Clay's Ark, by Octavia E. Butler

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What would you do if you contracted a "disease" that forced you to seek out the uninfected and infect them?  We've had plenty of examples of this in popular culture lately to help us think about the issue-28 Days, 28 Days Later, and I Am Legend  have all dealt with the aftermath of an epidemic that forces us to lose our humanity in the mindless quest to propagate a disease over which we have no control.  I've always seen these stories as allegory for human creations gone awry, as apocryphal tales of what will happen in humans continue to change nature to meet our demands.

Trust Octavia E. Butler to have a different way of framing this idea.  In her novel Clay's Ark, part of the Patternist series, Butler shows us the beginning of an extraterrestrial epidemic that has the potential to completely wipe out the human race.  Not by turning humans into raving, bloody zombies intent on killing every living thing in sight, but by changing our very genetic make-up so that we are no longer human, but also not completely inhuman.  Clay's Ark is the story of Eli, a geologist and astronaut, who returns from a mission to the Alpha Centurion galaxy carrying an alien organism in his body.  The organism has changed him at a molecular level so that he is faster, stronger, and has sharper senses than before.  He also has the overwhelming compulsion to infect others with the alien life form.  After his ship crashes back on Earth, he comes upon a remote compound in the desert where a patriarch and his family live isolated from the rest of the world-a world that has become increasingly dangerous as people fight for resources that are becoming more and more scarce.  Eli has no choice but to infect the inhabitants.  Several years later, a man and his twin daughters are traveling the highway through the desert when Eli's band kidnaps them to add to their growing community.  What happens next determines the fate of all humankind.

While this may sound an awful lot like the other examples of this theme that I mentioned, what makes Butler's take different is the way that the infected try to hold on to their humanity.  The organism living inside each of them causes them to have compulsions that are immoral by human standards-incest, rape, murder. But Eli is convinced that if they can keep their settlement small, and only take new people as necessary to keep their compulsions at bay, then they can retain their humanity and contain the infection.  In Clay's Ark the literal infection is an alien life form, but Butler could be using that as a symbol for anything that causes us to act in ways that deny our humanity.  Rather than experiencing the invasion from the perspective of the "clean", we see this outbreak from the point of view of the infected.  Eli is basically struggling with the most basic existential questions.  What is it that makes us human, what is it that defines us as a human race?  And once the infected start having children who are very different than human children, what can be said for the future of the human race?  Are the children a new species of human, or something altogether different?  And does it matter, if they are taught how to act as humans?  Clay's Ark may be a pretty short novel, but Butler gives us a lot to think about.  The next book in the Patternist series takes us to the far future, and I find myself wondering whether I will like where this story comes to its natural conclusion.


  1. Very interesting take on an old plot.

  2. great review!!! I haven't heard bout this book. Great one indeed. I love the idea of genetic remake-up thingy and as a science students i think science is great!!! it's explain thing scientifically and logic. hope that the logic is hidden somewhere within this book. have a nice day!! =)

  3. Holy smokes you had me at the cover - that cover - yeah... blew me away.

  4. I haven't heard of this book, but I have been looking for books by Butler just this weekend, in a large English book store and a smaller one. They didn't have anything by her (not in the general fiction nor the SF section). Such a pity. With reviews like this I really think I should read her!


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