Seed to Harvest by Octavia E. Butler
Warner Books, 2007, Softcover, 765 pp, $18.99
Pain is a funny thing.
Like most of us sci-fi/fantasy readers, I am decidedly masochistic.
Wait, wait, let me explain: it ain't because we continually choose to put ourselves
through the excruciating torture of Tolkien-rehash after Tolkien-rehash, or
voluntarily walk down those dark aisles lined endlessly with shelves of Star Wars
and Star Trek spin-off novels. It's not even because we'll quite readily read the
works of authors so mortified to be shunted into our section of the bookstore that
they strain embarrassingly for the legitimacy of mainstream literature by modestly
shrouding their voluptuous science-fictional strangeness within the ill-fitting but
more respectable strangeness of that stream-of-self-consciously-affected kind of
prose starving freshmen English majors suck up faster than ramen noodles.
No, the proof is found in the proverbial pudding when we who live in this little
unappreciated literary ghetto deliberately -- nay, gleefully -- seek out the pain of
true identification. So long as my realworld self is safe and it's only the little
surrogate-mes running around being put through the wringer in book after book,
I'll cheerfully suffer through even the most horrifically cruel-to-the-characters of
plots, all for the sake of a bit of well-wrought cathartic release at the climax.
What happens, then, when one of your main characters is capable of dying not just
once, but more times than we can count, and that very transition from life to death
and back to life is actually the most powerful pleasure he can experience?
Surprisingly, this premise is actually one of the least painful things about Octavia
Butler's classic Patternist series.
After I got through her Xenogenesis trilogy a few years ago, I wasn't looking for
more of Butler's work right away. It simply hurt too much, the morally ambiguous
dilemmas faced by the characters were too overwhelming. Besides, whenever I
saw her books on sale, they were always in the middle of a trilogy, of which half
the books were usually out of print. That, or the store never carried the same
editions of all the books, resulting in a deeply disturbing lack of cohesive jacket
designs -- painful enough in itself for those of us cursed with a profoundly over-exaggerated sense of bookshelf aesthetics. Always meaning to get back to her
work when I was more up to the task, I usually passed in favor of something a
little less meaty.
Thankfully, Warner Books has seen fit to collect one of Butler's best series for
those of us who have been languishing tragically out of the loop. (I, for one, didn't
think of my reading habits as being criminally negligent until I realized that the
newest book in the collection was written a year before I was born. For shame,
Seed to Harvest, which collects the books Wild Seed, Mind of my Mind, Clay's
Ark, and Patternmaster, begins as a rigorously-detailed fantasy, but ends as a kind
of mythic, romantic science fiction. This functions as a cheerful middle finger of
sorts to those who would argue the merits of one genre to the exclusion of the
other, as Butler is equally skilled at both "kinds" of writing, and in fact blurs the
already-hazy distinctions between them into irrelevancy. I suppose a few old
crustaceans will complain about such blasphemous co-mingling, but really --
charming insanities like the attempt at predicting detailed future histories are
meant to be taken as legitimate "science," even though no one ever seems to be
able to find an example of the last "current trend' that continued indefinitely?
Faster-than-light spaceships and time travel are somehow more "realistic" because
they're achieved through whatever we're calling hyperdrives this week and time-warping blackbox thingies rather than through ancient runes and magic rings?
Nonsense. Butler has the right of it, using the best techniques of both genres to
give us powerful stories.
Though to start with, I must say that the collection, like every book in existence, is
a long way from perfection. It's obvious that Butler matured in leaps and bounds
over the course of her career, as the books individually improve the later the
original copyright date. I'm pretty weary of the conventional wisdom that says that
an author's first work is -- because it is usually the most passionate of their
oeuvre -- inherently better than their latest. In some ways, the earliest fans can
actually make the worst readers of an author's new books, because they bring all
the baggage that comes with the enjoyable experiences they've had with the
author's work in the past and are too familiar with the author's voice to really
appreciate the innovations within the latest yarn.
The books are shuffled into chronological order story-wise but all over the map
date-of-publication wise. The effect, in this case, is that we begin the book with a
very strong start, continue to a slightly less moving effort, then swing up into the
most harrowing and well-written story of all, only to slide back down and end on
the weakest note. And yet, even the weakest of the stories is still quite good; it's
only when being compared to works by the same author with a better
understanding of her own storytelling tools that we're able to see how much she's
improved with age and experience. The collected series as a whole is uneven; as
individuals, though, they all sing.
We begin Wild Seed in slavery-era Africa, with Doro, the aforementioned death-is-a-pleasure guy. He's a sort of wandering spirit who is able to jump from one body
to another whenever one is killed, effectively murdering the soul of the new body
he moves into. He quickly finds Anyanwu, a genetically unique human who is also
immortal, but in a different way: she's a shape-shifting healer, able to change
herself from old to young, from human to animal. Doro is actually on a mission to
take her back to his home and phase her and her lovely genes into a monstrous
breeding experiment nestled within a blossoming early America.
Doro begins inscrutably and gradually reveals himself to be a horror, and yet as
Anyanwu lives longer and longer, she begins to see that his obsession with genes
and breeding is (perhaps unconsciously) a mirror of her own eternal loneliness.
Doro is hoping to create others as long-lived as he is, and we see through the
deaths of people Anyanwu has to come to care about that in the end, it's
understandable over an eternity of singleness to become obsessed with finding
someone else who will be able to share that eternity with you. Someone who can
share the experience and see it from a different point of view. And yet we're still
repulsed by the methods Doro uses, even as Anyanwu forms her own
Hers is more humane, and works better in the short run for the happiness of the
individuals within, but worse in the long-run goal of ruthless animal breeding to
produce companions for her and Doro. If we mere mortals end a bad relationship,
we can always just move and hope we never see the other person again; plenty of
fish in the sea and all that. The only way Doro and Anyanwu can form any truly
lasting relationship is if they do it with each other. They're forced to deal with the
effects they caused lifetimes ago, confronting the long-term results of their own
actions and bearing the consequences. There is no escape beyond learning to
actively deal with everything, instead of merely putting aside problems.
(Naturally, the trouble with trying to encapsulate scifi/fantasy plots like this is that
they all sound so debilitatingly stupid when you paraphrase them. "Well, it's
about, like, this old woman who's really a young woman who's also, uh, kind of a
dolphin, and there's this spirit-thingy that is farming people, and we see how
they're different from other humans by the way they manipulate each other and
have weird, purposefully gender-confusing sex and stuff" -- but that's because
we're not actually telling the same story, we're telling a much shorter story that
involves many of the same elements. Trust me, if we immerse ourselves in the
world Butler creates, we're able to receive the story as a deeply tragic, mythically-scaled romance.)
In Mind of My Mind, Butler continues the story into the near-present. In the run-down slum that devolved from one of the breeding-experiment communities Doro
founded centuries earlier, we meet Mary, a descendant of Anyanwu's. As she goes
through her "transition" -- the period when she and her genetically-odd relatives
grow into their unusual psychic powers -- she realizes that she is unique even
within such an already-strange community. She generates a psychic "pattern",
becoming the center of a vast web that snares the minds of all the psychically-gifted people around her and draws them to her. The result of so many painfully
strong-willed people being forced to live with each other is an explosion of power-struggles both intimate and epic.
For Mary and Doro are trying to form a new kind of community, one where people
can read each other's minds and truly understand each other's motives, which of
course buggers everything all to heck. Gone is the deeply useful practice of polite
hypocrisy, gone is all but the smallest hope of shielding anyone's intentions from
the Patternmaster. And in this maelstrom of true belief, subversion of expectation
is everything; religion, for instance, is shown to be an abhorrent process of
brainwashing, and yet Mary is forced to indoctrinate others when she needs them
to join her newfound causes, replacing one religion with something that functions
in effectively the same way.
When does the need for privacy become a kind of cynical facade behind which it
is possible to manipulate people through the withholding of information? Does the
need for this privacy change when in certain types of relationships, and if so, why?
To what point do we tolerate an alien and contrary belief? Butler examines how
the inferred beliefs of others compound upon each other and give shape to violent
misunderstandings. Such questions are still important decades after Butler
explicated them, in this day when a tragically large number of people who claim
with shocking earnestness to be lovers of tolerance and diversity of thought will
nevertheless proceed to excoriate anyone who disagrees with them the moment an
inconsistent viewpoint rears its pustulous head. (Why, if only others were
possessed of the same facts as I, then they couldn't possibly think anything other
than what I think! If they're being non-conformist in the incorrect way, then they
must be either stupid of deceptively malicious.)
And yet, as we watch how the characters influence and act on each other's beliefs,
we come to see that that very intuitive leap, that spark of "madness" -- the very
bias that makes any perspective, any individual perception valuable -- is exactly
what makes humans great. The idiosyncratic way of refusing to look at the world
through any eyes but your own, so easily claimed by so many and yet truly
achieved by so few. When nine people look at a situation and see the same thing,
it's the tenth one who sees something different who changes the world.
Octavia Butler saw something different, and if she didn't change the world, she at
least made an indelible mark on our little corner of it. She gives us, through these
intertwined tales of twisted motive, the experience of becoming an entire
community of people -- different from us, while remaining understandable
nevertheless. Fresh eyes to see what we missed, the whole point of storytelling.
Clay's Ark, perhaps the most harrowing, viscerally powerful story in the
collection, is also the most tragic. We meet Blake Maslin and his two daughters,
Rane and Keira, as they become caught up in a near-future struggle between
violent street gangs on one side, and a mysterious village of genetically-altered
recluses on the other. The recluses, we quickly discover, have become infected
with an alien life form that would spread to epidemic proportions if they did not
consciously choose to seclude themselves. In addition to beefing up their own
physical conditions, the disease is mutating their children into catlike beasts,
grotesque parodies of the mythological sphinx.
Blake and his daughters are kidnapped first by the recluses, who are starving for
new blood in their little town. Intended as mates to those villagers whose animal
instincts and reproductive drive have been unbearably enhanced, they each
contract the disease as they are separated from each other. While they are horrified
at their circumstances, there are reasons they never despair entirely of returning to
civilization to warn the world about the looming danger they themselves suddenly
represent. Keira, for instance, who had been suffering from leukemia, grows
strangely stronger with the introduction of the virus.
They eventually do escape . . . but not for long. Instead, they are caught once
again, this time by the street gangs that have taken over a local waystation. As the
violence between the village and the even-more-depraved gangs escalates, Rane
and Keira see that what they thought of as brutality in the villager's life was
actually a sort of kindness in contrast to the true horrors of the gang life. And as
for Blake, he is forced, in the end, to confront the enormous responsibility of being
the one who might or might not have spread the disease to the rest of humanity.
I must warn you, this is by far the bleakest book in the series. The immeasurable
responsibility forced on the characters, the well-intentioned choices they make that
lead to disaster, the moral ambiguity they face when making decisions, it all
coalesces and crescendos higher and higher until the book screams a violent,
almost nihilistic climax.
And yet it is not nihilistic, in the end. For in the sheer act of telling such an
ambiguous tale, Butler is making a positive contribution to the well of memories
we each must draw from when we make our own decisions based on unclear
information. She's helping us to understand why we do the things we do with
more clarity, and while it might be painful to go through the experience, we're
better off for having faced it.
Patternmaster, one of her earlier works, is something of a let-down after Clay's
Ark. Set far in the future, the Clayark disease has transformed entire nations into
roaming man-animals, and the community Mary set up in Mind of My Mind has
grown into an entire empire. Even as both factions clash with each other, the
political intrigue of the Patternist society is about to get more interesting, what
with the impending death of the current Patternmaster.
We follow young Teray, ambitious and craving the power of the Patternmaster, as
he attempts to escape from the slavery of his cruel older brother and instate
himself as the ruler of all. For all that the book is basically one long chase scene
with forays into Machiavellian political maneuvering, Butler is even at this early
date taking her first steps on the road to the gloriously truthful tales she will spin
off this first book. Amber, for instance, the healer who joins Teray on his journey
and becomes a sort of teacher/lover, is far more interesting a character than was at
all necessary for what is at root a pretty traditional story. It's not in the plot so
much as the character interactions that Butler shows us what she's about to
unleash in her later books.
And of course, it's an easy critical choice to praise Butler for her emphasis on
issues foundationally important to the feminist movement and black culture; that
is, after all, what is emphasized in most of the critical blurbs I've seen about her
work. And yet, to do that is to simplify the issues she raises into mere polemic,
mere didacticism; after all, if you're at all familiar with a given sub-community's
jargon, it's easy to slather a persuasive coating of reassuring buzzwords onto your
ideas and -- no matter how ill-supported they may be -- gain the critical
accolades of the sheep of that community.
I think, however, that Butler is actually striving for something even more universal
and powerful. Obviously, her experiences as a black female living in the time she
did deeply affected her work; and yet, if she had wanted to write most powerfully
for whatever views she might have had with the utmost clarity, she could have
simply written out an essay detailing exactly what she believed, or at least
believed she believed. She could have been direct.
And yet she forgoes this in favor of the far more dangerous activity of actually
giving us the experience of living through the events truthfully, no strings
attached. Her work is about authority and obedience, disobedience and rebellion;
if she had tried to write an essay about it, it would be a long booklength in itself.
Instead, she has scene after scene about which philosophical textbooks could be
written from take place in a matter of a few very-fast-moving, exciting,
adventurous, and yet incredibly complex pages.
It's not a feel-good affirmation of black or feminist culture; it is in fact a much
more powerful defense for the values they propound because it is deliberately
exploratory, not self-congratulatory. The blacks in Mary's community, who have
suffered intolerance all their lives, nevertheless turn around and become just as
exclusivist. In a powerful scene, Anyanwu draws a comparison between the way
the Patternist society members treat non-psychic people, "mutes," as being the
equivalent of "n******."
It's not medicine, in other words. She's not writing polemic embedded within a
thinly-disguised and oh-so-clever little allegory in which the climax occurs with
the revelation of some petty little soundbite of "truth" that was hardly worth the
effort involved in obtaining it. No, she's writing utterly brutal accounts of the way
humans actually work, how they act and react to and with each other in ever-shifting communities of allegiance, brilliantly unsentimental and disturbingly
accurate. Mythic stories, in which we see how humans are and can concentrate on
and explore the actual situation and fundamental actions and behaviour without all
the baggage that comes from using the historically-loaded terms or names we use
to describe and define the analogous issues and groups in the real world.
Butler's work, the best kind of science fiction and fantasy, ends up not being
about the fantastical elements per se, but rather about the individual human
reaction to it. How many stories, after all, have there been about shapeshifters,
about magical spirits, about mind-readers and telekinesis? And yet most are paint-by-numbers, using the forms to tell the same old stories by rote. Whereas Butler
never shies away from the human implications of immortality, genetic
inevitability, and on and on. Her ethical studies in the roles of submission and
dominance inherent in mindreading and manipulation are such that we never know
who to cheer for.
Every position is subverted, as those who most chafe at being manipulated find
they must manipulate others in order to help them -- and yet it's only because
they're sure they're right that they're willing to manipulate others. What makes
Anyanwu so different from Doro, beyond having motives that we think of as more
"pure?" The underlying behaviour patterns are the same, they're merely justified
using different rhetoric. The moral ambiguity is disturbing and nearly unbearable,
because the issues are never simplified into sloganeering, never reduced to mere
"positions" or "stances".
Because regardless of whether or not our views are clearly marked as "religious"
or "political" or "philosophical" or whatever name and community (or lack of
name and supposed lack of community) we've decided to classify our self-stories
as being or belonging to, the fact is that it is human nature to build vast mountains
of speculation upon what amounts, in the end, to comparatively little fact. After
all, we have no real choice in the matter, it's what we do when left to our own
devices, how we are able to function in a world where the vast majority of the
causal-chains around us are mostly invisible to we who are born half-blind.
In the intertwining tales of motive that swirl within Seed to Harvest, we realize
that it is storytelling that makes us human. Practically everything important about
human life is a story, a string of causal assertions. Our memories, our narrative
understanding of everything from physics to gossipy family dynamics, it's all
utterly content-based storytelling allowing us to function usefully in a world where
the true "story" of why things happen the way they do is -- for the moment at least
-- beyond of our limited understanding.
What I get from Butler is the sense that storytelling, our own unconscious
"Pattern," is all but built into our biology, serving a useful evolutionary function.
In this context, storytellers are no different than repairmen or plumbers, they just
have a different job to do. While there are certainly more and less effective word-choice decisions to make -- depending on which audience you want to
communicate with most clearly -- the particular, specific, precious words we use
to tell the tale are not the tale itself. They're merely the tools we use to get the
sequence of causal relationships from our heads and into the mind of another
We come as close as we can to being the mindreaders from Butler's work; it's the
most intimate communication possible, the place where we get the clearest, most
pure understanding of another human being, where we can actually share in
something of their conception of how the world works. When we speak of a piece
of writing as being "deep" and "truthful", I think we're talking about how well the
writer describes the causes and effects of choices, how clearly they see the
consequences of actions, not which specific words they used to convey that string
of relationships to us.
Butler's writing, then, is spare and clean, sparse even, direct and to the point, with
no useless non-essential-to-the-plot frills. While she's nowhere near the level of a
Gene Wolfe or a Mary Jane Engh at creating beautifully-constructed phrases, herprose is undeniably powerful, because the sheer clarity and persuasiveness of
rhetoric and worldview is enough to sustain us. As we move through a fascinating
variety of milieux, she is always adept at giving us exactly as much information as
is necessary to imagine a convincing world, never crossing the line of either self-indulgently long-winded descriptive writing or inclarity due to lack of sufficient
detail. Her use of exposition, the easiest thing to get wrong in this genre, is the
standard others need to match; many a lesser writer makes a mess of it -- as many
a teenaged couple has learned, fumbling experimentation leads more often to proof
of ineptitude than euphoric experiences.
The problems Butler's characters face all have the ring of truth to them.
Concerned with the real world, Butler's fiction teaches us to value ambiguity,
ambivalence, the ability to refuse to make decisions blindly, to first hold ideas in
abeyance and gather more information before acting on them. Even though we all
must eventually act at some point -- and expose ourselves to the accompanying
risk of having to alter what we thought to be a foundational worldview later --
lest we be consigned to a hell of stasis no matter how incomplete our knowledge
is, we must still value stories that teach us to consider the implications and
consequences of our actions, what effect they will have on the worldviews and
freedoms and wills of the others we must learn to live with, even as we manipulate
others and are ourselves manipulated. The real dividing line between good and
evil is not whether or not someone has an effect on someone else, for we all do. It
is whether or not we use that dire power to affect a positive or negative change in
others, and how we define those values without resorting to recursive semantic-games.
Look, I doubt you'll go through the exact same (exceedingly long-winded)
practice of speculation I've gone through here by reading these books. I doubt
Butler herself would have agree with some of the conclusions I've drawn from her
work. I guess the point isn't to agree with one or any of us about whatever our
position on ethics or free will or submission and dominance or . . . whatever . . .
happens to be; the point is to come to a more foundationally-necessary -- and by
no means universally-accepted -- agreement that at least these issues matter in the
first place and are worth discussing.
Her stories are important, because beyond the sheer fun of reading such action-packed adventures, we're also given powerful vicarious memories explicitly
detailing what most of us find hard to put into words. The hands-on, day-to-day
process of making a community work, the understanding of how to compromise
with each other. It's fiction of a kind that explores the valuable community-sustaining story that if we cling to the idea that our own perspectives are an utterly
objective and unbiased view of reality, we're merely reinforcing our own denial of
the vast maelstrom of fictions that swirl around us every day, as we shape our
stories into what we need them to be, imagining what needs to be true.
After all, who is the more "realistic" writer, the more "important" writer: is it
someone who merely records the received wisdom of the group of friends he
hangs out with, writing a story that serves as little more than an expression of his
group's disdain for some other group? Or is it the writer of science fiction and
fantasy, she with the ability to grasp the causality of real life with enough
authority to effectively shape and amplify the issues we care about through the
tools of the scifi/fantasy genre? We are the true literature of the strange, ever-hungry to see the world through eyes that are utterly different from our own, trying
to find a more secure foothold in the real world through the clarifying lens of a
stranger's new perspective.
We thrive on the pain of that dissonance of worldview, the frisson of
understanding that new idea, the one we thought we understood before, but in
truth didn't even know how little we knew.