Octavia Butler, Wild Seed

Wow. Octavia Butler was not on my radar before this summer's ASLE conference, but when she kept getting name-checked, and when people I trusted there kept telling me how important she was, and a cool read as well, then I had to try out Wild Seed. It's a good fit after Ursula Le Guin's ambisexual world of Left Hand of Darkness, though stranger because it's speculative fiction set in Earth's relatively recent past (1690-1840). And I don't know what to make of Wild Seed, though I'll have to collect a few of my thoughts before tomorrow morning's meeting with my Honours student to discuss it....

Start with the obvious stuff. The two main characters are Doro, who's basically a 3700-year-old spirit who moves between the bodies of people "he" kills and then occupies, and Anyanwu, a 300-year-old woman who's able to heal herself and others through intensely visualized knowledge of the body's internal workings. Doro can take on male or female bodies; Anyanwu can become a body in any form she likes, of either human gender or of any animal or bird of which she has a physical understanding (ideally, through eating at least a mouthful of it). Doro has been pursuing a centuries-long breeding program to build humans with inhuman powers of assorted kinds (telekinesis, telepathy, etc), making use of the slave trade to build experimental communities in North America; Anyanwu has been living in her own African village for her whole life, healing the sick and protecting her children and their descendants. Doro finds Anywanwu in the book's first chapter, and tries to insert her into the breeding program. Hijinks ensue.

No, not at all: hijinks most emphatically do not ensue. This is a dark and troubled book, imagining the human race to be potentially under threat from someone who looks like one of its own, who cannot be killed and yet cannot be reached and changed either. Butler places into conversation the discourses of stasis and progress, talent and worth, place and movement, independence and obedience, all sorts of terrifically powerful dyads. As an ideas novel, it's pretty impressive, even if it's much less satisfying as a novel of character or action.

For me, it wasn't a wildly readable book, so I'm hoping to enjoy Parable of the Sower a little more (advice, anyone?), but it's thoughtful and thought-provoking. Probably worth your time, but it depends what else you're reading....

Comments

Fraser said…
I've been thinking more about the "legit" side of SF, as opposed to the "genre" side, and then again the third, "pulp" side.

Octavia Butler is unquestionably legit. She's issues-oriented, sociological, black, lesbian... wait, was she a lesbian? Anyhow, "themes of sexual ambiguity abound" in her writing, I'm told.

I like sociological SF. But I also like Space Opera. Read some of that: when it comes to changing the world, "legit" writing might be the icebreaker of new ideas, but it's genre fiction that's the fleet of acceptance cruising along behind.

I don't know what pulp would be in this metaphor. The surface oil slick behind the fleet?

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