Fiction Reviews


(1976 / 2020) Octavia Butler, Headline, £9.99, pbk, 187pp, ISBN 978-1-472-28104-3


This is the first of five novels in the ‘Patternist’ sequence by Octavia Butler, four of which have just been rereleased in a handy box set. There’s a fifth volume, Survivor, published in 1978 that Butler, apparently, hated so much that she disowned it and it’s now years out of print and only available for silly money through used book outlets (she described it as her ‘Star Trek’ novel).  The sequence works without Survivor, though (which would have been third both in chronology and publication date) so it’s probably one for the curious or the obsessed.

Butler, of course, is the talent that struggled to get her due, at least in her lifetime, and though she won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, her subsequent influence arguably outreached her (modest) sales.  She died young at 58 in 2006, but not before producing some of the most provocative and far-reaching novels of her generation.

Patternmaster was her first published novel, in 1976, but it’s chronologically the fifth and last of the ‘Patternist’ sequence of novels. They’re best read in series chronology, so I recommend you come to this one after you’ve read the others.  It envisages a future world where the two dominant species on Earth are no longer fully human, and where the remaining humans are enslaved by the ‘Patternists’. These are enhanced humans with telepathic, telekinetic and (sometimes) healing powers, mentally interlinked and forming a web of consciousness and control by the dying ‘Patternmaster’, Rayal.  Two of his sons now vie for power, and the book centres on the conflict between them: young, principled Teray and older, more ruthless Coransee.

Making life difficult for them both are the Clayarks – alien/human hybrids with lion like bodies and human heads resulting from infection spread from an early human mission to Proxima Centauri. The Clayarks have superhuman strength and agility and an instinctive desire to infect humans and wipe out Patternists (who they consider ‘food’). They’re bright, cunning and relentless and it’s only the Patternists’ abilities that keep them at bay.

Two not-quite-human species at war gives this book an Underworld feel – not quite vampires versus werewolves but a similar dynamic.  The Clayarks, though, are cardboard villains and a sideshow to the main plot, which is the filial tension between Teray and Coransee.

Conransee is a ‘housekeeper’, roughly akin to a feudal laird, and rules by dint of his superior abilities. Most of his subjects are indentured – the patternists and humans alike – and many are badly mistreated, particularly the humans, or ‘mutes’ (so-called because they can’t speak telepathically). Women’s rights, slavery, incest, self-determination and rule by force are all key issues in this book, though Butler’s exploration of them is matter-of-fact. Even the hero, Teray, can’t quite bring himself to fully consider his partner in revolution Amber as truly his equal (if she’s lucky she may get to be his ‘lead wife’). But the book never really follows through on these themes – it’s the first novel she published, in its defence – and it’s left to later books in the sequence to tease out some of these ideas.

Patternmaster is an enjoyable, though short, read, but it’s rather a limp ending to the novel sequence. There’s more to be explored in this world, though Butler’s sadly not around to provide it.  Recommended, but read Wild Seed and the other ‘Patternmaster’ books first.

Mark Bilsborough


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