Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Patternmaster, by Octavia E. Butler

Patternmaster is the last book in story-time in the Patternist series by Octavia E. Butler, but the first of her novels to actually be published.  I find that fact astonishing on a couple of levels-first, because the book clearly mentions "past" events in the world of the characters that Butler had not in fact written yet, and because without the other books as backstory I'm not sure how an editor understood it enough to publish it.

Patternmaster tells the story of Teray, son of the current Patternmaster, the one person who hold the Pattern of thought connecting every Patternist on Earth.  The Patternmaster is the strongest of the Patternists, and his or her strength is what controls their society.  Without a Patternmaster the Patternists would not be able to live together without eventually killing each other.  Occupying the planet along with the Patternists are the Clayarks, human mutants who carry the only disease that can kill a Patternist, who can heal themselves.  Teray, just out of school, is tricked into becoming the slave of a brother he never knew he had-as Teray is the son of the current Patternmaster, he is a threat to his big brother's quest to take control of the Pattern.  When Teray tries to escape, his brother hunts for him, causing a showdown that leads to major changes for the Pattern.

The fact that Butler saw her story so clearly that she could mention past events in the arc of the story that were actually still in her future is remarkable.  I'm not talking about rather general statements that could be expanded on later, but specifics, like where the Clayark disease came from and who killed the being who bred the first Patternist.  Considering that it took Butler eight years to finish the books in this series, that is a long time to keep specific details in mind. 

But more remarkable is that this novel got published at all, especially since it is her first.  While the story is fast paced, and the characters are interesting, if I hadn't read about Doro and Anyanwu, or the Clay's Ark mission, or the creation of the Pattern, I don't know if I would have understood half of it.  This novel also doesn't carry the usual social commentary that I've found in Butler's books.  It does explore the idea of morality, in that the Patternists had a definite sense of morality that was completely different than ours.  Does that mean morality is relative?  It also explores the idea of power being a corrupting influence, and yet every character in the novel is seeking it in some way, whether it is the power to make their own choices or power over others.

I'm glad that I decided to read the books in the order of the story, rather than the order of their publication.  I don't mind non-linear narrative, but I think reading Patternmaster first would have left me without the strong sense of attachment to the story that I got from starting with Wild Seed.

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