PATTERNMASTER by Octavia E Butler
Headline, pb, £9.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Science Fiction is a medium in which authors can make important statements or observations. While many readers may ignore the underlying message and concentrate on enjoying a good story well told enough will see through the façade and begin a conversation. It is these conversations that change opinions –not immediately but slowly.
Octavia E Butler used SF to point up issues within the society in which she was writing. Some of those issues have been resolved, but unfortunately, too many have not. Thus it is good to see that her books are being reprinted and made available for a new generation of readers.
Patternmaster is her first published novel, but the last of the Patternist series. The dominant race are the patternists. They have mental powers, including telepathy, but to different degrees. The Pattern master, Rayal, is at the centre of the web of power and will brook no rivals. He is old and sick and his elder son, Coransee, expects to inherit the position. The one problem is his younger brother, Teray. He needs to either force his allegiance or kill him. Teray, though is unwilling to give up his freedom and resolves to escape from Coransee’s house and ask for refuge with Rayal. Amber, a healer, is prepared to go with him as she values her freedom to go where she wants.
The patternists regard themselves as superior to the majority of the population, who are referred to as mutes. These people are non-telepathic and are treated as servants and slaves. It is easy to draw parallels with the attitudes towards African-Americans in the USA in situations such as those where Butler grew up. With the exception of Amber, women are also treated poorly in this society. When Teray leaves the school where he has been educated, he leaves with Iray, regarded as his wife, simply because they are leaving together. At Coransee’s House, she is regarded as a commodity, reinforcing the attitude this society has towards women. Even Amber, for all her independence, has to fight for any freedom she can obtain. Teray’s attitude towards her is more flexible than most.
The other aspect of this society is that it is under constant threat from a race referred to as Clayarks. They are considered little more than animals and vicious. They have aspects of humans but carry an infection that causes deformities in children of those bitten. Each group tends to kill them on sight. When Teray meets one while on his own, he discovers that Clayarks are more capable of communication and rational thought than he’d been led to believe.
The issues Butler explores in this novel have been taken up by other writers, and although they are still problems in some areas, she started the conversation. This is a conversation that is still going on and needs to. She may be using a male viewpoint with the women having relatively minor roles (except for Amber), but this serves to highlight the prejudice and inequality in that and our society. The original publication date may have been 1976, but Butler is an author whose works need returning to, so it is good to see them being reprinted.