Butler’s Ark of doom

I’m a little bit frustrated right now, because I just read Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler, and only after finishing it did I realize it was part of a series (the Patternmaster series), with several other books preceding it. And I hate reading books out of sequence, even when it doesn’t really matter to the series’ overall plot — it offends my sense of order. The edition I have (1985 Ace paperback) does not identify itself as part of a series, so….. thanks a lot, Ace. But as far as I can tell, the books are only loosely connected, so I suppose there’s no real harm done.

All that aside, this was a decent novel. It’s about an astronaut who, as part of Earth’s first voyage to another planet, brings a terrifying plague back home. But rather than taking the typical approach you might expect — a story about the scientific and political response to such a problem — the novel focuses on a small group of infected people and their struggles and agonies.

The plague is an alien microorganism that invades and transforms the body at the cellular level, turning it into an efficient vehicle for aiding in the microorganism’s reproduction. It alters a person’s DNA and bestows superhuman abilities: enhanced strength, senses, and healing ability. But it also comes with a much less desirable effect: an overwhelming compulsion to spread the microorganism, both by having offspring which will be born infected, and by infecting others through physical contact. Those who are infected are consciously aware that they are carrying a disease that could easily spread and engulf all of humanity, but at the same time the alien compulsions are so strong they’re almost impossible to fight.

The lone surviving astronaut who brought the infection to Earth is a strong-willed individual who is barely able to (partially) keep control of himself. After his ship crash-lands, he hides out in a small mountain valley surrounded by California desert, creating a small community of the infected who wage a constant battle to keep the plague isolated, and to retain whatever they can of their humanity. They gradually take in more members, as a minimum concession to their enforced compulsion to spread the infection. These additions to the community are kidnapped from nearby highways out in the desert wasteland, which in this chaotic near-future world have devolved into something right out of The Road Warrior.

This novel strikes me as being very similar to the other Butler novel I’ve read, Fledgling, in that they both deal with some of the same issues, and there are lots of places where the one evokes a strong memory of the other. The infected in Clay’s Ark remind me a lot of the vampire symbionts from Fledgling. Both are transformed into something not-quite-human; both are granted special abilities but pay a steep price for them; both struggle against overwhelming compulsions or addictions, and hate themselves for not being able to overcome them. Both novels also deal with uncomfortable areas of sexuality, with young people who appear frail but who possess unknown strengths, and with the loss of family and loved ones.

The novel switches between alternating “past” and “present” chapters. The past plotline is about the astronaut and how he initially starts his mountain colony, while the present is concerned with the latest additions to the community, a doctor and his two teenage daughters, and their attempts to escape. The strongest part of the book is the characterization. You can really feel the horrible stress these people are under because of the changes they’ve undergone, and the choices they have to make.

I feel the plotting could have been stronger — it was perhaps a bit predictable in places — but it’s worth reading nevertheless. And the rest of the books in the series sound at least as interesting as this one.

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7 responses to “Butler’s Ark of doom

  1. The novels are loosely connected, and were written out of order too, so reading them out of order is no problem. I personally love Octavia Butler. A lot of her books deal with the same themes, and plot and story elements get recycled, but I still love the core stories so much that I don’t mind.

  2. Oh yea. And everything by Butler is part of a series except for her one collection and Kindred.

  3. I agree that it’s not necessary to read the first two books before Clay’s Ark in this series. You can get the whole series in one volume, Seed to Harvest, but I thought Clay’s Ark was the best of the four. This was a weaker effort, in my opinion, where Butler was working out some ideas she explores more strongly in other books. That near-future dystopia, for instance, is the setting for her very, very good Parable novels. You should read those next.

    Here is my review of Seed to Harvest.

  4. Seed to Harvest is missing one of the five books, called Survivor. It was printed once in hb and a few times in pb then Butler requested that it never be published again. You can probably find it in your public library system though.

    Shannon, did you not like Wild Seed more than Clay’s Ark? I thought that was the strongest of the five.

  5. Just from reading a brief description of the other books in the series, Clay’s Ark sounds to me like the least interesting of the lot. So I’ll be sure to read the others as well.

    Wow…. just did some checking around. The cheapest copy of Survivor I saw was a paperback for $75!

  6. I have a horror story about that. I sold my tattered copy at a garage sale for 50 cents, then when I went to buy a nicer copy on line after moving out here, I made the realization you mentioned above. Doh!

    Really though, my library system has eight copies in it. Just go on line and search your library and you will probably find at least one.

  7. Pingback: Monthly Reading: October 2008 « Books Worth Reading

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