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Octavia E. Butler - Clay's Ark (1985)

I have two copies of Clay's Ark. The US hardback first edition was published by St Martin's Press as by Octavia E. Butler, and at least mentions that Butler is an established novelist, although (as is often the practice for a first book published by a new house) it names no previous titles. The UK paperback published by Arrow as by Octavia Butler might as well be a first novel as it does not even do that much. The cover of the paperback is rather good, and true to the book. The hardback...not so much. You win some, you lose some, I guess, from the author's and reader's point of view.

I read the hardback. Some previous reader had left marks in pencil on some few pages, and folded over the corners of some pages, but I couldn't discern any meaning in them.

In a less than utopian future a century or so hence, humanity's first starship, the Clay's Ark, has returned from Proxima Centauri, its crew carrying a disease capable of wiping out the human race. The one survivor of the expedition knows this well, and is desperate to avoid the catastrophic outcome.

The action of the story is narrated through multiple viewpoints, male and female, and also shifts back and forward in time between "past" and "present". It takes place in the Californian desert, a nomansland where the rule of law is not an everyday feature of society. Butler keeps a tight focus on her viewpoint characters; the rest of the world is sketched lightly or not at all. And she is working with her familiar themes: the importance of family, the struggle to survive in a hostile world, and the clash between the interests of the indivdual and those of society. All well drawn and compelling, although in one or two places the shift of viewpoint is clumsily handled, and in others I cannot visualise and am not convinced by the events as described.

Those of us who have read Butler's earlier books can read this one and understand that this is the story of the origins of the Clayarks, the mutant cannibals depicted in Patternmaster as relentless enemies of the Patternists. As such this is the fifth and last published of the Patternmaster novels, although neither Doro nor the Patternists are mentioned. A reader with this background might be quite happy with this book while remaining puzzled as to how the world depicted in Patternmaster evolved from the world of Clay's Ark. That story is not told here, and if Butler ever did tell it anywhere I am not aware of it.

The reader coming to either of these editions without having read the earlier books would not be told or understand anything about the Patternists, nor would they care. The book stands alone.

Butler's next story was Bloodchild, and her next novel Dawn.


Caroline M

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