- Wild Seed in Wild Times:Ruminations about Octavia E. Butler's Novel amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic
Throughout the global coronavirus pandemic, like many people I have sought escape from my fears and anxieties about the spreading virus through literature. A few months ago, I reread one of my favorite novels, Octavia Butler's Wild Seed, relishing the thought-provoking story that depicts the beginnings of the Pattern, a group of interconnected magical superbeings with powers such as telepathy, extrasensory perception, mind control, and supernatural healing that is featured in Butler's first novel series. Though the plot of Wild Seed is fantastical and occurs over four hundred years in the past, the themes and issues Butler explores are still applicable to today's global crises and controversies. Through her depiction of the contentious relationship between the main characters Doro and Anyanwu, Butler gives voice in the novel to questions and thoughts I have been having for over a year of quarantine and restricted movement prompted by the pandemic.
Particularly fascinating to me about Wild Seed are the medical and scientific analogies between Butler's characterizations of Doro and Anyanwu and the spread of the coronavirus. Doro is a parasite who does not have his own body. Instead, he is a spirit who must successively inhabit one host body after the other to live. When he jumps to a new body, he kills the existing spirit within it. No one is immune to the possibility of his taking over their body, not even the equally powerful Anyanwu. To survive, Doro has to change bodies whenever the one he currently inhabits is threatened with death. Because of this, Doro is obsessed with obtaining strong, long-lasting bodies, and he creates a eugenics project to interbreed both his children and outsiders with unique supernatural abilities to create more and more powerful descendants. He maintains a strong hold on those in this "Pattern" (the superhuman community he builds in Wheatley, Massachusetts) and will kill, lie, manipulate, and psychologically control his people to achieve his ends. He struggles with Anyanwu throughout the centuries of their relationship because she has a very different ethical viewpoint on how to live, preferring instead to exist freely instead of under his control. [End Page 4]
As I reflected upon Doro's obsessive control over his community deriving from his biological insecurity, strangely enough, I began to see connections with the COVID-19 virus. By nature, viruses too are parasitic, since they must have a host organism to live. Like Doro, they ensure the future of their descendants by moving from body to body, invading bodies close to their host bodies, often mutating in the process. Comparing Doro's project to create the "perfect" superbeing to the coronavirus made me question, what is COVID-19's end game? How does it ensure its future existence and that of its "children" if it so severely affects its human host body that it causes the host's death? Why does the virus not seek out hosts with which it can live in symbiosis instead? When talking about these questions with my colleagues one day, one of them posited that perhaps the virus's true end goal is to mutate so that it becomes similar to a cold virus but it does not know how to do so because the virus should never have been transmitted from animals to humans. After all, though according to news reports some animals have contracted COVID-19, it does not seem to have affected these animals as severely as it has humans.1
In addition to sparking these thoughts about the parasitic nature of COVID-19, Butler's depiction of the character Anyanwu, a healer who is the opposite of the killer Doro, captivates my imagination at a time when so many need medical care after becoming infected with the virus. An incident early in Wild Seed is illustrative of Butler's creative imagination of what it would be like if we never needed doctors to heal us when we are ill. Anyanwu and Doro travel from Anyanwu's village so that Anyanwu can join Doro's Wheatley community. During their journey...