Octavia E. Butler: Seed to Harvest (the Patternist Series)

I tend not to re-read books (even though I’ll watch the same movie a thousand times), but I decided to revisit two of Octavia Butler’s series this year. The first was the Xenogenesis series in the form of Lilith’s Brood; Seed to Harvest was the second.

Seed to Harvest is the title of the four-book anthology of the Patternist series; the individual novels in the series are titled Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. If you read through my Mid-Year Reading Roundup you’ll know that Survivor is a book that is also part of this series, though it did not live beyond its original print run and was not included in this collection.

In reading the collection there were things that stood out to me uncomfortably. It was mainly Anyanwu’s decision to die when she’d fought so hard to be rid of Doro in the first place, and the fact that Clay’s Ark felt very out of place in the series, that gave me pause. But here’s the thing…

The Patternist series was not written in the order in which it is read.

The Patternist series has a total of 5 books:
1. Wild Seed
2. Mind of My Mind
3. Clay’s Ark
4. Patternmaster
5. Survivor

However, it was published in the following order:
4. Patternmaster
2. Mind of My Mind
5. Survivor
1. Wild Seed
3. Clay’s Ark

In light of the order in which the books were published (and assuming they were written in the same order), it’s no wonder why there are broken connections between Mind of My Mind and Clay’s Ark. It’s also no wonder why the Anyanwu in Wild Seed is so much stronger than she is in Mind of My Mind.

But you have no idea what I’m talking about! Here’s the story…

Wild Seed tells the story of Anyanwu and Doro. It’s not a love story, though at times it feels like it wants to be. Anyanwu is nearly immortal. She can heal herself, she doesn’t age, and she can mold her body into the form of any creature she’s tasted (literally). She is also completely human. Doro is more immortal than Anyanwu, except he’s no longer completely human. He was human until his transition at too young an age when he became more than human and less than human. Anyanwu asks him several times to explain what he is, but he can’t describe it. He assures her that he is no spirit, but has no other explanation for her beyond trying to convince her that she never wants to see him without a body.

See, Doro needs the bodies of other people to survive. He jumps into the body nearest him whenever he has worn out the body he is in or is threatened or to threaten someone else or when he feels like it. If he wants to take someone specifically, he must be in physical contact with that person. Doro has spent much of his existence (possibly thousands of years) “collecting” and breeding people who share certain sensitivities that identify them as being like him. Several generations of breeding produce people who can fly, read minds, move objects. He his “called” to them and when he finds new people with those sensitivities he moves them to one of his colonies to continue in his experiment. He’s not quite sure what he’s trying to create through his breeding program, but he will know it when he sees it.

Anyanwu is the only one of her kind, and when Doro finds her he is convinced that she will help him create a completely new type of human with extraordinary abilities. But Anyanwu has been on her own for hundreds of years, has wed and buried several husbands, has birthed and buried many children, and will not go along with Doro’s plans willingly.

Threats of harm to her children and promises that he will leave them alone keep Anyanwu by Doro’s side. She hates him, she loves him, she resents him, she hides from him for a century, she returns to him, she even decides to kill herself to be rid of him. She has such control over the cells of her body that she can change anything inside of her, or just make it all stop working. But she doesn’t die. Despite all the awful things Doro has done to her and made her do, she stays with him. Partially because they are the only ones who can keep each other company for eternity, partially because Doro brings her people to take care of. One such person is a girl named Mary who has incredible potential.

Mary is what Doro has been breeding people for centuries trying to create. She is also his downfall. Mind of My Mind is Mary’s story. Mary is the strongest telepath (but more than just a telepath) that Doro has ever created. She is so strong that during her transition she creates the first Pattern—a mental link between herself and others of her kind who are much weaker—and becomes the first Patternmaster. The Pattern can be viewed in the mind as a center point of light (the Patternmaster) and individual strings connecting smaller points of light (other telepaths, or “Patternists”) to the center. Communication can be transmitted through the Pattern, and the Patternmaster can absorb the strength from other members of the Pattern to make herself stronger.

When Mary becomes stronger than Doro feels comfortable with, he tries to exert his power and control over her. He remains in control for some time, but eventually he asks Mary to give up recruiting new members of the Pattern which she cannot do. Recruiting new Patternists is a physical hunger for Mary, one which she cannot give up even if she wanted to. So she does the only thing she can do, she fights and tries to kill Doro despite the fact that Doro has made it known to his people for centuries that he cannot be killed.

Clay’s Ark is set several years after Mary’s battle with Doro. None of the original Patternists are still alive. Eli has survived the crash landing of the Clay’s Ark spaceship after its return from another planet. He is the only member of his crew to do so, and his will to survive is outside of his control. He has no choice but to survive because he is the host of an alien microorganism that intends to live and multiply regardless of the will of its host. The microorganism, the disease, is spread through physical contact with broken skin—a simple paper cut opens an uninfected person to the disease. Once infected, the new host feels an intense compulsion to infect someone else. Uninfected people smell different, and must be touched, scratched, must be infected.

After infecting a family living out in the desert, Eli vows to keep the disease contained, only feeding the compulsion to infect by occasionally kidnapping solo travelers along a dangerous highway. But when the group kidnaps a father and his teenage daughters they have a much more difficult time convincing them that escape will not cure them but only serve to worsen the problem.

After seeing children who have been birthed by infected women—children who have human heads that are a bit too large atop slender bodies that move in cat-like ways—the father, Blake, and one of the daughters (the healthy one) decide they’d rather die than be part of producing more sphinx-like children and refuse to let the sicker daughter (who has cancer) make any other decision. After escaping from Eli’s group, Blake and the girls are captured by a more dangerous “car family” who want to hold them for ransom but do not realize the danger they’ve put themselves in being in contact with carriers of the disease. Blake eventually makes his way to the roadside where a truck driver tries to kill him, but before the hauler crushes Blake’s legs beneath his large truck and heads toward the nearest city, Blake manages to scratch him and fulfill his duty to the disease.

Patternmaster is set further in time, after the Clay’s Ark disease has spread throughout the planet and the only uninfected humans are the Patternists who have managed to keep their territories free of “Clayarks”—the race of sphinx-like creatures first birthed by infected humans who then began to reproduce—and the “mutes”—regular humans who have no psionic abilities—that Patternists keep around as servants. While the Clayarks fight for more territory, killing Patternists caught outside of their protected areas, Teray is coming of age and seeking to become an apprentice in the home of a strong Patternist who heads his own house.

Despite being accepted as an apprentice in the home of one man, Teray finds himself as an “outsider” in the home of another, much stronger Patternist—his brother, Coransee. An outsider has no potential to one day head a house of his own, has no status of importance, and cannot keep a wife—even if they’ve already pledged themselves to each other like Teray and his soon-to-be wife have. Coransee knows their father, the current Patternmaster, is near death as he was infected with the Clayark disease and has been so consumed keeping himself alive that he is not able to hold the Pattern for much longer. Teray could fight for the Pattern, though he doesn’t want it, but Coransee refuses to even hold the thought of being challenged. The only way Coransee will let him live is if Teray agrees to allow him to place a form of control in his mind that would prevent him from ever moving against his brother. Teray refuses. Instead, Teray escapes Coransee’s house with the hope of finding sanctuary in his father’s house. It’s a long journey and Teray must try not to be killed by Clayarks along the way or recaptured by his brother whose patience for their father’s death is dwindling.

There’s so much more to unpack here! These stories are just so good, and I tried to give you details without giving you everything.

One of the things that really stood out to me is the connection between Anyanwu’s healing and shapeshifting abilities described in Wild Seed and the abilities of the Ooloi described in Lilith’s Brood. The way they explore and manipulate cellular structure in themselves and in those around them is very similar even though the characters and series are unrelated.

I know everyone cannot be as excited about Butler’s books as I am, but I hope I’ve given you reason enough to want to pick one (or all) of them up.

Happy Reading!

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