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In the future, nuclear war has destroyed nearly all humankind. An alien race intervenes, saving the small group of survivors from certain death. But their salvation comes at a cost.
The Oankali are able to read and mutate genetic code, and they use these skills for their own survival, interbreeding with new species to constantly adapt and evolve. They value the intelligence they see in humankind but also know that the species—rigidly bound to destructive social hierarchies—is destined for failure. They are determined that the only way forward is for the two races to produce a new hybrid species—and they will not tolerate rebellion.
Akin looks like an ordinary human child. But as the first true human-alien hybrid, he is born understanding language, then starts to form sentences at two months old. He can see at a molecular level and kill with a touch. More powerful than any human or Oankali, he will be the architect of both races' future. But before he can carry this new species into the stars, Akin must reconcile with his own heritage in a world already torn in two.
He remembered much of his stay in the womb.
While there, he began to be aware of sounds and tastes. They meant nothing to him, but he remembered them. When they recurred, he noticed.
When something touched him, he knew it to be a new thing—a new experience. The touch was first startling, then comforting. It penetrated his flesh painlessly and calmed him. When it withdrew, he felt bereft, alone for the first time. When it returned, he was pleased—another new sensation. When he had experienced a few of these withdrawals and returns, he learned anticipation.
He did not learn pain until it was time for him to be born.
He could feel and taste changes happening around him—the slow turning of his body, then later the sudden headfirst thrust, the compression first of his head, then gradually along the length of his body. He hurt in a dull, distant way.
Yet he was not afraid. The changes were right. It was time for them. His body was ready. He was propelled along in regular pulses and comforted from time to time by the touch of his familiar companion.
There was light!
Vision was first a blaze of shock and pain. He could not escape the light. It grew brighter and more painful, reached its maximum as the compression ended. No part of his body was free from the sharp, raw brilliance. Later, he would recall it as heat, as burning.
It cooled abruptly.
Something muted the light. He could still see, but seeing was no longer painful. His body was rubbed gently as he lay submerged in something soft and comforting. He did not like the rubbing. It made the light seem to jerk and vanish, then leap back to visibility. But it was the familiar presence that touched him, held him. It stayed with him and helped him endure the rubbing without fear.
He was wrapped in something that touched him everywhere except his face. He did not like the heavy feel of it, but it shut out the light and did not hurt him.
Something touched the side of his face, and he turned, mouth open, to take it. His body knew what to do. He sucked and was rewarded by food and by the taste of flesh as familiar as his own. For a time, he assumed it was his own. It had always been with him.
He could hear voices, could even distinguish individual sounds, though he understood none of them. They captured his attention, his curiosity. He would remember these, too, when he was older and able to understand them. But he liked the soft voices even without knowing what they were.
“He’s beautiful,” one voice said. “He looks completely Human.”
“Some of his features are only cosmetic, Lilith. Even now his senses are more dispersed over his body than yours are. He is… less Human than your daughters.”
“I’d guessed he would be. I know your people still worry about Human-born males.”
“They were an unsolved problem. I believe we’ve solved it now.”
“His senses are all right, though?”
“That’s all I can expect, I guess.” A sigh. “Shall I thank you for making him look this way—for making him seem Human so I can love him?… for a while.”
“You’ve never thanked me before.”
“And I think you go on loving them even when they change.”
“They can’t help what they are… what they become. You’re sure everything else is all right, too? All the mismatched bits of him fit together as best they can?”
“Nothing in him is mismatched. He’s very healthy. He’ll have a long life and be strong enough to endure what he must endure.”
He was Akin.
Things touched him when this sound was made. He was given comfort or food, or he was held and taught. Body to body understanding was given to him. He came to perceive himself as himself—individual, defined, separate from all the touches and smells, all the tastes, sights, and sounds that came to him. He was Akin.
Yet he came to know that he was also part of the people who touched him—that within them, he could find fragments of himself. He was himself, and he was those others.
He learned quickly to distinguish between them by taste and touch. It took longer for him to know them by sight or smell, but taste and touch were almost a single sensation for him. Both had been familiar to him for so long.
He had heard differences in voices since his birth. Now he began to attach identities to those differences. When, within days of his birth, he had learned his own name and could say it aloud, the others taught him their names. These they repeated when they could see that they had his attention. They let him watch their mouths shape the words. He came to understand quickly that each of them could be called by one or both of two groups of sounds.
Nikanj Ooan, Lilith Mother, Ahajas Ty, Dichaan Ishliin, and the one who never came to him even though Nikanj Ooan had taught him that one’s touch and taste and smell. Lilith Mother had shown him a print image of that one, and he had scanned it with all his senses: Joseph Father.
He called for Joseph Father and, instead, Nikanj Ooan came and taught him that Joseph Father was dead. Dead. Ended. Gone away and not coming back. Yet he had been part of Akin, and Akin must know him as he knew all his living parents.
Akin was two months old when he began to put together simple sentences. He could not get enough of being held and taught.
“He’s quicker than most of my girls,” Lilith commented as she held him against her and let him drink. It could have been difficult to learn from her smooth, unhelpful skin except that it was as familiar as his own—and superficially like his own. Nikanj Ooan taught him to use his tongue—his least Human visible organ—to study Lilith when she fed him. Over many feedings, he tasted her flesh as well as her milk. She was a rush of flavors and textures—sweet milk, salty skin smooth in some places, rough in others. He concentrated on one of the smooth places, focused all his attention on probing it, perceiving it deeply, minutely. He perceived the many cells of her skin, living and dead. Her skin taught him what it meant to be dead. Its dead outer layer contrasted sharply with what he could perceive of the living flesh beneath. His tongue was as long and sensitive and malleable as the sensory tentacles of Ahajas and Dichaan. He sent a filament of it into the living tissue of her nipple. He had hurt her the first time he tried this, and the pain had been channeled back to him through his tongue. The pain had been so sharp and startling that he withdrew, screaming and weeping. He refused to be comforted until Nikanj showed him how to probe without causing pain.
“That,” Lilith had commented, “was a lot like being stabbed with a hot, blunt needle.”
“He won’t do it again,” Nikanj had promised.
Akin had not done it again. And he had learned an important lesson: He would share any pain he caused. Best, then, to be careful and not cause pain. He would not know for months how unusual it was for an infant to recognize the pain of another person and recognize himself as the cause of that pain.
Now he perceived, through the tendril of flesh he had extended into Lilith, expanses of living cells. He focused on a few cells, on a single cell, on the parts of that cell, on its nucleus, on chromosomes within the nucleus, on genes along the chromosomes. He investigated the DNA that made up the genes, the nucleotides of the DNA. There was something beyond the nucleotides that he could not perceive—a world of smaller particles that he could not cross into. He did not understand why he could not make this final crossing—if it were the final one. It frustrated him that anything was beyond his perception. He knew of it only through shadowy ungraspable feelings. When he was older he came to think of it as a horizon, always receding when he approached it.
He shifted his attention from the frustration of what he could not perceive to the fascination of what he could. Lilith’s flesh was much more exciting than the flesh of Nikanj, Ahajas, and Dichaan. There was something wrong with hers—something he did not understand. It was both frightening and seductive. It told him Lilith was dangerous, though she was also essential. Nikanj was interesting but not dangerous. Ahajas and Dichaan were so alike he had to struggle to perceive differences between them. In some ways Joseph had been like Lilith. Deadly and compelling. But he had not been as much like Lilith as Ahajas was like Dichaan. In fact, though he had clearly been Human and native to this place, this Earth, like Lilith, he had not been Lilith’s relative. Ahajas and Dichaan were brother and sister, like most Oankali male and female mates. Joseph was unrelated, like Nikanj—but although Nikanj was Oankali, it was also ooloi, not male or female. Ooloi were supposed to be unrelated to their male and female mates so that they could focus their attention on their mates’ genetic differences and construct children without making dangerous mistakes of overfamiliarity and overconfidence.
“Be careful,” he heard Nikanj say. “He’s studying you again.”
“I know,” Lilith answered. “Sometimes I wish he’d just nurse like Human babies.”
Lilith rubbed Akin’s back, and the flickering of light between and around her fingers broke his concentration. He withdrew his flesh from hers, then released her nipple and looked at her. She closed clothing over her breast but went on holding him on her lap. He was always glad when people held him and talked to each other, allowing him to listen. He had already learned more words from them than he had yet had occasion to use. He collected words and gradually assembled them into questions. When his questions were answered, he remembered everything he was told. His picture of the world grew.
“At least he isn’t any stronger or faster in physical development than other babies,” Lilith said. “Except for his teeth.”
“There have been babies born with teeth before,” Nikanj said. “Physically, he’ll look his Human age until his metamorphosis. He’ll have to think his way out of any problems his precocity causes.”
“That won’t do him much good with some Humans. They’ll resent him for not being completely Human and for looking more Human than their kids. They’ll hate him for looking much younger than he sounds. They’ll hate him because they haven’t been allowed to have sons. Your people have made Human-looking male babies a very valuable commodity.”
“We’ll allow more of them now. Everyone feels more secure about mixing them. Before now, too many ooloi could not perceive the necessary mixture. They could have made mistakes and their mistakes could be monsters.”
“Most Humans think that’s what they’ve been doing.”
“Do you still?”
“Be content, Lilith. One group of us believed it would be best to dispense with Human-born males altogether. We could construct female children for Human females and male children for Oankali females. We’ve done that until now.”
“And cheated everyone. Ahajas wants daughters, and I want sons. Other people feel the same way.”
“I know. And we control children in ways we should not to make them mature as Oankali-born males and Human-born females. We control inclinations that should be left to individual children. Even the group that suggested we go on this way knows we shouldn’t. But they were afraid. A male who’s Human enough to be born to a Human female could be a danger to us all. We must try though. We’ll learn from Akin.”
Akin felt himself held closer to Lilith. “Why is he such an experiment?” she demanded. “And why should Human-born men be such a problem? I know most prewar men don’t like you. They feel you’re displacing them and forcing them to do something perverted. From their point of view, they’re right. But you could teach the next generation to love you, no matter who their mothers are. All you’d have to do is start early. Indoctrinate them before they’re old enough to develop other opinions.”
“But…” Nikanj hesitated. “But if we had to work that blindly, that clumsily, we couldn’t have trade. We would have to take your children from you soon after they were born. We wouldn’t dare trust you to raise them. You would be kept only for breeding—like nonsentient animals.”
Silence. A sigh. “You say such god-awful things in such a gentle voice. No, hush, I know it’s the only voice you’ve got. Nika, will Akin survive the Human males who will hate him?”
“They won’t hate him.”
“They will! He isn’t Human. Un-Human women are offensive to them, but they don’t usually try to hurt them, and they do sleep with them—like a racist sleeping with racially different women. But Akin… They’ll see him as a threat. Hell, he is a threat. He’s one of their replacements.”
“Lilith, they will not hate him.” Akin felt himself lifted from Lilith’s arms and held close to Nikanj’s body. He gasped at the lovely shock of contact with Nikanj’s sensory tentacles, many of which held him while others burrowed painlessly into his flesh. It was so easy to connect with Nikanj and to learn. “They will see him as beautiful and like themselves,” Nikanj said. “By the time he’s old enough for his body to reveal what he actually is, he’ll be an adult and able to hold his own.”
“Able to fight?”
“Only to save his life. He’ll tend to avoid fighting. He’ll be like Oankali-born males now—a solitary wanderer when he’s not mated.”
“He won’t settle down with anyone?”
“No. Most Human males aren’t particularly monogamous. No construct males will be.”
“Families will change, Lilith—are changing. A complete construct family will be a female, an ooloi, and children. Males will come and go as they wish and as they find welcome.”
“But they’ll have no homes.”
“A home like this would be a prison to them. They’ll have what they want, what they need.”
“The ability to be fathers to their kids?”
Nikanj paused. “They might choose to keep contact with their children. They won’t live with them permanently—and no construct, male or female, young or old, will feel that as a deprivation. It will be normal to them, and purposeful, since there will always be many more females and ooloi than males.” It rustled its head and body tentacles. “Trade means change. Bodies change. Ways of living must change. Did you think your children would only look different?”
Akin spent some part of the day with each of his parents. Lilith fed him and taught him. The others only taught him, but he went to them all eagerly. Ahajas usually held him after Lilith.
Ahajas was tall and broad. She carried him without seeming to notice his weight. He had never felt weariness in her. And he knew she enjoyed carrying him. He could feel pleasure the moment she sank filaments of her sensory tentacles into him. She was the first person to be able to reach him this way with more than simple emotions. She was the first to give him multisensory images and signaling pressures and to help him understand that she was speaking to him without words. As he grew, he realized that Nikanj and Dichaan also did this. Nikanj had done it even before he was born, but he had not understood. Ahajas had reached him and taught him quickly. Through the images she created for him, he learned about the child growing within her. She gave him images of it and even managed to give it images of him. It had several presences: all its parents except Lilith. And it had him. Sibling.
He knew he would be male when he grew up. He understood male, and female, and ooloi. And he knew that because he would be male, the unborn child who would begin its life seeming much less Human than he did would eventually become female. There was a balance, a naturalness to this that pleased him. He should have a sister to grow up with—a sister but not an ooloi sibling. Why? He wondered whether the child inside Ahajas would become ooloi, but Ahajas and Nikanj both assured him it would not. And they would not tell him how they knew. So this sibling should become a sister. It would take years to develop sexually, but he already thought of it as “she.”
Dichaan usually took him once Ahajas had returned him to Lilith and Lilith had fed him. Dichaan taught him about strangers.
First there were his older siblings, some born to Ahajas and becoming more Human, and some born to Lilith and becoming more Oankali. There were also children of older siblings, and finally, frighteningly, unrelated people. Akin could not understand why some of the unrelated ones were more like Lilith than Joseph had been. And none of them were like Joseph.
Dichaan read Akin’s unspoken confusion.
“The differences you perceive between Humans—between groups of Humans—are the result of isolation and inbreeding, mutation, and adaptation to different Earth environments,” he said, illustrating each concept with quick multiple images. “Joseph and Lilith were born in very different parts of this world—born to long separated peoples. Do you understand?”
“Where are Joseph’s kind?” Akin asked aloud.
“Now there are villages of them to the southwest. They’re called Chinese.”
“I want to see them.”
“You will. You can travel to them when you’re older.” He ignored Akin’s rush of frustration. “And someday I’ll take you to the ship. You’ll be able to see Oankali differences, too.” He gave Akin an image of the ship—a vast sphere made up of huge, still-growing, many-sided plates like the shell of a turtle. In fact, it was the outer shell of a living being. “There,” Dichaan said, “you’ll see Oankali who will never come to Earth or trade with Humans. For now, they tend the ship in ways that require a different physical form.” He gave Akin an image, and Akin thought it resembled a huge caterpillar.
Akin projected silent questioning.
“Speak aloud,” Dichaan told him.
“Is it a child?” Akin asked, thinking of the changes caterpillars underwent.
“No. It’s adult. It’s larger than I am.”
“Can it talk?”
“In images, in tactile, bioelectric, and bioluminescent signals, in pheromones, and in gestures. It can gesture with ten limbs at once. But its throat and mouth parts won’t produce speech. And it is deaf. It must live in places where there is a great deal of noise. My parents’ parents had that shape.”
This seemed terrible to Akin—Oankali forced to live in an ugly form that did not even allow them to hear or speak.
“What they are is as natural to them as what you are is to you,” Dichaan told him. “And they are much closer to the ship than we can be. They’re companions to it, knowing its body better than you know your own. When I was a little older than you are now, I wanted to be one of them. They let me taste a little of their relationship with the ship.”
“Not yet. It’s a very powerful thing. I’ll show you when you’re a little older.”
Everything was to happen when he was older. He must wait! He must always wait! In frustration, Akin had stopped speaking. He could not help hearing and remembering all that Dichaan told him, but he would not speak to Dichaan again for days.
Yet it was Dichaan who began leaving him in the care of his older sisters, letting him begin to investigate them—while they thoroughly investigated him. His favorite among them was Margit. She was six years old—too small to carry him long, but he was content to ride on her back or sit on her lap for as long as she could handle him comfortably. She did not have sensory tentacles like his Oankali-born sisters, but she had clusters of sensitive nodules that would probably be tentacles when she grew up. She could match some of these to the smooth, invisible sensory patches on his skin, and the two of them could exchange images and emotions as well as words. She could teach him.
“You should be careful,” she said as she took him to shelter in their family house, away from a hard afternoon rain. “Your eyes don’t track a lot of the time. Can you see with them?”
He thought about this. “I can,” he said, “but I don’t always. Sometimes it’s easier to see things from other parts of my body.”
“When you’re older, you’ll be expected to turn your face and body toward people when you talk to them. Even now, you should look at Humans with your eyes. If you don’t, they yell at you or repeat things because they’re not sure they have your attention. Or they start to ignore you because they think you’re ignoring them.”
“No one’s done that to me.”
“They will. Just wait until you get past the stage when they try to talk stupid to you.”
“Baby talk, you mean?”
“Don’t worry,” she said after a while. “It’s them I’m mad at, not you.”
“They blame me for not looking like them. They can’t help doing it, and I can’t help resenting it. I don’t know which is worse—the ones who cringe if I touch them or the ones who pretend it’s all right while they cringe inside.”
“What does Lilith feel?” Akin asked only because he already knew the answer.
“For her, I might as well look the way you do. I remember when I was about your age, she would wonder how I would find a mate, but Nikanj told her there would be plenty of males like me by the time I grew up. She never said anything after that. She tells me to stick with the constructs. I do, mostly.”
“Humans like me,” he said. “I guess because I look like them.”
“Just remember to look at them with your eyes when they talk to you or you talk to them. And be careful about tasting them. You won’t be able to get away with that for much longer. Besides, your tongue doesn’t look Human.”
“Humans say it shouldn’t be gray, but they don’t realize how different it really is.”
“Don’t let them guess. They can be dangerous, Akin. Don’t show them everything you can do. But… hang around them when you can. Study their behavior. Maybe you can collect things about them that we can’t. It would be wrong if anything that they are is lost.”
“Your legs are going to sleep,” Akin observed. “You’re tired. You should take me to Lilith.”
“In a little while.”
She did not want to give him up, he realized. He did not mind. She was, Humans said, gray and warty—more different than most Human-born children. And she could hear as well as any construct. She caught every whisper whether she wanted to or not, and if she were near Humans, they soon began to talk about her. “If she looks this bad now, what will she look like after metamorphosis?” they would begin. Then they would speculate or pity her or condemn her or laugh at her. Better a few more minutes of peace alone with him.
Her full Human name was Margita Iyapo Domonkos Kaalnikanjlo. Margit. She had all four of his living parents in common with him. Her Human father, though, was Vidor Domonkos, not the dead Joseph. Vidor—some people called him Victor—had moved to a village several miles upriver when he and Lilith tired of one another. He came back two or three times a year to see Margit. He did not like the way she looked, yet he loved her. She had seen that he did, and Akin was certain she had read his emotion correctly. He had never met Vidor himself. He had been too young for contact with strangers during the man’s last visit.
“Will you tell Vidor to let me touch him when he comes to see you again?” Akin asked.
“I want to find you in him.”
She laughed. “He and I have a lot in common. He doesn’t like having anyone explore him, though. Says he doesn’t need anything burrowing through his skin.” She hesitated. “He means that. He only let me do it once. Just talk to him if you meet him, Akin. In some ways he can be just as dangerous as any other Human.”
“Akin… All of them! Haven’t you explored any of them? Can’t you feel it?” She gave him a complex image. He understood it only because he had explored a few Humans himself. Humans were a compelling, seductive, deadly contradiction. He felt drawn to them, yet warned against them. To touch a Human deeply—to taste one—was to feel this.
“I know,” he said. “But I don’t understand.”
“Talk to Ooan. It knows and understands. Talk to Mother, too. She knows more than she likes to admit.”
“She’s Human. You don’t think she’s dangerous, too, do you?”
“Not to us.” She stood up with him. “You’re getting heavier. I’ll be glad when you learn to walk.”
“Me, too. How old were you when you walked?”
“Just over a year. You’re almost there.”
“Yes. It’s too bad you couldn’t learn walking as easily as you learned talking.” She returned him to Lilith, who fed him and promised to take him into the forest with her.
- PRAISE FOR OCTAVIA E. BUTLER'S NOVELS
- "A revolutionary voice in her lifetime, Butler has only become more popular and influential . . . A generation of younger writers cite her as an influence, from Jemisin and Tochi Onyebuchi to Marlon James and Nnedi Okarafor . . .She is now praised as a visionary who anticipated many of the issues in the news today, from the coronavirus to climate change to the election of President Donald Trump."—Associated Press
- "Butler is one of the finest voices in fiction-period . . . A master storyteller with a voice that cradles and captivates, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty and ignorance, and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature."—Washington Post
- "Wild Seed is a book that shifted my life . . . It is as epic, as game-changing, as moving and brilliant as any science fiction novel ever written."—Viola Davis
- "Brilliant, endlessly rich...pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale."—John Green, New York Times (on Parable of the Sower)
- "If we're talking must-read authors like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, the one-and-only Octavia Butler needs be a part of the conversation. The groundbreaking sci-fi and speculative fiction author was a master of spinning imaginative tales that introduced you to both the possibilities -- and dangers -- of the human race, all while offering lessons on tribalism, race, gender, and sexuality."—O, The Oprah Magazine
- "An internationally acclaimed science fiction writer whose evocative, often troubling, novels explore far-reaching issues of race, sex, power and, ultimately, what it means to be human."—New York Times
- "More than any novel I've ever read, Octavia Butler's Wild Seed examines power, what it means to wield it responsibly and what it means to resist it when it is wielded capriciously."—Rion Amilcar Scott, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize-winning author of Insurrections
- "In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time, Octavia Butler's 'Parable' books may be unmatched."—New Yorker (on Parable of the Sower)
- On Sale
- Aug 24, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing