Monday, 3 March 2014

The Seed To Harvest Omnibus Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Wild Seed, Mind Of My Mind, Clay's Ark, and Patternmaster by Octavia E. Butler

Seed to Harvest is a nice big omnibus book that contains a bunch of great novels by Octavia E. Butler. Broadly speaking the novels tell the story of an emergent culture of humans bred for their supernatural powers. Wild Seed tells the story of Anyanwu, an African woman with powers of healing and transformation, who is wooed and collected by Doro, an immortal being who consumes souls to inhabit bodies, and brought to 1700s America to further his plans to breed the perfect people. Mind of My Mind picks up the story hundreds of years later in vaguely contemporary times with the coming of age of Mary, a teenage girl belonging to Doro with the potential to be something unique, something that might be the key to uniting Doro's scattered people. Clay's Ark throws a wrinkle in the story with the arrival of a horrible alien virus that makes people give into their most base animal instincts. Finally, Patternmaster closes the series with a story set in the far future that sees the Patternists, the mentally powerful and rigidly controlled descendants of Doro's people, in a bitter war with the Clayarks, the mutant race of the alien disease, as a struggle emerges over who will be the next Patternmaster, leader of the Patternists. Together they tell the story of several hundred years of human social and biological evolution that explores what it means to be human in a society,

Thematically, the novels of Seed to Harvest are dense books. With elegant and accessible prose these novel ask some really difficult questions in some really brutally honest ways. The most central thematic question is one of control, and the role dominance plays in every facet of human life. For instance in Wild Seed, Butler explores control as an aspect of community and the tension between freedom in isolation and the regimented living of civilization. In Mind of My Mind Butler deals with the same question but moves the lens from the controlled to the master and delves into the role of control and ownership in building communities. Clay's Ark goes the other way and looks at how people are slaves to their animal nature and how thin the barrier of civilization really is. Finally, Patternmaster extrapolates these questions to their conclusion and portrays societies that are diametrically opposed: one structured and intellectual but where every member is relentlessly controlled and the other free but bestial and wretched. Collectively the novels of Seed to Harvest create an engaging space for a lot of really heavy conversations. It's great Science Fiction.

It's also Sci-fi that, I think, is really particular to the novels' author and her particular worldview. Now, most of the novels I read are by really smart white dudes who often have a penchant for geekery. And I think they write great books that are often fairly progressive. The thing is, I can't see a straight white author writing these books: the way they explore themes of control and slavery, belonging and alienation from the perspective of the victimized as well as the powerful is beyond, I think, the ken of those of us exclusively on the powerful side of the fence. Octavia E. Butler is an American woman of African descent and I think this helped inform the worldview that makes these books such insightful works of Sci-fi. I mean, the novels of Seed to Harvest are good books because Octavia E. Butler is a fabulously talented writer, but I still feel like they are improved and informed by her perspective as a woman and person of colour. And I think this unique and interesting perspective makes a pretty compelling argument for trying books by women and minority authors: they have interesting stories to tell that might not occur to mainstream white, male authors and, if nothing else, reading something new is always pretty great.

I would recommend the Seed to Harvest omnibus, and all of its collective novels, to anyone. They are beautifully written, engrossingly plotted, and ask some really interesting and fundamental questions from a really interesting perspective. Seed to Harvest contains big league Science Fiction that has the timelessness of classics and the literary skill of contemporary novels. If you are a serious reader of Science Fiction you really out to read Wild Seed, Mind Of My Mind, Clay's Ark, and Patternmaster. They are really good books.

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