We continue our week of book reviews with Lauren Klepinger’s Science Fiction Review Series. Today we examine a newer title, The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, as well as Octavia Butler’s science fiction classic, Patternmaster. They are among some of the final titles in this series, where we examined the genre to dissect and inspect some of science fiction’s most beloved novels.
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
From 1950 to 2005, our beloved planet gained a whopping 4 billion people, a more rapid population growth than it has ever seen or is projected to see in the near future. Fears about using more resources than the Earth can afford to give permeate both the world of science and the world of politics. Cities grow ever denser, nibbling away at farmland and natural habitats. In many ways, it looks as though humanity is simply running out of room.
In The Long Earth British sci-fi/fantasy virtuosos Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter imagine a scenario in which these anxieties are no longer relevant: access to unlimited Earths, entirely free of humans.
The possibility of other universes is not so far-fetched according to proponents of various multiverse theories (although it is certainly far-fetched according to their critics). And this great “what if” has given science fiction plenty of mileage, inspiring films like Another Earth and Donnie Darko, as well as episodes of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Patternmaster by Octavia Butler
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.
Reviewed by Lauren Klepinger