Saturday, March 24, 2007

Patternmaster, by Octavia Butler

Patternmaster is, I believe, the first novel published by Octavia Butler. In it Butler examines many of the themes and ideas which would become hallmarks of her work in decades to come. While Patternmaster is the first book Butler published, it is the fifth volume chronologically in her Patternist series.

Set in some distant future of ours, humanity is divided into three groups: the Patternists (those with a telepathy sort of gift), the Mutes (normal humans like you and me with no enhanced mental gifts), and the Clayarks (those suffering from a crippling transformative disease making them less than men). Considering the title of the novel, we see the story from the perspective of those with Patternist gifts.

There is a prologue with Rayal, the Patternmaster of this new world of ours, and his wife discussing that someday his children will fight and kill each other to take over the Pattern (the way the Patternists have power and link with each other). Then the first chapter introduces us to Teray and his sister / lover Iray leaving their school to join the household of Joachim. But when Joachim is forced to Trade Teray and Iray to his Coransee, the novel of conflict truly begins as Coransee wants to eliminate or control any obstacle to his taking control of the Pattern when Rayal dies. Teray, a strong Patternist and Coransee's brother, is that obstacle. Teray wishes only to be independent and free and not under the control of Coransee, so there's the conflict.

Patternmaster deals with racism (Patternists vs Mutes vs Clayarks), feudalism / class-ism, theories of power, and the possibility of the future. This is the genesis of all of Butler's work.

While Octavia Butler was an absolute master of science fiction and fantasy and that much of her later work was outstanding it is with great disappointment that Patternmaster failed to live up to Butler's pedigree. It is a decent novel with interesting ideas, and short at that, but Patternmaster ultimately falls into the trap of telling and not showing. There is a sense that Butler isn't letting the history flow organically out of the story, and that she is telling us too much. Whatever it is, it is something that does not work as well here as it did in Parable of the Sower or Dawn.

Still, Octavia Butler is always worth reading. Patternmaster is a short enough novel, but it ultimately fails to satisfy.

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