Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
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Book: Wild Seed

Author: Octavia Butler

Details: (c) 1980 Octavia E. Butler; Pub Victor Gollancz 2000; ISBN 057507-145-1

Verdict: Wild Seed is extremely disturbing, and hard to justify apart from the obvious quality of the writing.

Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man recommended it, on the grounds of interesting ideas about different forms of immortality.

How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.

I found Wild Seed rather upsetting; it comes close to a gratuitous description of prolonged torture of a rather exceptional woman by an almost unlimitedly powerful man.

The writing is certainly very vivid, and is very successful in creating a world with magic in it. It's a world where legends about things like witchcraft and vampires are based on reality, and is definitely closer to magic realism than fantasy. And there's a lot of very interesting insight into the psychological and social effects of the characters' supernatural abilities. I think WS seeds where Mary Gentle's Ash fails: the magic is woven into a plausible alternative history and meshes rigorously with scientific models of reality.

But beyond that, I can't see a reason why this story needs to exist. There's no way that Anyanwu can defeat or even escape Doro; he is simply ridiculously more powerful than her, to the extent that every time she tried my reaction was, if she gets away with this I'm going to be disgusted. For her to do anything other than suffer eternal torture and humiliation at Doro's hands would completely violate the book's own parameters. And the torture and humiliation are evoked exceedingly well, as is the utter futility of Anyanwu's struggle. At the same time, the book is after all fantasy, which means that it isn't simply a protest about real human cruelty or anything like that. So not only is it depressing, it seems kind of pointless from a narrative pov.

If it's meant as an allegory of the relationship of the sexes, then it creates a model which makes Mars / Venus seem a positive Utopia. It occurred to me that it might also be religious allegory; Doro is explicitly referred to as a god on several occasions. Again, it presents a very depressing model of the nature of the divine. Doro is forced by his very nature to do things that on a human scale seem deeply immoral, yet his nature, including his immense power, also makes him worthy of worship. And despite his power he finally admits that he needs Anyanwu as something more than a mere worshipper, and they establish some sort of partnership, even if he is far more powerful than she. There have been times in my life when I have experienced God as the indifferent landlord of a burning house, and I can somewhat relate to the deeply uncomfortable view of God that I have extrapolated from WS.

The trouble with that reading is that it's impossible to ignore the literal level of the story completely. Which basically makes it a chronicle of a horribly abusive relationship, made worse than any possible real relationship by the supernatural abilities of the protagonists. And there's a very strong hint of the awful Beauty and the Beast myth, the idea that a woman can learn to love her abuser.

Wild Seed will certainly stick in my mind, but in some ways I think I'd rather it didn't.
Tags: book, gender
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