Any science fiction reading list would hardly be complete without a work by Octavia Butler, an author largely considered one of the genre’s greats, and a recipient of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. She resides in the MoPOP’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame alongside the likes of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Isaac Asimov. With all this recognition in the science fiction world, it seems strange that, considered among other books in this review series such as Railhead, The Long Earth, and Foundation, her novel Patternmaster hardly seems to belong in the genre at all.
Patternmaster paints a picture of a society in the far-flung future, where mutations have dramatically divided human civilization. The ruling class is made up of “Patternists,” telepaths who mentally link to each other through a psychic network called the Pattern. The Patternists subjugate the lower class of “mutes,” ordinary humans who cannot participate in the Pattern. And on the outside of civilization are the Clayarks, animalistic humanoids whose sole purpose seems to be eradicating Patternists.
The story is simple and straightforward: the Patternmaster, the overlord of this society, is on his deathbed, and two of his sons are in competition to take his place. The resulting narrative is a web of power plays and manipulation, exploring the themes Butler is known for—dynamics of inequality, submission, and hierarchies. The Pattern is largely used to explore these hierarchies further, and enable the characters to anticipate each others’ actions and (literally) get into each others’ heads.
Patternmaster is a curious case for several reasons. It is Butler’s debut novel, and therefore some critics demote it due to her inexperience as a writer. It also has the same problem that C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series does: the publishing order of the novels does not match the chronological order, so while Patternmaster was the first published, it takes place after all the others in the series. This poses a question not only for reading order, but also for how to evaluate it as an example of science fiction—alone, or with all the other books in the series informing it.
The few pieces of the novel that link it to the sci-fi genre come near the middle of the book, when Butler finally gives an explanation for how the human race split into Patternists, Clayarks, and mutes. The Patternists emerged through selective breeding for “mental strength,” and slowly rose to power as their numbers multiplied. The Clayarks are the result of an alien disease brought to Earth on a starship, a disease that caused the infected to give birth to physically mutated children. And the mutes, who had once run an incredibly powerful, mechanized society, were trapped between the two dangers—the increasingly assertive Patternists and the contagious Clayarks.
All of this history is revealed in a few passing paragraphs. The “scientific” concepts found here, such as selective breeding, alien diseases, and starships, are hardly expanded on in the rest of the book. And the Pattern itself, the core of the story, is never explained—it simply “is,” making it seem more like a fantasy concept than a science fiction premise. The explanations that are present function as a skeletal backstory to justify the world Butler has developed for the story she wants to tell—which is certainly a compelling one, but with little detail to ground it in the real world. As a standalone, Patternmaster belongs to the realm of soft science fiction, or perhaps science fantasy.
In Patternmaster’s case, the term “science fantasy” is particularly useful. While a series with such mystical elements doesn’t seem to fit in the same genre as the works of Isaac Asimov or Stephen Baxter, the scientific elements can’t be denied. Patternmaster, especially when considered in the context of its prequels, is dialoguing with speculative fiction about epidemiology, eugenics, and even space exploration. But, where Foundation and The Long Earth deal with genuine, if perhaps controversial, fields of scientific study, Patternmaster does not seem to utilize questions of science and technology that are imminently relevant to human society. Far more urgent are its themes of social stratification, power, and manipulation, and those themes aren’t likely to fade any time soon.
Reviewed by Lauren Klepinger