Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Review

Octavia Butler

This was the first book of the Seed to Harvest quartet by publication date -- and the last one by internal chronology. I read it first for two reasons. One, unless I get a strong indication otherwise, I tend to read things by publishing order -- partly because I like to see the author develop, but also partly because there's more a guarantee that they make sense in that order, because they were presumably written to make sense to people who were reading them as they came out. (Unless they were very bad books indeed, but I don't expect that from Butler.) Two, because my general inclination was reinforced by other people, who said that they read better in publication order. And having read all four books, I think they were right, and I too would recommend that you read them in publication order rather than internal chronology.

I'm going to try to refer to each one without spoilers for the others, and then I'll post about all four of the books considered as a whole, because they stand along perfectly well but gain a lot of richness and depth when you consider them in context.

So: Patternmaster.

Patternmaster is set in... I can't actually tell how far in the future, because the changes to our world are so dramatic that it could be a hundred years or five hundred. (Indeed, I initially thought that it was set on another planet, the world was so different than the one I know.) Patternmaster is set in a future in which the human species has split into two... I was going to say "factions," but really, they're actually two new, separate species: the clayarks, people mutated by an alien microorganism, who are strong and tough and fast and make and use weapons and other technologies; and the patternists, who are psionicists of varying stripes, who use mental powers (including telepathy, telekinesis, healing/biomanipulation, and the ability to store memories in objects) instead of engineering as we know it. "Normal" humans -- people like you or me -- also exist; they're called "mutes" and are servants of the patternists. (There are no normal humans among the clayarks, because the clayark disease is extremely infectious.)

As you could probably guess from the title, Patternmaster is from the point of view of a patternist, Teray, who falls afoul of the strict rules of his traditional society and the political maneuvering therein, and becomes an "outsider" (essentially, a slave) to Coransee, an extremely powerful (politically and psionically) master of a House. The book is about his struggle to reassert his independence, and it's about the way he allies with an Independent -- a patternist who isn't subject to any House master, Amber. Amber is powerful, intelligent, and tough -- she's a healer, but she subverts the 'woman healer' stereotype by also being an extremely effective killer -- and, indeed, I think she's the strongest character in the book. The developing relationship between Teray and Amber serves as both the heart and the backbone of Patternmaster

Besides Amber, the most interesting thing about this book for me was the worldbuilding and the society, which is dystopian and yet fascinating, even for me (I'm picky about dystopian/post-apocalyptic futures). I find the nature of the 'disaster' really interesting: not one but two radical changes to humanity. (Indeed, I find it particularly cool that Butler put both the clayarks and the patternists in this world -- either idea could have spawned a series, but both together creates a richness and sense of conflict that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. The patternists and the clayarks both are extremely potent, but neither is quite strong enough to get the upper hand over the other -- and yet their very natures makes it impossible for them to stop fighting.) We see only glimpses of clayark society, because the protagonists see (indeed, for their own self-preservation, kind of have to see) the clayarks as inherently inimical, kill-or-be-killed. But patternist society is extremely interesting in its own right. Patternists live in Houses, run by powerful Masters, for their own protection against the clayarks. Within the house, there's a heriarchy: the Master on top, his apprentices beneath him, outsiders (slaves, but with psionic powers) beneath them, and mutes beneath them. (The position of women is more unclear to me: it appears that patternist women, in Houses with male Masters, are wives of varying degree of status -- it's not clear whether there are any female apprentices or outsiders who are not wives. It's also not totally clear what the status of men and women are in Houses run by women, which definitely exist.)

And then there's the Pattern, a really fascinating look at the way a telepathic society would exit. All patternists are linked together by the Pattern, although for the most part, only fellow House members are closely aware of one another. People who are sympatico, who are compatible in personality and metal attitude, are said to be close together in the Pattern, something that they can feel immediately and instinctively. It's a world in which you can tell immediately whether you're likely to get along with someone -- and that immediate awareness is acknowledged, and used.

As far as recommendations go: Patternmaster is exceptional science fiction. It's not as good as the books in the series that would follow it, which in my opinion get better and better, but it's a good entry point to the series. (And I do recommend that you use it as the entry point: working in internal-chronology order rather than publication order would, in my opinion, be a mistake.)

Republished with permission.
To read more reviews by Cora Anderson visit her here

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