Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The themes that would emerge in Butler’s later work were initiated in the Patternist series, most brilliantly in Wild Seed. These themes would become explicit in Xenogenesis (1987-1989). For example, the longevity of Doro and Anyanwu in Wild Seed dramatizes a historical, millennial vision that is repeated in the author’s later works.

The series is also demonstrative of the prevailing sobriety of Butler’s narratives. With the exception of the shape-shifting play of Anyanwu in Wild Seed, the novels present little potential for comedy. Instead, they tell grim tales of revolutionary portent, portraying humanity’s repeated acts of inhumanity through a history wherein this barbarism is not, Butler clearly hopes, the only choice. The tropes of these novels are violence, change, pain, the brief consolation of love, death, grief, phoenix-like rebirth, and renewed Sisyphean struggle. They relate the abuse of power by incompetent and immoral agencies—by parents, governments, and empires. They desperately interrogate the real history of humanity.

Butler longs to find an exercise of power that does not corrupt. In the Patternist series, she begins the search for a solution to the problem she later named in Xenogenesis: nature’s chiastic strategy of putting intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior. This strategy for Butler represents the ultimate amplification of natural selection, a virtual reification and apotheosis of dispassionate violence. It is what Doro represents in the Patternist series. Using her declared strategy of treating storytelling as a search for new possible realities, Butler crafts narratives that are crucibles in search of people and depicts species who practice sympathy and compassion with the existential other—the sexual, racial, species, evolutionary, and cosmological other. Her most heroic Patternist personality is Anyanwu, who identifies with creatures by“tasting” them and replicating their DNA in herself, thereby knowing them well enough that she can practically become them. Anyanwu’s behavior comes close to representing metaphorically the New Testament creed to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This creed represents the subtext of both Mind of My Mind and Butler’s later Parable novels.