Clay's Ark by Butler, Octavia, 1984


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I've said before that on the surface Octavia Butler may look like a one-trick-pony because she liked to recycle the same themes over again and again, but she really is not. Two of the three major series she wrote in her life (Xenogenesis and Patternist, the other being Parable) deal with the themes of slavery and bondage, reproduction and the durability of genetics, family, love and sex. In fact, probably all of her novels dealt with these issues, but other than the economy and politics, what else is there to write about? Clay's Ark is the second book in the Patternist series, but not the second book in the internal chronology. Butler wrote it relatively early in her career, as I think her forth or fifth novel. Its a novel of apocalypse, or rather, the run up to apocalypse by disease, and is also an alien invasion novel of sorts. Four out of five stars.

All of Octavia Butler's novels have to do with some sort of terrible choice, and this book is no exception. Its the story of an enclave in the deep California high desert outside Needles in an economically ruined USA where enclaves of safety are surrounded by large tracts of lawlessness and chaos called "cesspools." Its about an ex astronaut named Eli who was a member of a fourteen person crew that went to a distant star. While on a planet circling that star one of the crew members was infected with what appeared to be a disease, but was later discovered to be a complex organism. The organism invades the cells of the host's body and rewrites all the genetic code, creating essentially a non-human hybrid. The organism also amplifies strength, speed, healing abilities, appetite and resistance to disease, and creates strange impulses in the hosts. The hosts still have their minds and personalities, but they are driven to mingle with other humans so as to spread the alien DNA to other hosts. Those who survive the transformation are essentially supermen, but the transformation itself is so rough that only small percentages of the afflicted live more than a week or two. During the initial stages men are driven almost uncontrollably to mate, and are repulsed by companionship of other males. After a time the repulsion impulse dies down a bit, so that communities may be set up for mutual protection. But children that come of the union of two afflicted people produce mutated but beautiful cat-like creatures that mature very quickly.

The enclave was formed after Eli escaped from his emergency escape pod. He infected a large extended family with the disease, killing all but three women of child bearing age. He mated with two of them, but did not desire a harem and allowed himself to be bound to only one of the women. The affliction drove the mating instinct to astronomical levels, so Eli started to randomly kidnap strangers from a distant highway. In one of his infrequent raids Eli and the band captured Blake and his two teenage daughters, Rane who is strong, healthy, opinionated and rebellious, and her cancer-ridden twin sister, Keira. The trio contract the disease immediately, and were taken back to the enclave where they were told what was happening to them. Their choice was this: Eli has been struggling to keep the population of the enclave high enough to survive, but his primary goal was to keep all the afflicted as close to himself as possible. The organism that they carried wanted nothing more than to get loose on Earth and infect every person on the planet. If that happened there would be no telling how many would die since the disease was so rough on the body at first. So Blake and his daughters could either stay for what was certain to be a long long life (the afflicted cannot bring themselves to commit suicide, or kill each other) and give birth to mutated, non-human children, or try to escape and risk infecting the world, as no cure exists at all. The trio do not take Eli seriously, then manage a near impossible escape, only to be captured by highwaymen before they could get back to their own enclave. In the end one of the newly infected highwaymen got away before Eli could stop him, and the organism spreads to the entire human population, pretty much bringing the struggling society to its knees.

This book is a set up book for another in the Patternist series, called Survivor. The Patternist series concerns the descendants of an immortal African named Doro. His story was told in a book called Wild Seed, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Doro's descendants all come from a stock of special humans who have abilities such as shape shifting, ESP, telekinesis, psychometry and things like that. They do not play an active role in this novel, save, I think, for a man named Clay who designed the engine for the ship that took Eli to outside our star system, called Clay's Ark. The engines of this ship rely on odd principles that combine physics and metaphysics, and seem to be powered by inherent human mental abilities to affect teleportation. Whatever the principle, it is never described well, and is ancillary to the main story. Doro's descendants play a big role in the next novel, Survivor, where they take control of humanity and attempt to nurse it through the disease while setting up a telepathic hegemony, then attempting to colonize another planet where the disease does not exist. Unfortunately Survivor, despite being truly awesome has never been reprinted at all as Octavia Butler herself disavowed the novel during her lifetime and instructed her estate to never allow a reprint. Makes me wish I had not sold my copy before hearing that, but sometimes we all learn things the hard way.

I think by now those of you who read my reviews with any frequency know that I am trying to get you all to pick up an Octavia Butler book. This is not one of her strongest books, and is organized pretty poorly internally. But it is worth reading, and is actually one of the easiest to find. Go out and get this one soon.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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