Who’s human anyway? Who’s free? Octavia Butler’s Pattern series

Octavia Butler’s Pattern series consists of Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1985) and Patternmaster (1976). I’m delighted to see they’re in print in one volume as Seed to Harvest, not only because my copy of Mind of My Mind fell apart yesterday but because they’re a series that I always re-read together, so having them all in one book makes total sense.

Of course, you don’t have to read them all together. The series wasn’t written in internal chronological order, which means that the quality varies—like most writers, Butler’s writing got better over time, and these are her early books. Each of them technically stands alone, in that they are each one complete story. And every time I re-read them, I remind myself and rediscover that Patternmaster isn’t actually very good. But I keep re-reading it anyway, because they are the kind of reading that when you’ve started you don’t want to stop while there’s the possibility of any more. They are compulsive pageturners.

There’s a thing good SF does where it completely absorbs you into the reality of the story, where you accept the premises and the strangeness and don’t want to leave the universe. Lots of the books that do that have nice worlds. Butler is better than almost anybody else at it, and manages to do it with worlds that are anything but inherently enticing. I think Butler’s one of the most straight up readable writers in the world.

Wild Seed starts in Africa about three hundred years ago, when two immortals encounter each other. One of them is Doro, who lives by jumping from body to body. He’s thousands of years old already, and his hobby is breeding people to increase their psionic abilities. Anyanwu on the other hand is only three hundred years old. She is a shapechanger who can reshape the cells of her body. She can look like anything she wants to, and her favourite shapes are old woman, young woman, black dog, leopard and dolphin. The things they are have a basis in African mythology, but what Butler does with them is wholly science-fictional and wholly psychologically credible. Doro is selfish and ruthless and evil and can’t understand how what he’s doing is wrong. Anyanwu tries time after time to cope with culture shock and build families. Doro is moving his seed people to North America (why do immortals in SF inevitably instantly rush off to North America the second it’s discovered?) and he takes Anyanwu with him. The main question at issue throughout Wild Seed is who owns Anyanwu—does Doro own her, or does she own herself. This is in a context of slavery (in Africa and the Americas) and of Doro’s ability to kill anyone at any time and take over their body. It’s as if she’s taken these mythological tropes, the woman who can become a leopard, the man who can move into anybody’s body, and then asked what they would really be like if they were people you knew. The historical background—especially in Africa—is also brilliantly done and particularly interesting. And it’s a “secret history,” a set of events that are supposed to have taken place in our real world history without anybody knowing about them.

Mind of My Mind is set in the near future—the near future of 1977, so there’s no internet or cell phones. Doro has continued his breeding program and things are getting where he wants them—there’s a young girl called Mary who is just going to transition into her psionic powers and who may be the person he’s waited for. When she does come into her powers, she’s more successful than he wanted, and mentally leashes a set of his “actives,” telepaths who have already come through their transition. She discovers she can bring “latents,” those who are not going to have a natural transition and Doro’s favourite prey, into their full power and hold them in her pattern. Doro doesn’t like this, and quite often the people who Mary has leashed don’t like it much either. This book is a struggle between Mary and Doro, largely framed as a question of who owns whom, and who owns the other Patternists. This isn’t as subtle or as accomplished a novel, but there’s plenty to like especially in the sections where Mary is taking people over, discovering limits and ethics of control. This is still a secret history, in that if this is the near future Doro’s breeding plan is happening now, and as of the end of the book the Patternists are still hiding parasitically within our society.

Clay’s Ark is weirdly brilliant. It’s written with two different time streams, marked as “past” and “present” in the book, and it’s all about how Eli came back from an alien planet with an alien disease and a compulsion to pass it on, combined with a human desire to keep it corralled. Throughout the book, the tension is caused largely by the threat of the clayark disease getting loose and causing an epidemic that will destroy the world. It’s set a little after Mind of My Mind, in a near future (of 1985—they have car phones) that is already collapsing into lawlessness and chaos even without the disease. There’s only one hint (or several hints all on one page) that this is even the same universe as the other books. The characters are very real, as they struggle to retain what humanity they can. It’s hard to say anything at all about it without spoilers. It may be the best of the lot.

The most interesting thing about Patternmaster is that she wrote it first. Patternmaster is set in a world divided between clayarks and Patternists, where ordinary humans are called “mutes” and are entirely controlled by Patternists for their own purposes. So Butler must—to have written this book—known the whole history that takes place in the books that lead up to it, which took her a decade more to write. There are absolutely no contradictions or retcons. The brief summary of history in Patternmaster is exactly what we’ve seen in the other books if we’ve read them by internal chronology. But of course this means she wrote the earlier books knowing everything would fail. The clayark epidemic got loose, and destroyed civilization. The clayarks themselves are people, and have a language and some culture, but they’re definitely not really human. The Patternist society that Mary hoped for is a failure. Mutes are all slaves and so are most Patternists. Patternmaster is about the desire of one powerful Patternist to be free, and successful, but we see a lot of people with no hope of freedom, people who can be traded from one House to another, people who do their best to come to an accommodation with that. And looking back from Patternmaster you can see the beginnings of all this in Mind of My Mind, no matter with what good intentions the handbasket to Hell was woven.

The worst thing about the climax state of the world Doro made is that not even the Patternists are fully human. They have incredible psionic power, but they’ve lost science, they’ve lost technology, they’ve even lost ceremonial burial and the ability to care for their own children. They are more than human in some ways, but much less in others. The clayarks at least love their children. The Patternists have to keep mutes around to be foster parents.

When you look back at the other books from the perspective of Patternmaster you see how truly terrible the things in the earlier books were, in that they were leading to this. There’s a real perspective of history here, from Dodo’s casual acceptance of slavery in Wild Seed, buying the specimens he wants and taking them over if they’re recalcitrant, to the trading in human lives in Patternmaster‘s future. The Patternists are parasites and the clayarks are half-alien, the mutes—that’s us, in case you’ve forgotten—are entirely controlled toys that the Patternists can use with casual cruelty.

Very few SF books have shown eugenic breeding for psionic powers as an unmitigatedly terrible thing. In Darkover for instance there’s a certain lipservice that there’s a terrible price to pay, but generally the text tacitly approves of the abilities and the society they produce. I think this is the normal stance in SF—generally breeding programs of humans is seen positively. Heinlein’s Howard Families may always need hospitals for defectives (Time Enough For Love) but the text is OK with that. I can’t think of anyone but Butler who sees it as a real horror and makes it bite.

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