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Clay's Ark, a Patternist Novel by Octavia E. Butler

Updated on August 16, 2015

In "Patternmaster," we meet mutated humans called "Clayarks." This book, "Clay's Ark," is the origin story of the Clayarks.

As this book takes place after Doro's and Emma's deaths, the only character from any of the chronologically earlier books that is even mentioned in this book is the "Clay" of the title. This is, of course, our old friend Clay Dana, from "Mind of My Mind." After he was brought through transition by Mary in "Mind of My Mind," he discovered that he was psychokinetic. In the time between "Mind of My Mind" and "Clay's Ark," Clay discovered a way that psychokinesis could be used to cross interstellar distances quickly. Unless there is some sort of important scientific principle I am missing, the actual specifics of how that works are sort of handwaved away. However, we are told that every human has a baseline level of psychic ability, including psychokinesis. That baseline level, and not an iota more, is exactly what is needed to power what has come to be called the Dana Drive.

"Clay's Ark" is told in alternating chapters of the past and the present. The chapters set in the past tell how Eli, the only surviving astronaut from a trip to Alpha Centauri Proxima infects people with the Clayark disease and sets up an enclave. The chapters set in the present cover the interaction of Blake Maslin and his daughters, Rane and Keira with the people of the enclave.

While this is a relatively fresh way to let the story unfold, I found it to be in a way a less-effective storytelling device than Butler perhaps intended. All of the actual excitement is in the "Present" storylines. The "Past" storyline is, well, the past. We already can sort of intuit what happened in the past, because we have seen the way it has already unfolded. To use an entirely too United-States-centric analogy, it is like reading a thriller set during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and trying to build a lot of drama and tension around the outcome of the American Revolution.

The Clayark disease is not truly a disease. It is, in fact, an invasion from another planet. The invasion is unstoppable, because we have enough trouble fighting the microbes that are already here. How could we possibly stop a microbe from another planet? The actual way that the microbe came to infect the crew of the Ark is another case of handwaving. I guess the members of the crew weren't wearing any kind of protective clothing, either on the surface or after they took samples from the life forms they found onto their ships, which was careless. In a way, I almost wonder if the Clayark disease was meant to be an analogy for AIDS, which seemed unstoppable during the era when the book was written.

And what prevents HIV from spreading? Protective covering. At first, I thought that I might be on to something here and that the Clayark disease was an analogy for HIV. However, I did some research and the studies that showed that condoms can stop HIV were still at least a year in the future from when I believe that "Clay's Ark" must have been written.

As most science fiction writers do, Butler had ideas about how the future would unfold. "Clay's Ark" was published in 1984 and contained many predictions about the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In some ways, she gets it spectacularly wrong. She envisioned a turn of the 21st century dominated by religious fervor, followed by a mass loss of faith when the Second Coming didn't happen in 2000. Of course, in real life, the society of the United States just kind of perked along without a whole lot of drama on any front. There was some excitement about the possibility of our computers no longer working as of midnight on January 1, 2000, but even that was pretty anticlimactic on the whole.

One of the recurrent themes in Butler's work is of a future where anyone with money lives in walled enclaves. "Clay's Ark" uses this theme. The Maslins lived in one of the enclaves, which the girls rarely left. Keira is dying of leukemia, though, and wants to see her paternal grandparents one more time before she dies. So her father drives her and Rane across the desert, where they are kidnapped by Eli and the other people with the disease. As I write this, the "present" of "Clay's Ark" is only nine years in our future, which means that the Maslin girls would already be alive somewhere. So far very few children in the United States have been raised from birth having never left their walled compounds, and most of those are members of minority religions. Even children who live in gated housing complexes go to schools and visit stores and parks and other things that are outside of their neighborhoods.

I am in the habit of warning for sexual violence, and boy is there sexual violence in this one. Fortunately, it is not meted out by the Clayarks. At one point, the Maslins run afoul of what Butler calls a "car family." Car families are basically street gangs that infest rural or other isolated places. They drive around in their areas and kidnap people for ransom. If no ransom is to be had, they torture and, frequently, kill the people they kidnap. There are several scenes of sexual violence during this part of the book.

Overall, despite its flaws in execution, "Clay's Ark" is a fascinating meditation on a relatively unexplored idea about alien invasion. And, of course, it fulfills its intended purpose of filling in the backstory of the Clayarks.

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