feels stale, restrictive, and humorless. However, if you’ve never read Butler, I’d suggest giving this one a try.