I can’t think why I’ve not read anything by Octavia Butler before. Surely she’s been available. My copy of Wild Seed is from the Victor Gallancz Science Fiction series, and there are elements of science about this fiction. But I’m not so sure it’s the category I would have shelved it under. Maybe I haven’t been looking closely enough at the genre sections lately.
The setting is recognisably historical, it begins in 1690s Africa:
Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see about what was left of one of his seed villages. The village was a comfortable mud-walled place surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees. But Doro realized even before he reached it that its 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.
This is a time so far away from most of our experiences that it is easy to accept that word ‘seed’ dropped into the first sentence. Perhaps it’s a contemporary word.
Then again, what does the reference to ‘a thousand years‘ mean? What is the work that has such a long history, and how is Doro related to it?
These questions are first indications that we are in the company of a character who has special characteristics. Not only does he have control over several villages, it’s apparent he has no need of companions.
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.
What I liked about this opening is that Butler doesn’t pause to explain, she continues to describe Doro’s responses to the situation. There’s a sense of pace that keeps the reader moving, leaves no time to query or question. If they wish to keep up with Doro, they must accept the unexpected revelations.
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.
The suspicion, the improbable idea, that Doro is exceptional is building.
He had not been this far west for several hundred years, thus he could be certain that whatever, whoever he found would be new to him – new and potentially valuable. He moved on eagerly.
That was the moment the story truly hooked me, several hundred years? Doro was interesting, a puzzle. I wanted to know about the something that drew him away from the importance of reclaiming his missing villagers. It had to be powerful, and my money was on ‘the woman‘ mentioned in the first line.
I’d been waiting for her return. She was a promise, a foreshadowing of a significant introduction, and I wanted to know more. Butler soon brings her into focus.
Anyanwu’s ears and eyes were far sharper than those of other people. She had increased their sensitivity deliberately after the first time men came stalking her, their machetes ready, their intentions clear. She had had to kill seven times on that terrible day – seven frightened men who could have been spared – and she had nearly died herself, all because she let people come upon her unnoticed. Never again.
From one promise to the next. Here’s my woman, and she’s not going to be a push-over, even for Doro. I’m on the second page, and there’s already so much at stake I’m getting deeply tangled.
Anyanwu has a conscience. She is not a psychopath, the list of her killings are qualified in the same sentence, by the language: ‘that terrible day‘, and her understanding that the men were ‘frightened‘. Her recognition that their deaths were due to her failure tells me a lot about her personality. Yes, I’m hooked, I read and read.
Is it science fiction or fantasy? I’m not sure that matters. It’s a story that is escapist, and yet it’s also about slavery, power structures and race. There are three more books in this Patternist series, plenty of pages to make my mind up.