Octavia Butler’s Patternist series is a series of Octavia Butler’s earliest novels (although she wrote Kindred as a standalone during the time these books were published). Four of the novels that make up the series were published in a single edition titled Seed to Harvest, and this is the version of the series that I read.
The Seed to Harvest version of the series presents the books in chronological order, rather than publishing order, and leaves out the 1978 novel Survivor, which Butler disavowed. Although I liked the series a lot, I think the publication order might have been more enjoyable, as the final book — Patternmaster, which was Butler’s first published novel — felt sort of simplistic after the complex setup of the earlier books. Then again, maybe I would have been less enthusiastic to read more after reading Patternmaster. At any rate, I read them as presented in Seed to Harvest, and I was happy to read them.
The first novel, Wild Seed (1980) is the story of two people with supernatural powers caught up in a battle of wills. Doro, who can live forever, taking on the form of those he kills, is attempting to create a society of others with special powers. When he meets the healer and shapeshifter Anyanwu, he wants to make her part of his family. He convinces her to come with him from Africa to America, but she refuses to give in to him entirely.
In Mind of My Mind (1977), Doro and Anyanwu have achieved a sort of balance between them, but Doro continues to build his family of mind readers and healers (Patternists) by breeding those with potential together. Now in the present day, a latent telepath named Mary comes into her power and gathers a family of her own.
Set in the near future, Clay’s Ark (1984) appears to have no connection at all to the earlier books. It involves a father and his daughters who encounter an isolated community that has been infected with an alien virus. They’ve build a society where the virus can continue to survive without reaching the wider population, but they must periodically bring in new members who will themselves become infected and produce mutant children.
Patternmaster (1976) brings the Claysark mutants and the Patternists together in an even more distant future. The book’s main character, Teray, is a Patternist who is just out of school and preparing to start his own household. But he’s perceived as a threat to a fellow Patternist. And the Claysark mutants are a constant threat to the Patternists.
I read this series while also rewatching Agents of Shield, and the story of the Inhumans echoed that of the Patternists in some interesting ways. In the first two books in particular, you have an immortal Patternist trying to control the fate of all those who come after him, but his motivation is murky, not unlike that of Jiaying on Agents of Shield. And not all of the Patternists are going to go along with Doro’s ideas, no matter how compelling a case he can make. Perhaps the Patternists are better off listening to him, but why? Doro asserts his authority, but he does nothing to earn anyone’s trust. It’s just power and magnetism that keeps him in place.
The whole series, particularly the books about the Patternists, tosses around ideas of power and submission and free will. The Patternmasters and heads of households and families maintain their power with a mix of convincing and outright coercion, sometimes even convincing people to become mentally enslaved, voluntarily giving up their free will. There’s some degree of choice, but it’s a choice to give up choice. It reminded me of ideas that I think Butler develops with more sophistication in Fledgling, where vampires develop a symbiotic relationship with humans.
As for Clay’s Ark, there’s a power situation there, too. Eli Doyle, the astronaut who brought the virus to Earth, had to transmit the virus in order to survive, and the family he infects and builds had no choice but to be infected. And now they have no choice but to stay with him if they don’t want to infect the whole planet. Plus, the virus itself wants to survive and procreate, bringing new mutant babies into the world and filling the parents with the instinct to care for them. Mostly, though, this book just struck me because of its relevance to the time we’re in right now. One of the characters explains it this way:
We’re infectious for as much as two weeks before we start to show symptoms — except for people like you who won’t have two weeks between infection and symptoms. How many people do you think the average person could infect in two weeks of city life? How many could his victims infect?
Infection is always a peril. At least our COVID-19 doesn’t drive people to spread it. Let’s hope our pandemic of ignorance stays at bay enough to keep us safe.