Feb 2 2009 6:36pm

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.

Eugene Myers
1. ecmyers
Jo, have you ever read Survivor? I know Octavia let it go out of print, but I would still like to get my hands on a copy since it's still part of the series. Unfortunately, even the "cheap" paperback is selling for over $60...
Sandi Kallas
2. Sandikal
I read "Wild Seed" in January of last year. It really took my breath away. It was one of the best books I read in 2008. I promptly had to get "Seed to Harvest" to continue the story. While the rest of the stories were good, none compared to "Wild Seed" for great storytelling. It was a great compilation nonetheless.

Ecmyers, I would love to get my hands on a copy of "Survivor". I wonder if it's really as awful as Butler seems to have thought it was.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
ECMyers: I own an old shabby copy of Survivor which I think I bought for 50p with wild cries of glee. I like it, though I understand why she repudiated it. It's only peripherally in this universe, being all set on another planet and mostly about the aliens.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Sandikal: It isn't awful at all, but it has the trope of humans and aliens being able to interbreed by normal sex, which she later felt was unrealistic cheating.

I guess it is, but I like the book anyway. It's at least as good as her other early books -- way better than Patternmaster.

I could read it and do a proper review if it wouldn't make you too envious?
Sandi Kallas
5. Sandikal
I would be very envious, but I'm also really curious. I can survive envy.

Do you think there's any chance at all of it getting back into print? Or, is Butler's estate really adamant about going along with her wishes?
Rajan Khanna
6. rajanyk
I've read them all but Clay's Ark (and Survivor). At the time I read the books, I don't think Clay's Ark was in print. I'm not sure I'll buy this as I own the rest of the books, but I'd like to read Clay's Ark finally.
William S. Higgins
7. higgins
(why do immortals in SF inevitably instantly rush off to North America the second it’s discovered?)

Whereas you had the decency to wait 500 years before moving your family to that continent?
8. Randwolf
Well, I think the character of the psionic powers involved has something to do with the result. Butler was an extremely alienated person; a smart black woman interested in a very white denigrated art form. Hard to imagine her having gentle fantasies, and indeed she did not. My sense of the Patternist books is that Patternmaster came first--a teenage fantasy of some sort, and then she had to reason out how such a world could come to be.

BTW, I remember Butler once commenting that Doro could not die--that he literally could not help being what he was. I think she empathized with him.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Randwolf: She definitely empathised with him, but she didn't make him nice. That's a real achievement.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Sandikal: I don't have any idea about Butler's estate. I'd certainly be happy to see it in print.
Kate Nepveu
11. katenepveu
Thanks for this review. Is this a case where you'd recommend internal chronological order over publication order? I get the impression yes, but I only gently skimmed the later bits of this to avoid any potential spoilers.
Joe Sherry
12. jsherry
Kate: I'm hopelessly publication order. I like seeing how Butler (or other authors) define the world over several volumes and the order of reveal.

I think reading Patternmaster last would give a far different reading experience than if you read it first.

Jo's quote "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" is pretty much why I'd recommend reading in publication order.

As mentioned above, Suvivor is barely a part of the series. A colony ship (I think) lands on another world to escape the devestation on Earth caused by the clayark disease. Outside of the background mythology, though, it is otherwise unrelated to the Patternist series.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Kate: I totally recommend internal chronological order in this case.
14. Technocracygirl
I just picked up Seed to Harvest, and have been reading the books in published order. (This was recommended to me by people on LiveJournal, as they thought PM and MoMM suffered compared to WS and CA, and having no other recs to go by, I figured why not?)

I had never picked up Butler before, because the back cover blurbs didn't really interest me. More the loss for me. The books don't feel like the average SF book does. The plot is there, and is important, but seems almost incidental to the unfolding of the characters and the world. They're like a good blackberry, where it's almost too tart to eat, but so delicious that you can't help yourself.

Things happen. Life goes on. All you have is one life. Good, bad, and indifferent. Pain happens, as does pleasure. Predators need prey, and prey can be comfortable, but it's still prey. And predators can never rest.
15. NightRelic
So far I've read Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind and Clay's Ark using the internal chronology for order. I bought a Signet paperback copy of Survivor for about $50 on Ebay, but it's in beautiful shape- just a minor corner crease and a scuff on the spine- so I've been reluctant to crack it. I will brave it eventually.:) I'd encourage people to keep a watch on Ebay for this book because they do turn up at decent prices. There's currently (1/23/10) one listed from Australia for $9.95.

I love all of Butler's works. I think my favorite of here series is the Xenogenesis series, but you can't go wrong with any of her books.
Tina Black
16. TinaBlack
There are already groups that accept congenital problems because they choose to inbreed. It depends on how strongly a group feels about intermarriage. If the feeling is strong, Butlerian problems emerge.

Not liking a fact doesn't make it less of a fact.
17. pisher
A bit late to contribute, but I think an important point has been missed--the Patternists are the only thing that kept humanity from being absorbed by the Clayark virus, something Butler talked about in the very first novel shes published in this series, and showed us the frightening genesis of in the last one.

As horrible as Doro's methods were, as frequently dysfunctional and oppressive as Patternist society is shown to be at times, the failing technology society of the 'Mutes' (shown to be falling apart before the Clayark virus hit, and that's not because of the Patternists) was what brought the virus to earth, and then utterly failed to contain it. The Patternists must have been hit hard, but they survived--and began to take back the planet from this introduced exotic that is threatening not only the human race, but the biosphere itself (since they seem unable to achieve any sort of balance with their environment).

The non-technological Patternists are the only potential saviors of life on earth, and we see reason for hope at the end of "Patternmaster", that humanity can put itself back together again, that lasting peace with the Clayarks may be possible someday, and that oppression of the Mutes can be brought to an end. Just hope, though--not a promise. Unrealized potential.

Butler isn't interested in who is good or evil. In nature, no such thing exists. She's interested in how people exploit each other, and how they sometimes choose--at great cost--to not do that. She's interested in evolution, and where it's going. She'd like to think the ultimate goal will be good, but the series did get more pessimistic over the years.

She is certainly not exempting 'Mutes' from responsibility for this. We invented slavery. Not Doro. And ours was even worse than his. Not everything he was trying to do was wrong, even if his methods were horrible. So were everybody else's, after all. If you're really honest about it. None of us live without exploiting others, but we hide from it really well, don't we? He didn't. Give him credit for that.

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