Wild Seed [Octavia Butler Book Club]

Wild Seed cover

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages. The village was a comfortable mud-walled palace surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees. But Doro realized before he reached it that it’s people were gone. Slavers had been to it before him. With their guns and their greed, they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years. Those villagers they had not herded away, they had slaughtered. Doro found human bones, hair, bits of desiccated flesh missed by scavengers. He stood over a very small skeleton – the bones of a child – and wondered where the survivors had been taken. Which country or New World colony? How far would he have to travel to find the remnants of what had been a healthy, vigorous people?

Finally, he stumbled away from the ruins bitterly angry, not knowing or caring where he went. It was a matter of pride with him that he protected his own. Not the individuals, perhaps, but the groups. They gave him their loyalty, their obedience, and he protected them.

He had failed.

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. After a while, he realized it was no longer his anger at the loss of his seed village that drove him. It was something new – an impulse, a feeling, a kind of mental undertow pulling at him. He could have resisted it easily, but he did not. He felt there was something for him farther on, a little farther, just ahead. He trusted such feelings.

He had not been this far west for several hundred years, this he could be certain that whatever, whoever he found would be new to him – new and potentially valuable. He moved on eagerly.

The feeling became sharper and finer, resolving itself into a kind of signal he would normally have expect to receive only from people he knew – people like his lost villagers whom he should be tracking now before they were forced to mix their seed with foreigners and breed away all the special qualities he valued in them. But he continued on southwest, closing slowly on his quarry.

- from the first page of the first chapter of Wild Seed

This is the first week of the Octavia Butler book club, and we are starting with the first of the Patternmaster series, Wild Seed. It is a little challenging to think of a question that will challenge new readers to the material and re-readers at the same time, but here’s the question to ponder while you read this week:

What ideas inform our conversations about slavery? What themes inform our conversations about romantic relationships? Are there places where the themes and ideas overlap?

Feel free to discuss in the comments. Readers should expect spoilers in all comments sections to these posts, though I will hide any questions that reveal particular plotpoints behind the jump. Our next discussion will be next Thursday. To stay on target, you should read up to page 67 (or whatever is equivalent to 1/4th of the way through your copy) before then.

Feel free to chat among yourselves, and happy reading!

  • Ilana

    I liked the way Octavia Butler contrasted different kinds of power through Doro and Anyanwu. Doro personified the dominating power that our culture generally recognizes and respects. Anyanwu was also very powerful, but she personified the power of healing and transformation, a type of power that is often invisible or disregarded in a culture that is based on destructive power.  Anyanwu and Doro were innately powerful beings, both leaders in their communities, but they couldn’t have been more opposed.  Anyanwu’s leadership motivated people through love, Doro’s through fear.
    One of the layers that captivated me the most was Ms. Butlers extended exploration of the consequences of each type of power, from the interpersonal to the societal.  Through Doro she paints an entire picture of colonization, racism, and patriarchy as manifestations of dominating, fear based power.  It’s like she’s showing us that our violent or dysfunctional relationships aren’t just about us and our partners and families. The type of power we enact with one another, whether controlling or nurturing, is informed by the power dynamics of our communities and our society. Similarly, the way we continue to structure our society is informed by the power dynamics we learn from our families.

    Anyanwu, though in no way immune to the brutality of Doro’s power, offers us an alternate understanding of power.   I’m  a little unsure how to talk about Anyanwu’s power, because i feel like I have less of a frame of reference for it in my own experience. Ultimately, she is a healer, and through healing we are offered the possibility of transformation that can overcome destruction.

    Thanks, Latoya, for this blog and the Octavia Butler book club!

  • sorayarcm

    I’m late to this thread. I’ve been a fan Mama Butler’s books for years and it has been a while since I  read Wild Seed- it was my majestic introduction to Afro-verse speculative fiction .  Recently, I’ve shared the sentiment that no male character that I’ve read has terrified me more than Doro..he is complete and undeniable in his treachery- the worst kind of parasite. Anyanwu is so brave and hopeful in the wake of Doro’s madness..she embodies the perfect resilience and vulnerability of women of color. 

  • Anonymous

    Folks still reading? I’m a little over half done with it (listening whilst crafting.) Enjoying all the comments, and waiting till I mull it all over to comment. I think the Patternmaster series was the only series I hadn’t read of Butler’s so I’m very much enjoying this. 

  • Courtney

    Growing up white in the US, my ideas about slavery were formed by my white parents (who spoke much less about slavery and much more about the segregated south in which they lived) and by the white faculty in my white college who still articulated the “theory” that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not about slavery. 

    Most recently, I was challenged by Dr. Joy DeGruy, who asks us to use different language as a way of reframing slavery.  Instead of “slave,” which is framed from the white slave-owner perspective, consider using “captured freed [wo]man” as framed from the African perspective.  

    In the book, I’m intrigued how Ms. Butler is playing with the notion of “soul mates” as Anyanwu and Doro, the two perceived “soul mates” if only because their souls are the only ones around for each other, are so inappropriate as a match.  Why not be alone rather than with someone like Doro?

    Thank you for coordinating this book club, Latoya.  I love the reading, I love the conversation.

  • http://twitter.com/SunnyGeek Sunny

    Its so nice to see people reading Octaviia E. Butler, one of my favorite authors of all times. Wild Seed is probably one of her best books. Anyanwu is definitely a conflicted character and was coerced into her slavery; I think both out of loneliness and fear. However, Doro was also lonely (intensely lonely) which he did not realize until later on and needed Anyanwu. Butler poured her heart and soul into this novel.

  • Alkemyst84

    Hi, I’m a student at John Jay college and I picked this series to focus on for my senior theses! I love Octavia Butler but she is not well known in Academia, I’m working to change that. One of my  thesis topics (for Wild Seed and Mind of my mind) focuses on the very question  you’re asking! I’m really excited to have stumbled upon this book club!

  • http://www.mourlferryman.com/ Mourl

     Octavia Butler is a visionary and apt cultural commentator. Now if some filmmaker were to take her on, now thats one movie I would queue up to see!

  • http://www.mourlferryman.com/ Mourl

     Octavia Butler is a visionary and apt cultural commentator. Now if some filmmaker were to take her on, now thats one movie I would queue up to see!

  • http://www.sweetprimroses.com/ Bill

    Anyanwu as a character makes a point that strikes me as very important about unequal power relationships.  She acknowledges the limits of her situation and the implications of her choices for other people and then seeks to maximize the benefit for herself and others given those limits.  In Butler’s work nobody gets anything for nothing, and this understanding of the reciprocal, if unequal, nature of power relationships is one of the reasons I go to her again and again.

    I wrote a piece, it turns out, on this book earlier this year.

    http://palaverer.com/2011/04/11/octavia-butler-wild-seed/

    I’ll keep following this discussion.

  • Bret B

    I may be covering ground others have. I’ve purposely not read other’s comments because I didn’t want to spoil any of the story for myself.

    Doro’s and Anyanwu’s romance is portrayed in a very troubling way. In some ways, Doro is a character of masculinity: he’s incredibly strong, violent, he takes a parental role over Anyanwu, and is sexually charged. If he can’t have her, the narrator tells us, he’ll likely kill her, but he’s oh so reluctant to do so. Poor guy. 

    But he’s also incredibly fulfilling, and in some ways he’s portrayed as “the one” for Anyanwu. He gets her—really gets her. He sees past her disguises, literally. She falls into his arms, and when she attempts suicide, he’s the only one who can comfort her. He gives her attention, allowing her to fully relate her life to someone—finally. He even accepts who she is, and values that. He’s affectionate, in his own way. The way he shows his affection—by murdering children, for example—is barbaric, and frightens Anyanwu, but at the same time, it’s evidence of his “love” for her.

    So I get why Anyanwu values the relationship with Doro. It’s very one-sided though. Doro views his relationship with Anyanwu as a tool to further his goal of creating seeds in America. He doesn’t really appreciate Anyanwu. He listens to her and uses that to calm her to ensure that he can continue sleeping with her. He willingly gives her to another man. He doesn’t respond to her questions, not because he doesn’t know the answer, but because he’s being paternalistic.

    This is where Butler weaves her thoughts about slavery in with her thoughts about relationships. Doro clearly thinks he’s got the upper hand in the relationship—he’s much older, he’s able to kill at will, he believes himself to be smarter and wiser. He considers himself to be the master of Anyanwu. And I think Anyanwu can’t help but be with Doro. He threatens to kill her children, threatens to kill her, and he reveals all of her secrets. He literally takes everything she’s built up for herself and claims it as his own. She has no secrets, no property, and nothing to call her own anymore beside her internal strength (which, admittedly, is vast and uplifting.)

    Anyanwu willingly goes with Doro, but her choice is coerced. She begins to identify with him—she starts to become the house negro rather than the field negro she once was. I predict that she’ll eventually identify with his goals and views on some subjects, even on some murders he commits. Butler clearly sees slavery as a regrettable institution, but she doesn’t comment on it directly. There’s no moralizing “slavery is bad, m’kay?” because we know it. We don’t need to be told it. Rather, there’s a comment on what goes on inside the institution of slavery. We see the relation between master and slave, and how slave can be made to feel obligated to her master.

  • NRey

    Hello all,
    I’m new to the site, and I really appreciate the book club idea!  I think as far as human interactions go, slavery and romantic relationships seem as far apart on the spectrum as you can get in most people’s minds.  One is involuntary and deeply dehumanizing while the other is freely chosen and brings out the best in both involved parties – or so we like to think.  The relationship between Anwanyu and Doro complicates that.  She got to choose to go into a type of slavery with him, but it’s tied up with protecting her children and finding a mate that understands her struggles and gifts.  When she was free, no one bothered her, but she was lonely and outlived everyone she loved.  How do you choose?  Enter a relationship with another human and hope you don’t get consumed, or be free yet alone?  I’ve read this story before, but that theme is really sticking in my head this time around.

    • Bret B

      Was she lonely though? My impression was that she was more scared of other people, either because they feared her and thus turned to violence, or because they worshiped her.

      What I see with Anyanwu is an archetypical self-actualized individual, living in tune with the world, doing only what’s necessary to be happy, and not more. It’s only when Doro comes in does her world get changed, and she struggles to return to that identity she once had. 

      • NRey

        I agree that she was independent and self-actualized, but wouldn’t being scared of the people around her, or being put her on a pedestal and treated like a goddess or spirit instead of a human, make her feel lonely?  I think that was a big part of why she went with Doro – after her mother, he was the only being she had met that came close to what she was.

      • http://www.sweetprimroses.com/ Bill

         I think she was intensely lonely, as was Doro.  One of the qualities that stands out to me in Butler’s work is a deep understanding of loneliness.  Part of this is a function of the speculative aspect of her fiction.  If one lives forever, one would lose everyone else one loves as time passes.  This isn’t an original take on immortality, but Butler uses it in a way that illuminates the actual problem of living through the vehicle of speculative fiction.  Anyanwu’s loss helps me understand loss in my own life.  And Doro, well…Doro helps me understand how I’ve been a selfish asshole in my life.

  • http://profiles.google.com/perkyanda Amanda Perkins

    I read her entire oeuvre last summer.  She is FANTASTIC.  

  • Ike

    I just got the book in the mail from Amazon today. So excited!

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    Reading this for the first time, I spent quite a bit of time uncomfortable with the progressive subjugation of Anyanwu.  I identified with her power and her sensibilities.  She was beholden to Doro as soon as she met him, though she didn’t realize until later how much she was like a slave.  The fact that she was offered a more palatable, ‘benign’ slavery was still confining…because she had known freedom.

    It’s a little (but only a little) like growing up believing yourself to be white – or believing that racism is a story in history – and coming to reality.  Understanding that you’re not in control.  Understanding that the privilege you *do* have is predicated on your usefulness to someone else, and not necessarily based on you being you.  

    Meeting that realization could easily put someone in a vulnerable state for accepting less than they deserve in a relationship.  Could easily cause you to prize companionship over substance and standards.  But Anyanwu doesn’t bend until she is forced to do so.  She maintains as much morality as she can while struggling to survive so close to Doro.  She adapts.  She uses what she can.  She learns at every opportunity.

    Anyanwu inspires me because of this.  I am just happy I have so far avoided the relationship Doro.  What a life-sucker.

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    LP, I’d just like you to know that I received my book in the mail yesterday when I got home and planned on reading the assigned section only. Instead I read the whole first book and now have a book hangover. I blame you and Ms. Butler. However, it was awesome. Thanks for opening my world to her!

    • Denise Moore

      It’s addictive, jen*, I received “Seed to Harvest” last Friday and by Wednesday I finished the second book.  I recently decided to rekindle my old bookworm days and have been reading about a book per week for a month now.  I’m trying to make myself stop at “Mind of My Mind”, but I need a book fix now!

      • Anonymous

        It happens. I’ve been trying to distract myself with other works, but…you know how that goes.

    • Anonymous

      Ha.

      Confession: I just finished Patternmaster. So now I’m finished with all four books, four months ahead of schedule. I really hope everyone is reading quickly, if so I can speed the book discussions up.

  • rchap

    What ideas inform our conversations about slavery?As a young, white American, my perspectives on slavery are definitely rooted in ideas of white, European supremacy over Africans.  There’s a white/black binary that leaves a lot out of the story, such as Africans that were involved in the Triangle Trade and ideas of slavery in more ancient times that were related to religion as well.  I think this binary shapes the novel, in a generally appropriate way, as it deals with the West right in the middle of the slave trade, but it would have been interesting to see more included about Native American peoples.
    What themes inform our conversations about romantic relationships?
    Harkening to ideas of “soul mates” etc, I tend to think of how two people complement and benefit each other, more so than just “we’re in love.”  In my family we don’t talk about sexuality and feelings much. It’s kind of contradictory with US culture at large with everything in music and on tv these days, but at the end of the day, when you take someone home to your parents it’s always “What are you studying; what are you going to do with that; how do you keep busy.” But that’s just how I was raised.
    Are there places where the themes and ideas overlap?
    First thing that came to mind was Thomas Jefferson, haha.  But I suppose when we think about “traditional,” patriarchal family-structures, these two topics overlap.  I think we stick to binaries too.  Slavery is a black/white issue.  Love and romance has moved beyond cisgendered, but it’ll be a long time until we see lgbtq(etc) sexuality a blatantly represented in mainstream culture as heteronormative sexuality is.  

    • Anonymous

      Keep reading. You’ll find nearly every binary challenged.

      • http://www.sweetprimroses.com/ Bill

         You’re right, she challenges every binary, but without dismissing their social and historical reality.  This is what makes her so important.

  • Big Man

    You will enjoy her books.  I’ve read them all, and they contain some interesting concepts and just a spot on view of how the world works, in my opinion.