Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed became the fourth Patternist novel upon its publication in 1980, though it is first in chronological order. A total of five Patternist novels were released, and all but one of these (Survivor, which the author did not want reprinted) comprise the omnibus Seed to Harvest: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. This collection begins with 1690 and ends in the distant future, although many believe it’s best to read these in publication order instead: Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed, Clay’s Ark. Since I’ve only read Wild Seed so far, I cannot comment on which order is preferable, but I can say that I found this to be a fascinating, engaging, disturbing story worthy of its place on the James Tiptree Award 1995 Retrospective Honor List.
For 3700 years, Doro has survived by killing people and inhabiting their bodies. He occupies his time by gathering humans who also have special talents—those whom most would consider witches due to abilities like telepathy or telekinesis—and breeding them to create more like them. Over the centuries, he’s rarely met anyone who even comes close to being his equal, and if anyone becomes too powerful or rebellious, he puts them to death.
On a visit to one of the seed villages he maintains in Africa, he finds his people have been taken by slavers in his absence, but he finds something unexpected when his senses draw him toward someone southwest of his former colony: Anyanwu, who appears to be an elderly woman. She is indeed an old woman, having lived about 300 years, but the true form she reveals to Doro is that of a beautiful young woman. When she was around twenty years old, Anyanwu stopped aging and discovered she had the ability to control her body. She can alter her human appearance, become an animal, heal herself (and, to a lesser extent, others), and crush a rock with her bare hands.
Doro is ecstatic to have discovered what he calls “wild seed” and dreams of what type of children a woman like Anyanwu will produce after being bred to people of his choosing. He coerces her into accompanying him to the New World, promising her children who will not die and threatening to take her children and grandchildren in her place if she refuses. Though Anyanwu does not like Doro’s casual disregard for human life or threats to capture and intermarry her descendants, she does come to care for Doro as her husband. However, she despises him after they arrive in New York and he reveals that he intends for her to marry his favorite son, Isaac, and have children by him, Doro, and anyone else Doro commands. If she resists, he will do to her what he does to anyone who refuses to submit to him: kill her.
Wild Seed chronicles the relationship of these two immortals from their meeting in 1690 to the mid-1800s, as a man who has lived 3700 years with no true challenges to his power encounters a woman like none other: one with enough power in her own right to potentially be his match.
Like all of Octavia E. Butler’s books I’ve read, Wild Seed is a fascinating book with lots to analyze and consider. The highlight of the book, in my opinion, is the central characters: their similarities, their differences, and their complicated relationship with each other. Doro and Anyanwu are uniquely alike in some ways—both being long lived and able to change their bodies’ ages, skin tones, and sexes—but they’re polar opposites in most ways. Doro is a wanderer who travels the world going from settlement to settlement; Anyanwu prefers to be settled in one place, surrounded by her own people. Doro is selfish and nonempathic; Anyanwu is selfless and compassionate. Doro takes human life casually; Anyanwu only kills to protect herself or others. However, they can’t escape that they are the only two people who subsist throughout the ages.
The story is told from both of their perspectives, and Doro is rather abhorrent right from the start. When he learns some of his people were taken by slavers on the very first page, his first thought is how “they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years.” His pride is hurt because he couldn’t protect his people, but he doesn’t spend any time dwelling on what happened beyond how it affected his ego and his obsession with eugenics. When he meets Anyanwu, he tells her he’ll spare her children and grandchildren if she comes with him, but he’s already planning to gather them and breed them to each other the first chance he gets. He does what he wants, and no one will stand in his way—nor will pesky human morality, such as beliefs like People Should Have Free Will or Murder and Incest Are Not Okay.
He is a compelling character even so, especially considering that despite his vile ways he does seem to care for a rare few people including Isaac, whom he still wants alive even after he’s old enough to have outlived his usefulness to Doro. However, I consider this to ultimately be Anyanwu’s story, and she is the best part of the novel and both a likable and compelling character. She’s a survivor and protector who can be fierce when necessary, and I appreciated that her abilities were tied in to her characterization. She doesn’t just heal people in the blink of an eye but has to have an understanding of medicine and the human body in order to do so: she has to figure out how to reproduce the problem within her own body and experiment with fixing it. Needless to say, this is risky, but the fact that she did it shows her selflessness, and the fact that she’s been able to keep herself alive for centuries despite this practice shows her cleverness (which is also illustrated in other ways as she deals with Doro).
The only reason I’m not giving Wild Seed a rating of 10/10 is that it took a little while to get going toward the beginning. Though the opening with Doro and Anyanwu’s meeting pulled me in, it started to lose my attention while they were traveling to the ship that would take them to the New World. However, after they reached this destination and it introduced Doro’s son Isaac (and Anyanwu discovered how to become a dolphin!), it managed to capture my attention again and I didn’t want to put it down until the end.
Wild Seed is an absorbing story of two immortals who clash but ultimately cannot escape each other: for as unlike as they are, there’s also no one else like them. Though remarkably unsettling at times, it’s also a deeply compelling examination of these two characters and their complex bond, and I found it to (mostly) be a thoroughly engrossing novel.
My Rating: 9/10
Where I got my reading copy: My husband gave me Seed to Harvest for Christmas.
This book is April’s selection from a poll on Patreon.