Fiction Reviews

Clay's Ark

(1984 / 2020) Octavia Butler, Headline, £9.99, pbk, 225pp, ISBN 978-1-472-28102-9


Clay’s Ark is the last of Octavia Butler’s Patternist books, or the penultimate one, depending on whether you’re reading them by publication date (unwise) or chronologically (better).

There are five books in the sequence, including the now unavailable Survivors (Butler hated it, apparently, and refused all efforts to reprint it), and four have now been reissued as a ‘boxed set’ (also available individually). They stem from early in Butler’s much decorated and influential career and stand up well against later celebrated work such as Kindred.

The Patternists are a race of superhuman telepaths who gain dominance over humanity – and they’re not in this novel at all.  But the superhumans in this novel are critical to the sequence – called Clayarks in the first novel in the sequence to be published, Patternmaster.  Given that these novels were published chronologically out of sequence this novel represents an extended backstory of how one of the fighting factions in Patternmaster came to be.

The basic scenario is that astronauts return from a mission to Proxima Centauri carrying a deadly infection.  All but one – Eli – fail to make it home, but mindful of the need to control the disease he’s carrying he lands in a remote location and is picked up by a local farmer and nursed by his family.  The disease gives Eli superhuman strength and a compulsion to infect others and to procreate. He soon infects the household but they resolve to contain the spread of the disease.

Their children are not entirely human.  They have human heads and hairless, lion-like bodies, can run fast and have great strength.  They become the ClayArks and will later go on to fight the Patternists for control, but in Clay’s Ark they are few in number.  Eli decides to recruit more people into his small community and hijacks a car carrying Blake and his two teenage daughters, Rane and Keira.  Society has pretty much broken down at this point (it’s set in a 2021 but written in 19840 and armed gangs run most of the countryside, rendering some roads barely passable.

Blake resists, but is infected, as are his daughters.  They escape, only to be captured by a gang, who hope to ransom them.  The gang is violent and oppressive, but is worse to come as Eli and the other infected catch up with Blake?

If the infection gets out into the wider community, like the zombie apocalypse (with which this book shares DNA) all may be lost.  Clay’s Ark builds up tension well, and will certainly appeal to people who like their science fiction with thought provoking undertones.  This book can be read independently from the rest of the Patternist sequence, too – and in my opinion it’s the strongest of the four newly published novels.  Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough


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