The Week in Books: Dec 28, 2014 to Jan 3, 2015
Contains mild spoilers.
Patternist series by Octavia Butler: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Survivor, and Patternmaster
I read this series in a bit of a wonky order, and I’m not sure on the exact dates of all of them because I read the Seed to Harvest compilation (and a copy of Survivor from a nearby library), and Goodreads sees that as one book. I started with the first book published, which is also the one that finishes the series: Patternmaster. I’d heard from the internet that Wild Seed, the first book chronologically but the last published, was one of Butler’s best works, and that the last book in the series seemed too simple in comparison. So I thought that moving through them by publication order would be a good idea. I soon found that it was a bit confusing, and against my usual reading habits, so after reading Survivor (because I thought it came between Wild Seed and Mind of my Mind for some reason? or at least Clay’s Ark? and because I was afraid the library wouldn’t renew it), I went back to the beginning and finished out the series in chronological order.
Patternmaster is a short, fast-paced story of an Earth ruled by telepaths, and a conflict that rises among two exceptionally powerful ones. Like much of Butler’s early work, the sentence structure is simple even if the world is a difficult one to be thrown into, but the clarity of her writing eases that a bit. Butler wrote the stories she wasn’t seeing in the science fiction world, with questions that many white authors weren’t asking: What is freedom? What is slavery? What are the costs of these things? In this part of the series timeline, telepaths enslave those without powers, as well as those with weaker powers than their own. It’s a cruel world, where one’s wife can be taken away from you for not being strong enough, and mutated people, called Clayarks, are terrifying predators. Butler’s world is fully-realized but it’s the conflict that drives the story. It’s alien without being about aliens, with the same sense of a very, very different future than we imagine that Wells gave us in The Time Machine.
I do recommend reading Patternmaster first, because it’s such an early book, and it does not give a satisfying resolution to the series (as I’m sure Butler intended). Instead, it’s so very much its own story. We’re not really used to reading books set in the same world in that way, are we?
Now to go back to the beginning, because why not? Wild Seed is the story of a man named Doro who cannot die, and a woman named Anyanwu who shapeshifts, giving her longevity. Much of the book takes place in Africa before it comes to the New World. Doro is already incredible ancient, and has developed a distance from the human race, even his own children, whom he breeds together for a purpose that even he doesn’t fully understand. Anyanwu is not interested in being bred, but he threatens her family, and she becomes part of an experiment that forces her to fight her way to some form of equality.
Mind of My Mind takes place in the modern-day world, with Doro’s experiments coming to fruition in a way he was never expecting, and the seeds of the world to come. And that’s all I’ll tell you about THAT.
Clay’s Ark is a very different story. It tells the very focused story of the people that one day become “Clayarks,” cannibalistic mutations. It’s a brutal story–I’ll warn you right now, there’s a lot of rape–but Butler mostly keeps her distance from the characters. I’ve had problems reading Butler rape scenes before, but this book didn’t bother me nearly as much. Or maybe I was just used to it. Rape is a topic that Butler deals with often. It seems to fall under her questions about freedom and slavery. Makes sense to me.
Survivor is about one of the ships that left Earth after the Clay’s Ark virus mutates or kills much of the population. Butler did not led it her “Star Trek book,” declining to have it reprinted. I don’t really understand why; it’s an interesting book about religious people on a planet with a preexisting alien species that is at war, and how the humans get stuck in the middle of that war. Specifically, how one woman becomes a prisoner of war who takes to her adopted culture. Maybe Butler felt that Alanna’s adaption is too easy for one of her books? (Jo Walton, who wrote last year’s amazing My Real Children, discusses the book in more detail here.)
And then we’re back to Patternmaster. As I said before, Butler doesn’t bring the story around full circle or anything like that. It’s just set in the same world.
Then I started the new year off with Deeply Odd, the sixth and penultimate book in the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz. My daughter and I adore the first book, Odd Thomas, but since then we’ve been in it for Odd, not the plots, which could never match that first book. This latest one–until the last book, which comes out soon!–has a plot that reminds one of the first book, and it is just as creepy. Really, really creepy. But unfortunately, Koontz writes Odd going on even worse tangents about pop culture and the like than ever before, and he writes as if he doesn’t quite have Odd’s voice down anymore. Can an author grow too old for his character? Oddie has a bit of that boy-out-of-time thing going on, which is why Spider-Man era Tobey Maguire would’ve been perfect to play him in a movie, but in Deeply Odd, sometimes he sounds downright crotchety. Also, the plot is pushed ahead primarily by the hand of God or something, at least the Forces of Good, and so the on top of tangents, and a lot of repetition, and Odd being alternately like someone’s grandfather who’s addicted to Fox News and like an idiot child who despite all he’s been through never seems to get anything anyone says about the supernatural that isn’t a straight fact, we’ve got a story that builds tension but never seems like bad things are going to happen to our lead. I guess after you lose the most important thing in the world to you in the first book, all you have is your life to lose, and there’s still another book left. But we are introduced to a very cool old lady, and a child–look, why are all the best characters in this series outside of Pico Mundo female? It’s all Wise Old/Young Lady everywhere you turn. They’re all psychics and sages and whatnot. Color me uninterested. I’ll still be reading that last book, but most likely only ever getting a copy of the first one, which wraps up nicely at the end, so I get closure.
Finally, I used a gift card from the holidays to purchase some graphic novels: Ms Marvel Volume 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, Captain Marvel Volume 1: Higher, Further, Faster, More by Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Fables: Cubs in Toyland by Bill Willingham. I did not expect to love the Marvel books as much as I did. I thought I’d like them, boost the sales and all that, remind Marvel that there are a lot of women reading their books. But I fell in love with them–with Kamala Khan, who loves superheroes and loves that she’s accidentally become one in the midst of a complicated enough life; and with Captain Marvel, who I know mostly because she was the one who gave Rogue her other powers, but made me laugh so much that I was still going “Teehee” here and there for the rest of the night. Cubs in Toyland was also excellent, if a bit rushed. It felt like it could’ve been its own miniseries, really, rather than just a storyline where other things had to fit in as well. I am always surprised when Fables is still as good as it ever was, and I really need to stop that.
Next up: some backlog, Marvel remedies a lack of superpowers in their cinematic universe, and why I liked Ascension. Yeah, I said it.