Octavia Butler’s 1976 novel Patternmaster occupies a slightly odd position in her oeuvre. Although it’s Butler’s first novel, chronologically it’s the last in her Patternist quartet, which also includes Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark (as well as the now out-of-print Survivor, which Butler repudiated). The ideal reading order of the series is hotly contested: I haven’t read any of the other novels, but structurally Patternmaster is very strange for a series finale, and is slightly unsatisfactory even as a standalone.
Butler’s far-future North America is inhabited by a society of Patternists – telepaths connected to one another by a sort of mental energy field known as the Pattern. The most powerful Patternist, and the ruler of their society, is the titular Patternmaster, who at the time the novel takes place is an old man named Rayal.
The Patternists’ mortal enemies are the Clayarks, humans mutated almost beyond recognition by the Clayark disease. The Patternists believe that the Clayarks are essentially animals, and the two groups attack each other at every opportunity. Similarly, the Patternists call un-mutated, non-telepathic humans “mutes” and treat them like cattle, setting them to menial tasks in their households.
Our protagonist is Teray, a young and gifted Patternist just out of school who’s forced into servitude by his older, more powerful brother Coransee. Coransee is the strongest of Rayal’s sons, and hopes that by removing Teray from the equation he can secure his succession to the role of Patternmaster when Rayal dies. Teray, of course, has other ideas, and together with a healer named Amber he embarks upon a dangerous journey across the country to seek sanctuary from Coransee’s scheming and the mental control with which Coransee threatens him.
What makes Patternmaster so odd, considered as an SF dystopia, is that nothing really changes in it: it’s fundamentally a novel about how entrenched power structures perpetuate themselves. As Teray journeys across the Patternist world, he experiences its various injustices both in his own person – as when his sister-wife Iray is taken from him by Coransee, thanks to laws and social mores that give Housemasters absolute power over their households – and through observation of how Patternist society treats various groups (the Clayarks, Patternist women, the mutes). As genre-savvy readers, we might expect that Teray will use his burgeoning powers to resist the society in which these injustices are allowed to thrive – especially given his romance with Amber, whose position as a wandering healer is politically tenuous, leaving her as it does at the mercy of various male Housemasters. (She is also bisexual in a world that doesn’t really understand female bisexuality.) Instead, however, Teray continues to seek power within that society – to take the place of the oppressors rather than overthrow them.
It’s a bleak vision of the future, one in which humanity’s descendants continue to tear each other apart and old prejudices still hold; in which those with the power to change things choose simply to maintain the status quo. I don’t think that this is how Butler thinks the future really will look: all dystopias are, after all, reflections of the concerns of the time they’re written in. But it’s striking how relevant Patternmaster‘s concerns still are today, how inescapable our own power structures increasingly feel. I can’t say I precisely enjoyed Patternmaster: it’s too bleak and too stark for my taste. But it’s certainly doing a lot of heavy lifting for such a slight volume, and I’m interested to read the rest of the series.