Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review of Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

The book begins when the protagonist, Anyanwu, is already 350 years old. She serves as healer to her people and some see her as a God or a witch.  Anyanwu can shift into any animal or person she wants.  She even has the ability to shift her gender and become a man in every sense of the word.  What motivates her the most, are her children and her descendants.  This is what Doro, the antagonist, uses to force her to leave Africa for the new world.  Like Anyanwu, Doro has great power but he is far older. He has sustained himself for the last 3,500 years by feeding on people, through stealing their bodies whenever he feels hunger, or to exert control over their person.  When angered he has great difficulty controlling his ability to kill.  Doro at times kills indiscriminately because he places no value on those who are mortal.  He will also kill anyone he perceives as one day having the ability to challenge or control him.  He rules his followers through fear, and yet we are told repeatedly how much they love and respect him. 

Doro collects people who are different and then breeds them in order to increase the power of their descendants. He wants Anyanwu for her special abilities and she leaves her home believing that she is protecting her children and will become his wife.  When Anyanwu arrives in America, she learns that he never had any intention of making her his wife, and instead marries her off to his favorite son Issac. Throughout the entirety of their marriage, Doro forces her to not only have sex with him but other men and bare the children of these unions. Issac, Anyanwu's husband is also taken from their home, to occasionally father children with other women.  Doro constantly threatens Anyanwu and yet he has the nerve to be angry that she does not love him. From start to finish, their interactions are filled with deceit, sexual violence, emotional abuse and an extreme imbalance in power. What is disturbing is that there is no discussion of the role of gender in their interactions and instead it seems to be about their differing magical abilities.

When Anyanwu finally makes a bid for freedom after Issac dies, she manages to live for 100 years as a dolphin but when she sets up her own community, Doro quickly finds her and forces himself back into her life, though he begins to feel conflicted about what he is doing to her. Once again, in order to protect her children, she concedes to his will.  Essentially, the question is can Anyanwu ever find a way to escape from Doro?

I was not a fan of this book and though it was a scant  two hundred and nineteen pages long, I think it would have worked better as a novella than a book.  Butler seemed to just drag the story along and add characters which she didn't bother to give real attention to before killing them off.  She was able to do this because instead of actually telling a story, Butler simple revealed the life of her protagonist.

From the beginning of the book, Doro was the antagonist, but we didn't get a real sense of what his real motivations behind breeding people was. In the end, I surmised that  Butler wanted the reader to believe that  Doro didn't want to be alone and could not accept that everyone who entered his life eventually died, but his behaviour was just so cold and callous, it made me seriously doubt that the true motivation could really have been to find a companion.  When you have an antagonist without any real motivation it leaves the story without a real goal.

It was clear that Wild Seed is about the tension between Doro and Anyanwu but the story didn't seem to have a real climax or a solid conclusion.  It felt as though Butler lost the thread of the story. For much of the novel, Doro used his power to force Anyanwu to have sex with various men and bare their children.  He constantly threatened her life and that of her children, and though we are told that she is angry about this, Anyanwu still willingly ends up sharing a bed with him. Anyanwu does in the end manage to gain some kind of freedom and autonomy back, but only after Doro realises that he has feelings for her.  There is never any justice for the people that Doro kills, let alone for Anyanwu.  It is beyond disturbing that Anyanwu ends up in bed with Doro willingly and she feels a version of love for him, even as she is repulsed by him.  That Doro moves beyond seeing Anyanwu as an animal to breed in the end does not make it any better.  Anyanwu and Doro are pushed together by immortality and she gains a measure of control in the relationship. The problem is that the relationship still continues. How can we agree to disagree with a man who rapes you or facilitates your rape, or breeds you like an animal for years?  Anyanwu is nothing more than the long suffering mammy and haven't we all had enough of that trope?

The only thing that was truly interesting Wild Seed was the divisive treatment of gender. Both Doro and  Anyanwu can change gender at will. When Anyanwu was a man, she still perceived herself as a woman, yet she lived completely as a man and even fathered children.  Doro stole the bodies of women, he also continued to perceive himself as male and had no problem suggesting that he and Anyanwu have sex in the opposite gender.  I was fascinated by the idea that though Anyanwu was clearly heterosexual, when she changed gender to male and slept with women, Anyanwu didn't see it as a same sex relationship.  The shift between the internal sex and sexual act while fascinating, also highlighted the erasure of true GLBT people.  In Wild Seed, GLBT people only existed temporarily and only where magic was involved. This is a problem because it suggests that GLBT individuals are not a natural part of humanity.

Another large issue was Anyanwu's ability to heal and the treatment of babies who were considered an abomination.   It may well be fact that during that period in history that babies who were considered deformed or born breech were left to die; however, coupled with Anyanwu's ability to heal, it means that there were no disabled characters in the book.  Anyanwu not only healed sickness, she also gave a blind person back their vision, and her son who was terribly hurt in a fire, actually re-grew his arms. People with neurological problems due to inbreeding, were constructed as violent and a threat to their communities. Essentially, people who were disabled existed to be cured or cast aside and when they were not, they posed a threat.  This is an extremely negative take on disability and it was a consistent theme throughout the book.

I didn't go into this book with a lot of hope having already read Fledgling and Kindred.  Unfortunately, I saw the same tropes repeated in yet another directionless story.  I don't like Butler's meandering, directionless writing style.  Unless the ism she is interrogating is race, Butler often falls right off the map and sometimes right into offense. I wish that she had taken as much care dealing with gender, sexuality and disability, as she did with race. I loved having a world built around characters of colour, but the elevation of race and racism to a visible level, cannot blot out all of the ways in which Wild Seed failed in my opinion.