How to begin? I have wanted to read books by Octavia Butler for years and somehow never picked one up until now. Wild Seed wasn’t’ an easy read, although the language is beautiful, the characters are compelling and change over time (in many ways!), and the plot is complex and interesting. The story takes place over several hundred years and the characters mostly live day-to-day having children, falling sick, getting married, eating food – with powerful ancient beings living day-to-day next to more “ordinary” psychic humans.
Anyanwu has lived for hundreds of years near her village in Africa when she is discovered by Doro. She is no longer involved in the day-to-day activities of her kinfolk, especially because they fear her, but she is a healer and an important elder for the family. Doro has been roaming the earth collecting “wild seeds,” or people with unusual abilities (who are often rejected by their kin), to breed in order to create people with stronger powers. Over time, Anyanwu learns that he does this, in part, because he has lived so long and is bored. His humanity has long since leached away, as he sustains his long life by killing people and stealing their bodies. While Anyanwu is delighted to meet someone like her at first, she quickly recognizes that he is morally nothing like her and she spends most of the book compromising and enduring in order to protect herself and her kin.
An important theme of the book is survival – not unique to the science fiction realm – but Dor is a more common type of survivor in these books. He is an active survivor, taking what he needs and molding the world to suit his purpose. Anyanwu is more unusual, in my limited experience, because much of her survival strategy (in the face of a stronger, seemingly immortal foe) seems passive: submitting, enduring, observing. This allows her to protect much of her family and loved ones, although there are brutal scenes where she fails. Ultimately, she retains a connection to Doro that, towards the end of the book, suggests (but doesn’t promise) a new path forward for him that isn’t the complete subjugation of his children and his experiments. Part of the path forward is that, in a parallel manner, Anyanwu builds a community of her kinfolk and outsiders who find the community – a hybrid community, and maybe an intentional community – which is a counterpoint to Doro’s breeding communities.
Wild Seed isn’t an easy book to read. At times I wanted Anyanwu to be a more forceful protagonist, but her timeline isn’t my timeline, and her approach, while painful to experience, provided her with the richness of love and family and ultimately led her to a true home. I highly recommend this book for readers who follow a complex character through a historically interesting (and well researched) life. For me, accepting her choices was a hard process – there wasn’t the catharsis of her dominating her enemies that you get in many science fiction (and other!) books, but I was more emotionally engaged with her choices because I could relate to them. Anyanwu is a hero because she loves and survives and endures and finds the space and time to build.