Wild Seed – Octavia Butler

Wild_Seed_-_Octavia_Butler_cover
Patternist #1

Doro, who has the power to take the bodies of others, meets Anyanwu as he wanders the world gathering stock for his efforts to breed humans with special powers. Both immortal, they each suffer setbacks and disagreements as they forge an uneasy and uneven alliance.

I first ran across Octavia Butler’s books in the stacks at Powell’s, a couple of decades ago. I didn’t buy any. I’d heard her name, and the feeling I got from that and from the books themselves was of serious, dry fiction, ponderous and message-laden – Ursula Le Guin without the sense of humor. I passed, and never felt the need to change my mind.

Then, a few months ago, I ran across her books on sale. They were pretty cheap, and given her reputation, I thought it was about time I gave her a try despite the dull and dusty image. I picked an omnibus edition, and put it on my list.

I’m finally getting down to it, and I have to admit that I was wrong. This book is serious, it’s true, and nowhere near the light-hearted vein. But it’s also not the self-important ‘These Are Big Ideas’ tome I expected. In fact, it’s a perfectly readable and interesting story about an interesting concept. It’s not the dazzlingly insightful social science fiction I had hoped for, but it’s certainly not the pretentious manifesto I had feared. It’s just a good science fiction book.

Butler does a good job of exploring the practicalities of the powers the chief protagonists have, and manages to imbue secondary characters with a fair amount of depth. While it’s always clear who the villain and the hero of the piece are, both Doro and Anyanwu are treated relatively fairly.

I have mixed feelings about Butler’s success in bringing the Doro-Anyanwu relationship to life. On one hand, what’s described is probably optimistic under the circumstances – the time, their relative levels of experience, etc. Anyanwu, for example, travels from her only home in Africa to North America with remarkable aplomb. On the other hand, I found it disappointing that she so consistently failed to stand up for herself with Doro; that weakness didn’t seem to suit her character. Butler may have aimed for a compromise between modern palatability and realism, but I felt she missed the mark.

The book, broken into three time periods, moves along smoothly and fairly rapidly. Not too surprising, but enjoyable. Then, suddenly, it stops. There’s a two page epilogue, and that’s it. Perhaps Butler originally intended a longer volume, or a trilogy instead of a quartet. In any case, the break is surprising, and a bit awkward.

All in all, a pleasant surprise. Not magical, but certainly well written, intelligent social science fiction worth checking out. I look forward to the rest of the series.


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