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Wild Seed was the fourth of the five novels in Octavia Butler’s “Patternist” series; chronologically, however, it takes place first. The series focuses on a race of physically linked superhumans, begun by Doro many years before Wild Seed takes place and continuing into the 1970’s—in the novel Mind of My Mind (1977), in which Doro is killed by his own daughter—and on to the far future—depicted in Patternmaster (1976). Survivor (1978) and Clay’s Ark (1984) deal with groups and events extrapolated from the future world of Patternmaster.

A primary theme in Wild Seed, and all Butler’s novels, is the inevitability of power struggles between individuals and cultures. Through characters such as Doro and Anyanwu, she examines the struggles between destructive and constructive forces, as Doro seeks to build an empire and Anyanwu seeks to build places of safety and freedom. Although Wild Seed does not lend itself to easy moralizing, the novel encourages thought about the uses and abuses of power.

Butler writes science fiction and fantasy exclusively. These are richly metaphoric genres, meaning that ideas expressed in such fiction may offer commentary on the world outside the text from an imaginative distance. Although it is often described as predictive or extrapolative (imagining the future based on current trends or events), Butler’s fiction is firmly grounded in human history and experience, and it tells about the world in which the novel was written through the critical distance of fantasy figures and situations, such as the conflict of immortal superhumans seen in Wild Seed. Butler relies on fantastic rather than realistic characters and situations to encourage her readers to think in new ways about human history and culture.

One way to interpret Wild Seed is to study Butler’s characters as they relate to individuals or groups from human history. For example, one can read the way in which Doro controls and abuses Anyanwu and all of his people as being comparable to the way in which a slavemaster dominates those he has enslaved. Doro’s desire to breed the people whom he collects is a motive similar to that behind the breeding of slaves. He treats his people better than slaves by placing them in comfortable communities and not using them for economic gain, yet they may not choose their own mates, live where they want, or refuse him anything.

Because the world of Wild Seed is clearly patriarchal, one can also read the struggle between antagonist and protagonist as commentary on the struggle between man and woman, or, more precisely, between traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” worldviews. Anyanwu survives through healing and nurturance (of herself and others)—qualities traditionally associated with “femininity” in American culture; Doro, by contrast, survives through aggression and violence—traits traditionally linked with “masculinity.” Anyanwu, as a matriarchal type, wishes primarily to care for and protect others; Doro, as a patriarchal type, wishes primarily to control and dominate.

To encourage a more complex understanding of history and human relations, however, Butler also challenges the opposition she invokes. This allows readers to examine their limitations. For example, although Anyanwu may fit traditional “feminine” stereotypes through her passivity and gentleness, she can also become extremely aggressive and violent. Twice in the novel, Anyanwu turns into a leopard and kills an attacker to protect herself. Similarly, Doro may well exhibit the “masculine” traits of aggression and invulnerability; however, late in the novel, one sees him expose a weaker, more fragile side: when he describes his painful childhood and when he begs Anyanwu not to commit suicide.

Butler also complicates the simplicity of the master/slave opposition. Although Doro can be viewed...

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as a slavemaster, he is also “enslaved” by his own inability to die. One also encounters references to true slavers in the novel and can see Doro’s greater respect for his people, by comparison. Doro does, eventually, come to care deeply for Anyanwu, granting her some of the respect she deserves. Anyanwu is also far more than the passive victim traditionally suggested by the term “slave.” She resists her oppressor, protects those who are powerless, and must even act the role of “master” on her plantation in Louisiana.

By revealing the operation of such oppositions through fantastic characters in a realistic setting, Butler encourages her readers to consider the construction of gender, race, and human history, and to examine the ways in which battles for power damage all humanity, despite their seeming inevitability.