Masterplots II: African American Literature
The Patternist Series
Author: Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006)
Type of Work: Novel cycle
Type of Plot: Science fiction
Time of Plot: 2000 b.c. through the future
Locale: West Africa and the United States
First Published: Patternmaster, 1976; Mind of My Mind, 1977;
Survivor, 1978; Wild Seed, 1980; Clay's Ark, 1984
Teray and Coransee, the good and evil sons of Rayal, the Patternmaster
Amber, Teray's wife and a healer
Mary, the first Patternmaster and the daughter of Doro
Doro, a herder of psionically talented humans and the consort of Anyanwu
Anyanwu/Emma, a psionic shapeshifter and healer
Alana, an Afro-Asian orphan and a diplomatic genius
Elias Doyle, an anthropologist of extraterrestrial life who accidentally brings
a plague back to Earth
Keira, a doctor's daughter and an exemplary survivor of the "transition" ordeal
by which humans can be transformed into the superior Clayark species
Octavia E. Butler's Patternist series chronicles an alternate history of the earth and other planets, and the novels of the series are set chronologically in a different order from that in which the books were published. Wild Seed (1980) depicts events taking place from 1500 b.c. to the 1850's a.d. Mind of My Mind (1977) is set in the twentieth century, through about 1970. Clay's Ark (1984) takes place in the late twentieth century; Survivor (1978) takes place in the twenty-first century; and the first book to be published, Patternmaster (1976) is the last in chronological setting, depicting events beyond the twenty-first century. The plots of the various novels are not seamlessly joined. Instead, they depict related events in different time periods.
By considering the order of the novels' publication, one can observe progress both in the thematic structure of Butler's work and in the artistry of her narrative style. Butler was twenty-nine when Patternmaster was published. She finished Clay's Ark eight years later.
Patternmaster portrays a distant future society that is ironically medieval in the level of its technology. This society is a classist, racist, speciesist, and sexist empire composed of Patternists, who have mental powers such as telepathy, precognition, and telekinesis; "mutes," or humans without mental powers; and the mutated Clayarks, who are sentient but regarded as animals. The plot concerns the power struggle set off by the death of King Rayal, the Patternmaster, between his sons Teray and Coransee. Favored by his father, Teray is triumphant. Teray wins the sympathy of Amber the healer, as well as some readers, by being kind to a Clayark.
Mind of My Mind portrays the classist, racist, sexist United States of the second half of the twentieth century, during which Doro, the Pattern creator, fights Mary, one of his many daughters. Mary kills her father and thereby wrests control of his hegemony from him with the support of Emma, Doro's old and ambivalent consort. Mary's preeminent mental power allows her to create a network for the Patternist people with her dominant and benevolent will at its center.
Survivor, first drafted in the late 1960's before Patternmaster was written, presents white missionaries, their followers, and their adopted Afro-Asian daughter Alanna Verrick, who leave behind the Patternist Earth of the later twentieth century to start a human colony on the planet Kohn, half of whose indigenous species is addicted to a powerful drug called "meklah." None of these characters possesses mental powers. Alanna's strengths are her capacity to experience the agony of radical change and her genius for revolutionary diplomacy. She twice undergoes addiction and life-threatening withdrawal from meklah. She marries and has a child with a Tehkohn leader male and negotiates withdrawal from meklah and safe resettlement for her human parents and their followers.
Wild Seed, perhaps Butler's single best novel, narrates the story of the beginning of the Pattern by Doro, a three-thousand-year-old African being who steals bodies and extinguishes minds. He finds the three-hundred-year-old, charismatic, and shape-shifting healer Anyanwu (the Emma of Mind of My Mind) in West Africa. Doro forces Anyanwu to join him as the mother of a portion of his "family" of humans with mental potential. Together, they travel the historic Middle Passage of the slave trade, following a group of kidnapped Africans to antebellum America. Doro must kill to live. Anyanwu mutates, and she heals herself and others. Between them there develops a tortuous bond of loathing, hate, and love.
Clay's Ark was the last Patternist novel to be published. In it, the twenty-first century African American Elias Doyle returns to the southwestern United States from a space voyage to Proxima Centauri carrying a "plague" that will transform many of the younger humans on Earth into a superior species that will replace humanity, turning many humans into fur-covered quadrupeds. A doctor's daughter, Keira, is cured of her leukemia through the plague's syndrome of transformation, becoming also one of Elias's sexual partners and perhaps the mother of one of his children.
The characters of the Patternist series are largely allegorical, and their moral register is usually clear. They allow Butler to speak with oracular elocution through many masks. This oracular quality and the accompanying sobriety of her narratives reflect the Old Testament influence the author explicitly acknowledged. The characters represent personalities that might bring forth a species that is not as fatally self-mutilating as humanity seems to be.
In the 1970's, Butler joined Samuel R. Delany in bringing to African American literature the poetics of science fiction narrative. Butler employed simple syntax and an active voice to craft dramatic narratives in a fashion reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's literary naturalism. Her particular use of such a style proved as fitting for her fantastic stories of elemental perseverance in the face of violent and tragic struggle as was Hemingway's to his more realist subject matter.
In Butler's naturalistic science fiction, characters have hyperbolic, exaggerated powers, and they live their parables through stories that amplify and illuminate the endless pain of Earth's underclass masses. The moral polarity of her universe is summed up in two characters: Doro is an entity that exists by migrating from human body to human body, killing each new consciousness with his own and using each body until it weakens and dies. His ancient purpose is to find and "herd" humans gifted with mental powers, who "taste" better to him as host bodies. Anyanwu is endlessly young, because she can use her mental powers to renew the aging cells of her body. She can also change her DNA and shift into the shape of any living creature or become biologically male. In addition, she too can "taste" people and can make a medicine in her saliva to heal them, and she can cause them to regrow lost body parts.
Doro is the symbol of an almost preternatural project of impersonal violence that Butler sees in the universe. Anyanwu (and the character's other incarnations) is a compassionate healer. Female personalities ground Butler's narrative. Virtually all are annealed by male violence. The cause may be nothing more than human tendencies toward particular gender roles. Doro and Anyanwu are nonetheless compelling as figures of messianic stature in a naturalistic cosmology in the tradition of Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, and Hemingway.
Themes and Meanings
The themes that would emerge in Butler's later work were initiated in the Patternist series, most brilliantly in Wild Seed. These themes would become explicit in Xenogenesis (1987-1989). For example, the longevity of Doro and Anyanwu in Wild Seed dramatizes a historical, millennial vision that is repeated in the author's later works.
The series is also demonstrative of the prevailing sobriety of Butler's narratives. With the exception of the shape-shifting play of Anyanwu in Wild Seed, the novels present little potential for comedy. Instead, they tell grim tales of revolutionary portent, portraying humanity's repeated acts of inhumanity through a history wherein this barbarism is not, Butler clearly hopes, the only choice. The tropes of these novels are violence, change, pain, the brief consolation of love, death, grief, phoenix-like rebirth, and renewed Sisyphean struggle. They relate the abuse of power by incompetent and immoral agencies--by parents, governments, and empires. They desperately interrogate the real history of humanity.
Butler longs to find an exercise of power that does not corrupt. In the Patternist series, she begins the search for a solution to the problem she later named in Xenogenesis: nature's chiastic strategy of putting intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior. This strategy for Butler represents the ultimate amplification of natural selection, a virtual reification and apotheosis of dispassionate violence. It is what Doro represents in the Patternist series. Using her declared strategy of treating storytelling as a search for new possible realities, Butler crafts narratives that are crucibles in search of people and depicts species who practice sympathy and compassion with the existential other--the sexual, racial, species, evolutionary, and cosmological other. Her most heroic Patternist personality is Anyanwu, who identifies with creatures by "tasting" them and replicating their DNA in herself, thereby knowing them well enough that she can practically become them. Anyanwu's behavior comes close to representing metaphorically the New Testament creed to love one's neighbor as oneself. This creed represents the subtext of both Mind of My Mind and Butler's later Parable novels.
All of Butler's writing is consciously parabolic and leaves no human question unaddressed. Her last novel, Fledgling (2005), with its post-African heroine Shori pursues the meaning of being human. It also explores what humans do not seem to be able to be. It proposes a significantly improved species--which, shockingly, happens to be vampiric. Some version of this vision informs all of Butler's works, from the Patternist series through Kindred (1979), a fictional slave narrative; Xenogenesis, in which humanity is found tragically to put its intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior; and the Parable novels (1993-1998), which portray ordinary humans wandering on a wasting earth. Anyanwu may be seen as a precursor of the gene-trading Oankali of Xenogenesis. Butler's prize-winning short story "Bloodchild" also echoes the exploration of human nature and human history evident throughout Butler's work. Her characters represent her search for new ways of conceiving both humanity and sentience. They are biologically and physiologically sturdier. They question the myths of gender superiority, monogamy as imperative, heterosexuality as exclusively moral, and supernatural interest in or deliverance of humanity. In this agenda, love is real and widely available, but it is also fleeting and dies easily in the progress of power and hierarchy. The ecstasy of an individual consciousness can transport a person, but its time is brief. It dies. It is survived by that final rite of grief that is hope.
Anderson, Crystal S. "The Girl Isn't White: New Racial Dimensions in Octavia Butler's Survivor." Extrapolation 47, no. 1 (2006): 35-50. Argues that Survivor's Afro-Asian Alana epitomizes "strategies of negotiation" by Afro-Americans who engage other ethnic groups.
Butler, Octavia. "'Radio Imagination': Octavia Butler on the Poetics of Narrative Embodiment." Interview by Marilyn Mehaffy and AnaLouise Keating. Melus 26, no. 1 (Spring, 2001): 45-76. Butler discusses the meanings and narrative strategies behind all of her writing.
Call, Lewis. "Structures of Desire: Erotic Power in the Speculative Fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany." Rethinking History 9, nos. 2/3 (June-September, 2005): 275-296. Interprets Wild Seed as in part a story of an ultimately wholesome love affair between a paternal Doro and earth-mother Anyanwu.
DeGraw, Sharon. "'The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same': Gender and Sexuality in Octavia Butler's Oeuvre." Femspec 4, no. 2 (June, 2003): 219. Reprises the Patternist series (except Clay's Ark) and finds Patternmaster to be set nominally in the future but actually culturally and technologically in the past, before Wild Seed. Observes that the status of women remains the same, second class, in all the books of the series.
Govan, Sandra Y. "Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler's Science Fiction." Black American Literature Forum 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1984): 82-87. Links four Patternist works to Kindred, a novel Butler once intended as part of the Patternist series.
Sands, Peter. "Octavia Butler's Chiastic Cannibalistics." Utopian Studies 14, no. 1 (2003): 1-14. Sees in Butler's use of cannibalism a crucial representation of otherness, one that mirrors the attitudes of some rhetorical theory.
Vint, Sherryl. "Becoming Other: Animals, Kinship, and Butler's Clay's Ark." Science Fiction Studies 32, no. 2 (July, 2005): 281-300. Anchored by an interpretation of the transformation in Clay's Ark of principal characters into animal-human hybrids as an improvement of the species. Traces to other Patternist narratives (except Survivor) Butler's similarly approving dramatization of human/animal and human/subhuman combination and interbreeding.
Wood, Sarah. "Subversion Through Inclusion: Octavia Butler's Interrogation of Religion in Xenogenesis and Wild Seed." Femspec 6, no. 1 (June, 2005): 87. Claims Butler's fiction "admonishes unquestioning reliance on religious myths."
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