Octavia Butler creates a fantastical story in Wild Seed, the first book of her Patternist series. The main characters are two immortals, living in Africa and America during the years leading up to the Civil War. Doro is a body-snatching, shape shifter who believes he can create a master race, where its members have supernatural powers. While in Africa, he finds Anyanwu, a healer who’s lived for three hundred years (so far). She has shape-shifting capabilities as well but, unlike Doro, her heart nurtures those she births.
From this premise, Butler takes us on a wild fictional ride about genetic modification. Doro is ambitious about his plans, and he uses the slave trade to enhance the gene pool. But living in the pre-Civil War south is too restrictive, so he creates a colony of “his people” in New York State. Among them is Anyanwu, who is both fully aware of her capabilities and not entirely sure she likes Doro’s methods. The two and their constant clashes are the heart of this story.
Of course, anytime a group of people live closely together, there are plenty of conflicts. And in this case, it extends beyond the main characters. Butler creates secondary characters with unique abilities. But none of them have complete agency, as Doro is a highly controlling master. Because of this setting and the overall premise, Butler adds plenty of commentary about slavery and control. However, the fantasy elements here make it unique.
Octavia Butler’s work is compulsively readable. She wrote science fiction and fantasy books at a time when white men dominated both genres. Decades later, her perspective is still fresh and insightful. It’s also biting and not inclined to let white men off the hook for their transgressions.
Doro is intensely controlling, and not at all likable. He cares little for the realities of life on his plantations. And his own life-extending methods are extreme. On the other hand, Butler makes Anyanwu more sympathetic. She’s definitely a proper foil to Doro’s methods. Her approach is more benevolent overall, with a trusting attitude towards the people she gathers around her.
Unintentionally pairing this book with Blake Crouch’s latest, Upgrade, was reading synchronicity. They both deal with modifying human DNA. Butler’s approach is decidedly old school since Doro essentially arranges “couplings” or “marriages” among his people with the goal of creating powerful offspring. On the other hand, Crouch takes a scientific approach that’s hopefully well beyond science’s current capabilities. Either way, the authors question any one person’s right to modify the human race. Along the way, of course, they both illustrate the costs of such endeavors.
If you grabbed up Crouch’s book, get Wild Seed from your library as well. It’s a visionary blend of science fiction, history, and social commentary. Butler is a must-read for every socially conscious fantasy reader.