The shortcomings of Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, part 1

My perfectionism is getting in the way of completing the book review I wanted to post first, so instead it’s a walk through the speculative fiction wilds with one of the original black authors in that realm, Octavia Butler.  This is a critical overview of her secret psychics series, not a book review, so there will be spoilers galore.  The series is full of bizarre biology and odd sexual situations, so I can’t recommend it, I am simply discussing it as I have read it and find it interesting now that I’ve had children, as it’s one of the few popular science fiction series to normalize (for a broad definition of that) having children and family ties.

The Patternist series is five books (one permanently out of print due to a fit of pique by Miss Butler) comprising a secret history of the rise of a race of psychics who come to take over the West Coast, which constitutes THE WORLD to a California girl like Octavia Butler was.  In fact, this is one of the shortcomings that smacks the reader in the face as they read even the first novel, Patternmaster (which is last chronologically but first in publishing order).  Patternmaster is set in a far future world where the Patternist psychics run everything in a sort of medieval way (that is approximately the technological level), but not really.  As it turns out, the more psychic power you have within the Pattern (all the psychics are linked by strands of a telepathic Pattern, “held” or controlled by the Patternmaster), the less creative you are.  The only art and teaching happens with the Patternists who barely have any psychic power.  This is an interesting side point that is never explored in the entire series.

But to get back on point, since the Patternmaster is linked telepathically to all the other Patternists, he or she can draw upon their combined psychic energy.  However it’s bound by distance.  The Patternmaster’s range is only a few thousand miles in the far future.  The rest of the planet is overrun by alien-human hybrids called “Clayarks” after humanity did a space mission into deep space on a ship called “Clay’s Ark” and brought back a virus that contained a command to spread it within its viral DNA.  The story of the Clayark plague is told in the final book by publishing order and fourth chronologically, Clay’s Ark.  This is a favorite theme of Miss Butler’s, materialist hierarchy.  It’s always genetic in her work, you’re born or genetically driven to submit or dominate, you have no significant control over what’s in your blood.  It’s especially interesting in light of how liberal and progressive she is ideologically, taking special time out in the Patternist series to portray Christians as cruel dupes.  That is from the “missing” Patternist book, Survivor, the one she demanded never be placed back in print after its initial run because she was dissatisfied with its success.

In Survivor (which is chronologically concurrent with Clay’s Ark in the internal chronology of the series), the Patternists come out from hiding during the Clay Ark plague and attempt to get off the planet and leave the regular humans (who they call “mutes”) to the Clay Ark hybrids.  But they discover that they will die if they leave the planet and “break” from the larger group of Patternists on Earth.  So they instead send out one-way starships with “mute” crews who are telepathically programmed to be perfectly devoted to Patternist children, who cannot join the pattern until the Patternist version of puberty (called “transition”) hits in early adulthood and thus can ride along as passengers on these ships.  Survivor is the story of a Christian group called the Missionaries, the leaders of whom who lived under telepathic domination for twenty years and as a reward don’t have to take any Patternist children on their one-way ship, which lands on a human-compatible planet that they settle.  It already has humanoids living on it though, and the conflicts that arise make up the bulk of the novel.  The Patternist details I mention here are just a few pages.  Inexplicably, in the omnibus of the other Patternist novels, even these details are not included with a note as to why Survivor isn’t in the omnibus.  Anyway, devout Christians being mindslaves to the creepy psychics is a recurring element in this series, with the Survivor version being the most blunt.

Part 2 is going to be mostly about the two best-written books, Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind.  Wild Seed is first chronologically but was fourth in publishing order.  Mind of My Mind is, interestingly, second in both publishing order and internal series chronology.  And I’ll probably loop back to Patternmaster, or save it for a third part.  We’ll see how it goes.



One thought on “The shortcomings of Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, part 1

  1. I read one of those and didn’t think much of it. About the only Butler book (trilogy, really) that I enjoyed was the Xenogenesis trilogy. Recommended, if you’re in a mood where you’re feeling disgusted and disillusioned with the world and everyone in it.

    As for strong psychics not being able to create – that’s consistent with a metanarrative in myth. Elves/Faerie/Monsters/Others do not create, they can only copy, distort, improve (with better technology/more adept fingers).


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