Published last, Octavia E. Butler’s 1984 Clay’s Ark was the fourth installment in her five book Patternist series. Along with 1978’s Survivor, of which we do not speak, it abandons the series’ focus on psychic monsters. Rather, it examines an entirely different kind of monster
Humanity’s first foray to an alien world ended in disaster. The remains of the starship Clay’s Ark are scrap scattered across an American desert; the crew are dead. All but one of the crew are dead, that is. Better for troubled Earth had the ship simply broken apart and burned up during re-entry.
Some years later, Blake Maslin and his two daughters, Rane and Keira, set out to visit Blake’s parents, They never reach their destination; they are hijacked before they can cross the desert.
Although this is a decaying world, featuring wealthy enclaves surrounded by chaos and violence, the Maslins have not fallen prey to one of the roving car family gangs. Their situation is much worse. The desert is home to the one human survivor of the disastrous Clay’s Ark re-entry. The survivor has a lurking passenger: an insidious alien parasite. One that is determined to survive and spread.
Eli, the survivor, is helpless to resist the parasite’s compulsions. He infects any humans he can kidnap and gathers them into a hardscrabble society. Fortunately for the rest of humankind, this society is quarantined (more or less) in the middle of the desert. Most humans are free to continue their freefall into barbarism and decay, all by themselves, without the help of a lurking alien parasite that intends to reshape all humanity.
The desert quarantine is a lucky break (as well as an artifact of Eli’s internal struggle, between resistance and submission to the parasite) but it will not last forever. It won’t take much for the situation to spiral out of control. The Maslins may be the spark needed to ignite a global pandemic…
If one has, as I have, read Survivor, of which we do not speak, it raises a rather disturbing question about the nature of the star drive that got Clay’s Ark from Sol to Promixa Centauri and back.As far as I know, the only propulsion system able to do this known in the early 21st century is a specific variety of psychic. Presumably someone in Mary’s network decided star travel was an interesting hobby to encourage.
The idea that an organism from one ecosystem can parasitize animals from a completely unrelated ecosystem seems unlikely. That said, the idea of a parasite being able to comprehensively alter the behaviour of its host is quite reasonable, and has ample natural precedent. Being able to completely, purposefully reshape their hosts’ offspring seems a bit of a stretch, given that the Clayark virus is not supposed to be intelligent. It certainly could not have been shaped by natural selection to have such an ability … but again, there is precedent for parasites sculpting generations to suit their needs.
Intelligence, sadly enough, does not help the humans escape the trap. It does allow them to appreciate the horror of their situation on more levels than would less intelligent hosts.
If you don’t have a taste for unrelentingly grim, Butler is probably not the author for you. Her worlds are generally either post-apocalyptic or on their way towards apocalypse. Her characters are either doing the best they can despite a profound lack of power, or revelling in their ability to make others come to heel. Not a lot of laughs in your average Butler book.
Next to the book of which we do not speak, this is my least favourite Patternist novel. There’s nothing wrong with the characters and Butler’s writing and plotting have improved greatly since Patternmaster, but the book somehow does not compel. I think the issue is that, having read Patternmaster and the one of which we do not speak, I know what the world looks like in a few centuries and that means I know what has to happen in this novel. This feels less like a novel that was written for its own sake and more like Butler filling in the last uncharted piece of her future history.
Still, Butler on an off-day is better than a lot of authors on their best days. Readers curious in this particular novel, readers who can tolerate or even enjoy Butler’s unrelentingly grim world, can buy Clay’s Ark on its own. I would recommend purchasing Seed to Harvest, an omnibus that includes all four of the acknowledged Patternistbooks.
Not, of course, the one of which we do not speak. I would explain why but we do not speak of it.