Octavia E. Butler
St. Martin's Press: 1984
Clay's Ark is fittingly the final volume in Octavia Butler's Patternist series. While in the chronological order Clay's Ark would be third, its proper place in the reading order is that of the publication order: fifth. Some may find it preferable to read the Patternist novels chronologically, but this would be something of a mistake.
Patternmaster, the first published and last in the timeline, sets up our world as it will be in thousands of years. Technology has all but disappeared and there are telepaths ruling from households and controlling mutes, those humans without telepathic power. A third group are the clayarks, disease-ridden once humans who are disgustingly deformed and are feared and hunted. This brings us to Mind of My Mind where we see a world not too different than the one in which we now live, only the telepaths are only just beginning to take control. Next is the forgettable and all but disowned by Butler Survivor. The clayark disease has ravaged the Earth and one last group is permitted to settle a different planet. It ties into the Patternist world, but only from a tangent. Wild Seed gives us the origins of Doro, he who had the breeding program to develop the telepaths.
This brings us to the final novel in the Patternist sequence: Clay's Ark. Now, if we had not read Patternmaster we would have no idea what the clayarks are to become or what what the significance of the title Clay's Ark actually is. The title itself rewards readers of the series while it sets of warning bells about the content of the novel. If we are reading in publication order we know that the clayarks came from some sort of extra terrestrial virus / entity and that they overran the land. We know that something bad is coming and that this novel is likely to show us how it happened.
Clay's Ark tells two stories: Past and Present. Past features an initially unnamed man who is human, but is struggling against some alien nature. He came from a space ship which crashed back on Earth after being gone for years. The ship: Clay's Ark. The unnamed man has heightened senses which most humans never use and he feels an urgency to be near other humans, to touch them, to scratch them...to infect them. He knows it is wrong, he knows that it would be very, very bad, but the disease he has leaves him no choice.
Present tells a different story. A man (Dr. Blake Maslin) is driving across the southern California desert with his two daughters (the leukemia stricken Keira, and Rane) when they are all kidnapped while at a rest stop during a sandstorm. They are not killed, raped, ransomed, robbed, or tortured. They are brought to an isolated farm and forced to stay while Eli, the nominal leader of a gang of sickly looking men and women with super strength, explains about the disease they all share and why they had to take the Maslins. One guess as to what the disease is.
Clay's Ark is a bleak, brutal novel filled with tension and danger. Octavia Butler is doing nothing more than telling us a story in which the world is a dangerous place and about to get worse. Clay's Ark is a harrowing novel and except for several chapters at the farm, it feels like everyone is on the move trying to escape from something...from the disease, from the not yet named clayarks, from the regular humans who are just about as bad as the disease Eli's group carries. There is very little joy in Clay's Ark, but Butler's storytelling is such that we don't want to look away. Clay's Ark is one of the stronger novels in the Patternist sequence (up there with Mind of My Mind and Wild Seed). Clay's Ark is perhaps the perfect way to wrap up the Patternist sequence. As with all of of Butler's novels we are left with questions as to what happens after the last page, but Butler has filled in as much of this world as needs to be.
While only one of Butler's early novels (Kindred) holds up to her later work, the Patternist sequence is comprised of five reasonably short (200 page) novels which at their best are quite entertaining. Octavia Butler is an author not to be missed.