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Clay’s Ark, Octavia E. Butler, Warner Aspect, 1996 (c1984), ISBN 0-446-60370-8, $5.99, 213pp.

The last novel in her Patternist series to be published, it shares a lot more in common with her Xenogenesis trilogy in tone and subject material. Of the Patternist novels that I have read, that group seems more oriented towards questions of power and dominance–basically, who is stronger, and what are the responsibilities of that role. The series actually begins with Wild Seed, which explains the character of Doro, who then sees a success in his human breeding program in Mind of My Mind. Clay’s Ark is next in the timeline, but it only refers obliquely to the existence of a psionic pattern (late in the novel, it explains the macguffin for the faster than light drive used by the spaceship that returns to Earth), but it mainly concerns the alien organism that creates the Clayarks. The next book, Patternmaster, shows these two groups–the Patternists and the Clayarks–millennia later, both almost unrecognizable as human.

It is this evolution away from humanity that becomes the main theme of Xenogenesis, but it is in the forefront of Clay’s Ark. The difference, however, is that this evolution is almost entirely negative here, whereas in Xenogenesis there’s an ambiguity to it that makes it much more complex than just a good/bad issue. Change happens (to quote Butler’s more recent work). Why is it negative here in Clay’s Ark? Because of the mindlessness of the extraterrestrial interaction. As humans, thinking and feeling humans, we see ourselves as ratiocentric–that is, we value the power of logic and rational thought and discount the so-called “animal” urges of instinct and biological compulsion. This dichotomy makes up the conflict between the two groups in Patternmaster: the Patternists are pure thought, ruled by the power of the mind, whereas the Clayarks are all biological urges, roaming free, living life in the here and now. The human race has bifurcated, and although a “mute” semblance remains, humans are portrayed as beings where both mind and body are weak and dull. In Xenogenesis, Butler changes this, and the organism that is entirely mutable is portrayed as the strongest.

Because it contains a lot of adventure–there’s kidnapping and close escapes and gunfire and more violence than a Fox Saturday night– Clay’s Ark hides a lot of this underlying thought. Only the struggle that Eli continues to endure breaks this action-orientation; the rest of the characters are driven either by the disease or their human nature to respond to the events. While not as hopeful or thoughtful as her later work, I liked this one tremendously.

[Finished April 1999]


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