Octavia Butler, Wild Seed

Octavia Estelle Butler signing a copy of Fledg...

None better.

I’ve read a number of Octavia Butler‘s books, and she’s never disappointed.  Wild Seed, picked up at the library, is in the same series as Mind of My Mind, also brilliant, read a few months ago, and on which I’ve previously written.  This is part of her Patternmaster series, so-called, which she wrote out of the larger narrative’s chronological order.  I loved Mind of My Mind, for example, but I can also see how Butler had developed as a writer by the time she wrote Wild Seed, though the events described in the latter actually precede those in the former.

Throughout her work, Butler examined the nature and consequences of modern ideas of race.  She took a Black and feminist perspective, as she explicitly put it in the brief, autobiographical passage at the end of the book.  As such, her work ought to be instructive to the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of this world.  Real Black feminists don’t adhere to white men’s stereotypes of who they ought to be.  Butler is analytical where an O’Reilly would be more comfortable if she were shrill.  Butler labels nothing: never, in her writing, does she condescend to say “this is racist” or “this is sexist.”  Rather, she shows it so impeccably that the reader’s understanding of our actually existing social and historical world is transformed.  Labels by their nature do not transform, but reify.

The book itself follows Anyanwu and her interaction with Doro.  Both are immortal, Doro older.  Doro’s spirit inhabits body after body, killing by necessity, while Anyanwu can change her body’s form at will, and heal others.  Taken together the two, the blurb on the back of the book intimates, constitute a destruction/creation dualism, but I’m not at all sure Butler would limit their relationship to a stasis such as that.

More interesting is Doro’s project.  Unable to die and required to kill, he got it in his head a few millenia earlier to selectively breed a race of “supernaturally” gifted descendents, partially, one imagines, to relieve boredom, partially to satiate his massive ego, and partially to provide an illusory relief from the solitude of immortality.  He uses people like cattle, and kills them when they’re past use.

Butler situates the novel in the broader context of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and while this could in lesser hands drive the point home so hard as to be annoying, her use of the context serves to increase the gravity of her argument.  She is interested in the effect of history on people, in particular their senses of self and relationships to each other.  Doro’s project is that of the slaveowner, mutatis mutandi.

The O’Reillys and Hannitys would posit that the effect of such a brutal process on people would be to strip them of their humanity.  This is a fundamentally white misconception of the historical process that formed our world.  Neither would come out and say that the Slave Trade was a good thing, and both will decry racism, but their view of who, in this case, Black people are is straight out of Moynihan‘s famous report: Black people are damaged goods, and therefore one can’t help but look down on them.

Butler deals with reality, and so she takes a contrary position: in this history, it is the oppressor rather than the oppressed that behaves in the inhuman way, though no-one in her novels is beyond humanity.  This is her entire point.  Doro’s victims, for lack of a better word, increase their humanity as a response, and do so defiantly.  Many of them die in the process, but theirs is a human death.

Required reading, if we’re doing to develop ourselves out of this historical mess we’re in.

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