Sunday, December 16, 2012

100 Books 120 - Octavia E. Butler's WILD SEED

It's been too long since I immersed myself in one of Octavia E. Butler's magical-biological-genealogical-alien-witchcraft-historical-futuristic-mind-blowing series. I always forget, until I'm deep into one, how much I love them, love her way with language, with imagery, with storytelling, with poetry, with imagination.

Wild Seed begins a series I've long had my eye on but had long avoided because my local public library didn't have all of it: the Patternmaster series, a late entry in which (Survivor) I accidentally picked up there many years ago. I have since learned that it is not specifically sequential, and that I could have enjoyed the books in any order, but now that I have them all in one convenient e-book file, my serial compulsion can be satisfied and I can submerge myself without anxiety.

Which is to say that I'm going to be picking up where I left off and starting the "next" Patternmaster book, Mind of My Mind, immediately after finishing this blog post.

Wild Seed concerns a sort of battle of body and mind between two all but supernatural beings in the colonial era, when black slaves were Africa's greatest export and white settlements in the New World depended on them utterly, north and south of a certain arbitrary boundary that would be drawn in a hundred years or so. Living and ruling several settlements in America (and elsewhere) is one Doro, thousands of years old, a being who takes over the bodies of others (sadly killing the original occupants in the process) and who has been breeding pockets humanity in semi-captivity to produce individuals with unique abilities like telepathy and telekinesis -- with the attendant responsibility to protect them from the rest of humanity who would regard his human livestock as witches and torture and burn them as such. And in Africa, living quietly but treated with reverence as an oracle is Anyanwu, an immortal shape-changer, a woman with such minute control over her body that she can analyze and overcome any pathogen or poison, can alter her very DNA to become any creature she has "analyzed" (by eating), and who has thereby lived for a good 300 years. Anyanwu turns out to be a "wild seed" -- the descendant of some lost or escaped members of one of Doro's earlier captive populations, whose talents are beyond Doro's wildest dreams. He Must Have Her and breed her with his other stock, whether she is willing or not.

If you're guessing that Butler has found in this science fictional/magic realistic story a way to comment on gender, slavery, race, free will, coercion and class, you're guessing right, but if you're guessing that she ever beats the reader over the head with these heavy notions, you're not. As Doro and Anyanwu struggle for control, these ideas and problems naturally occur, but only subtly. Butler is too deft a hand to preach at the reader. While she is often regarded as Zora Neale Hurston in genre fictional disguise (and Butler does have some of that lyrical quality for which Hurston is praised), Butler never feels like she is writing polemics or parables, even when some of her novels have "parable" in the title.

That being said, there is often a slightly creepy quality to Butler's work. I trace it to its explicit physicality, its minute focus on biology and how biology can be manipulated. Thus the Oankali of Lilith's Brood/Xenogenesis trilogy fame are some of the most fascinating and frightening aliens I've ever encountered, and here in this book we find that Anyanwu herself is one of the most compelling heroines, very nearly omnipotent, but cowed by Doro's threat to round up and all but enslave* her descendants (two of whom were caught in the same net she herself was, and whom Doro promptly bred to one another over her objections that this was incest; Doro forces his populations to breed incestuously all the time and just kills off any babies born with too many undesirable traits). Her power just makes her subjugation all the more desirable, and Doro is just the being to try to keep her in check -- and to keep her from realizing that she alone in all the world could actually oppose him if she dared.

Despite it all, though, this pair has a kind of love, and Octavia E. Butler is one of the very best novelists in the world when it comes to writing about love -- agape, filia or eros, it doesn't matter which. Reading one of her novels is like gorging oneself at a feast, but without the bellyache afterwards. She leaves me wanting more.

Good thing there still is some. But I probably should hoard those works of hers I haven't read yet and ration them out like EssJay and I do with Philip K. Dick. That's what I should do.

But, you know, I'm weak, and silly, and don't always do what I should.

*Doro's people do not live like slaves, happily dwelling in rich and prosperous towns and villages here and there, thriving and free to exercise their weird talents within those carefully controlled and defended enclaves, but their apparent freedom is that of pampered zoo animals, who don't even really get to choose their mates.

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