Books, Reviews

Compelling & unique science fiction – my review of WILD SEED, by Octavia E. Butler


“He wandered southwest toward the forest, leaving as he had arrived – alone, unarmed, without supplies, accepting the savanna and later the forest as easily as he accepted any terrain. He was killed several times – by disease, by animals, by hostile people. This was a harsh land. Yet he continued to move southwest, unthinkingly veering away from the section of the coast where his ship awaited him.”

“He was killed several times…” – leave it to Octavia E. Butler, one of the masters of the science fiction genre, to hook you in the first few pages of her story, and immediately drag you into the strangeness of her fictional world.

‘Wild Seed’ is the first book in the famous ‘Patternist’ series (though it was not written first). It is also the first book by Butler that I’ve read  but will definitely not be the last: this was a book that kept me reading far too late into the night because I just could not put it down.

The book starts off in 1690, in Africa, and ends in 1840s in the United States. It follows the immortal man/spirit Doro – born in Africa in the days of ancient Egypt, and Anyanwu, an African woman with astonishing powers that set her apart from everyone around her. She can heal, she can shapeshift, and when she first meets Doro, she has already been alive for over 300 years.

Doro brings Anyanwu to America, and she becomes part of his “people”: an extensive group of individuals who are ruled by, and selectively bred by Doro to enhance their various special abilities.

With that as its starting point, ‘Wild Seed’ becomes a haunting, rich, and compelling story of Anyanwu’s struggle to survive in the new world under Doro’s rule, exploring themes like good and evil, slavery and oppression, race and eugenics, family and friendship, love and the essence of life itself: what makes life worth living? what is a good life? what is worth living for? what is worth dying for?

The driving force in the story is the clash between the ruthless and often cruel Doro – a being so powerful and ancient he is seen as a god by many people; and the strong and complex Anyanwu, a woman who wields her considerable powers with much more compassion for others, guided by a deep sense of morality that often puts her in direct and fundamental conflict with Doro.

‘Wild Seed’ is a profound and deeply moving book that is also a grade-A page-turner. Butler’s prose is clear, strong and compelling, and the world she creates is both original and vivid – the food, the smells, the places, the plants, the people, the conflicts between individuals and within society – everything comes alive on the page.

Butler’s cast of characters add to the richness of the book: they are all complex and conflicted, and even characters that pass by only briefly in the story are so well-written that they stay with you afterwards. And Anyanwu is one of the most interesting and likable literary characters I’ve encountered. She is a good, but flawed, person, fighting tooth and nail to stay true to herself and her own convictions, and to keep her freedom and self-determination – even under excruciatingly difficult circumstances.

‘Wild Seed’ is compelling, unique science fiction, and it’s a book that lingers in the mind long after you finish reading it.


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