Seed to Harvest: The Patternist series

Seed to Harvest is a collection of the four books that make up Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series. The books are arranged chronologically and that is the order in which I read them. However, they weren’t written chronologically and I strongly suspect that I would have gotten much more out of this series if I had read the novels in the order in which they were written — as a dystopian final novel with three prequels.

Patternamster, the final novel in the series and the first to have been written, imagines a future dominated by telepaths linked by a mental pattern. In conflict with these patternists are the brutal and semi-human clayarks, bent on destroying the patternists. Ordinary humans, pejoratively described as mutes, are not important and serve only as slaves, victims or both.

The patternmaster controls the pattern and all who are linked to it, thus becoming the leader of the patternists. The current patternmaster is old and dying and the novel focusses on the conflict to replace him.

While the world of the patternists and clayarks is superbly well realised, the narrative itself is quite slight. This wouldn’t be a problem if I had read this novel first, but following on from the other three it all felt a bit anticlimactic.

Mind of My Mind tells the story of the emergence of the patternists. It centres on Doro, a 4000 year old mutant with the ability to transfer his consciousness into others’ bodies. It is Doro who has been seeking out similar mutants and breeding them in order to build a race of superhumans and a stock of bodies. While successful Doro’s efforts also backfire spectacularly with the emergence of Mary, a latent telepath who becomes the first patternmaster.

Clay’s Ark jumps forward a bit from Mind of My Mind and describes the emergence of the clayarks. As a standalone novel, this is only tangentially related to the rest of the Patternist series and — with reading the novels chronologically — it did feel like quite an abrupt turn for the series. With it’s microbial alien symbiotes, Clay’s Ark is also one of the most viscerally disturbing invasion stories I’ve read in a long time.

Wild Seed is the last book to have been written and the first chronologically. It’s about an immortal healer named Anyanwu (who makes a fleeting appearance in Mind of My Mind) and her encounter with Doro. When the story starts, Anyanwu is already 300 years old, while Doro is much, much older. Doro coerces Anyanwu into travelling with him from Africa to the US and the story centres on the conflict between the two and their very different views of humanity.

This is by far the strongest of the novels, with two very well-drawn protagonists, and the one that most explicitly delves into the themes of the series. These include racial prejudice, the ethical implications of eugenics, and the question of what it means to be human.

As a whole, the Patternist series explores several big ideas and leaves you thinking for several days afterwards. It’s well worth reading, but is probably better read in the order the books were written than in chronological order of the events.