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Literature / Patternist

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Cover image of one edition of Wild Seed.

The Patternist series, also called the Patternmaster series, is a science fiction series written by Octavia Butler. The series spans the appearance and rise of powerful psychics among the human race as well as the invasion of the Clayark aliens.

The series originally consisted of five books, but the third (Survivor, published 1978) was disliked by the author and not reprinted. The remaining four have been republished in the Seed to Harvest (2007) omnibus, containing the books Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay's Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976), in series-chronological order rather than publishing order.


This series contains examples of:

  • After the End: Mind of My Mind heralded the end of the world as we know it, From Bad to Worse in Clay's Ark, and Patternmaster took place in a future so alien it might as well be a different planet.
  • Biomancy: Anyanwu is a healer but, as she gained experience, she learned to heal others and transform into various animal forms.
  • Bi the Way: Amber, a healer in Patternmaster, is in love with a man. She's loved women before. Ayanwu generally seems to prefer men and taking male lovers and husbands, but she also takes wives from time to time.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The "Clayarks" were orginally humans infected by an alien virus. Infected humans just turn pale and thin, but their children...
  • Blessed with Suck: Telepath-type psychics rarely learn to completely control their power, constantly being bombarded by other people's thoughts, emotions, and even dreams. They tend to slowly turn anti-social and unstable, even unable to raise their own children. By the time of Patternmaster, all psychics give up their children to boarding schools, where they're raised by special psychics who can handle them. The children usually never meet their own parents.
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  • Body Surf: Doro's power to jump between bodies is completely instinctive, and also undirected. He always jumps into the nearest human being, even if he cannot see them. Despite the fact that he is essentially devouring the souls of the people he jumps into, he really does not care about this and will, for example, jump into somebody else to get across a river simply because it is convenient. The bodies he steals start to deteriorate soon after he enters them, with certain ones lasting as much as a year if he tends their needs carefully, and he cannot use any psychic powers the victim may have possessed.
  • Canon Discontinuity: The novel Survivor is an Old Shame for the author and was withdrawn. Since the action of that story takes place entirely on another planet, its connection to the overall series is weak, and the canonicity of the few series elements it contained remains unclear. Within the book, though, it clearly takes place after the outbreak of the clayark virus, and mentions both that and 'Forsyth', the main Patternist stronghold.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Doro is deeply self-centered and regards people only insofar as they are of value to him. Some of them have a higher value than others, and a rare few with just the right personalities he actually truly cares for, considering them real friends and listening to their advice, even when he doesn't like it. After quite a lot of time Ayanwu winds up in this category.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: When Ayanwu has her own plantation, populated by a found family of freed people who are for whatever reason considered strange or outcast, Doro can only assume she's started her own version of one of his seed villages and is doing as he does. He is unable to understand that she values all of them highly.
  • Death-Activated Superpower: How Doro became what he was. His probable power was going to be some kind of Telepathy, but he died from the physical strain when it manifested. This warped his talent into the ability to Body Surf instead. He has been jumping from body to body for thousands of years, and he always jumps to the nearest person should his current body be injured or die. He can also
  • Driven to Suicide: Ayanwu comes close at the end of Wild Seed, seeing it as the only way she could truly escape Doro. Doro, who has finally come to care for her and fully realized that Ayanwu is the only other immortal in the world, the only person he's ever loved who could be permanent, begs her to stop, even crying that he wishes he could join her in death.
  • Eldritch Abomination:
    • Doro. He's an ancient psychic predator that eats people's minds and steals their bodies. He can sense other psychics, and it's his life's work to track them down for his selective breeding program. He sees people only in terms of their value as breeding stock, people who can tend the breeding stock, and those who can run his interest for him while he's away. The only morality he follows is "Obey me," and he won't think twice about devouring anyone, ANYONE who crosses him or tries to escape him.
    • His "true" daughter Mary stops just short, preferring to draw other psychics into a "pattern" so she can feed off them evenly instead of killing anyone...whether they like it or not. She can also siphon other psychics' mental energy to use as her own, which allows her to fend off and absorb Doro. Her progeny become the titular Patternists.
  • Feudal Future: An interesting variation has been reached by the timeframe of Patternmaster. It is true feudalism in the sense that powerful Patternists form households in which they rule over a territory populated by ordinary humans and weaker Patternists, which they protect against the mutant "Clayark's". Sometimes particularly powerful Patternists will even dominate others who have their own households. Above everyone is the Patternmaster, who controls the Pattern and by extension all of the Patternists. Society has regressed to a comparatively primitive level because most Patternists do not bother to pursue extensive education in anything other than psychic powers and their human slaves are not encouraged to be very innovative. Patternists find it difficult to believe that humanity was once a great deal more technologically advanced.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Patternmaster, although chronologically last, was published first, meaning that when readers start the other books they already know the Clayark disease will spread and the Patternists will take over the world.
  • Grand Theft Me:
    • Doro does this by devouring the host's mind, and abandons the old body to die. Mary's the only one who's ever been able to stop him, and Doro can't even stop himself from switching bodies if he's badly injured or frightened. People who have known him long enough can identify him in any body by sight.
    • Later Patternists tune this into a fine art, allowing them to temporarily take control of another psychic's body and mental abilities to use in tandem with their own.
  • Growing Up Sucks: Normally around young adulthood, a psychic will go through a kind of puberty wherein their bodies fall into a wreck and their abilities drastically increase, forcing them to handle their own abilities before they die of the strain. It is not unheard of for psychics to kill themselves or loved ones, forcing those same loved ones to put them down. Doro himself died during this, and it somehow warped his burgeoning power (which was supposed to be some form of telepathy) into the body surfing power he ultimately manifested.
  • Healing Factor: Anyanwu has a conscious version of this power, so if she's unconscious she doesn't heal.
  • Humanshifting: Anyanwu, healer-type psychics are implied to be capable of this, though it's much more difficult for them.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: Subverted; the Clayark virus's drive to survive and reproduce is so strong that in addition to sabotaging all suicide attempts, it also prevents infectees from even trying to beg for death, no matter how strong their loathing for what they've become.
  • Immortality Immorality: Despite the general horror of what he is, a bodiless entity that survives by devouring other people's bodies and souls, Doro actually wants to create other beings like himself. This is the goal towards which he continues to focus his breeding program, despite it producing people with a wide range of other potentially beneficial powers like telekinesis or psychic healing, all of which he considers to be of little value.
  • Incest Is Relative:
    • Powerful characters like Doro and later patternmasters have no incest taboo and will happily match relatives together for breeding, even brothers and sisters, if it looks likely to produce good results. Doro himself has no problem siring children in one body and then, a couple decades down the line, getting those same children pregnant in a different body.
    • The Clayark disease also doesn't care about familial relationships. It just wants carriers to have babies—if you're infected, and your similarly infected relative is of the appropriate anatomy to get you pregnant, the disease will make you lust after each other. This badly traumatizes several infectees in Clay's Ark. (How this affects born Clayarks, or whether they even care, is not mentioned.)
  • Klingon Promotion: Psychics in Patternmaster are potentially immortal, so transfers of power tend to happen by Klingon promotion.
  • Made of Iron: Clayarks. Even being hit by an 18-wheeler isn't enough to really put one down—it takes multiple submachine guns and a beheading to really kill one who isn't even infected all the way yet.
  • Mama Bear: One of Doro's people kills one of Anyanwu's sons and nearly rapes one of her daughters. Anyanwu becomes a panther and rips the man's throat out.
  • Master of Your Domain: Emma Anyanwu has this down to the cellular level which lets her be whatever age she wants at any given time, exhibit Super Strength and transform into any creature of the same mass as herself.
  • Mental Fusion: The Pattern. It connects all the telepaths, enabling them to co-exist, whereas originally they had been unable to endure each other's proximity. It also provides great power to the Patternmaster, who controls the whole network.
  • Moral Sociopathy: Thousands of years of body surfing has made Doro extremely amoral and he really just does not care about how his plans (or existence) affect other people.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Anyanwu is several hundred years old, but it doesn't show unless she allows it and it has no effect on her ability to produce supernatural strength. The last group of young idiots who thought they could jump an old witch got straight-up eaten.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The attempt of the protagonists to escape from Eli's compound in Clay's Ark leads to a trucker being infected, who then goes on to infect everyone along his route. Downplayed, however, as Eli containing the disease the way he did was pretty precarious to begin with—it's heavily implied that if the protagonists hadn't done it, the Clayark kids would have once they grew up (they, unlike their parents, have never been human and have no interest in trying to be).
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Eli Doyle, the man who first brought the Clayark disease to Earth, was first a famous child preacher, then a world-class geologist. He puts on a lower-class accent to make himself seem less threatening to kidnapees (and also to make sure no one recognizes him as Eli Doyle, astronaut, unless he wants them to).
  • Power Incontinence: Many psychics never learn how to turn off hearing the thoughts of others. The resulting voices in their head drive them insane.
  • Power Perversion Potential: At one point Doro remarks that he's never felt Anyanwu's flesh while it's morphing before. Anyanwu answers that he already has ... in bed. He's also interested in coming to her while she's shifted into a male shape while he wears a female body.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Doro finds it messy and annoying to have to resort to killing wildly to get his way. He protects his "seed villages" from outside threats and is careful to keep them grateful to him and not too fearful. They can do what they want and have their own rules so long as they obey him in the end. When he goes to spend time in one he prefers to do it in the form of someone who's a stranger to that village, and if he takes one of their bodies it's shortly before they leave.
  • Psychic Powers: Doro's breeding program produces people with a wide range of different powers. He breeds for bodies that are durable and pleasurable to take over, but ultimately is looking to produce something similar to himself. What he gets is not what he wants.
  • Secret Keeper: Doro has people all over the world who handle business affairs for him.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Doro. His parents were the first people he ever absorbed, out of simple fear and confusion, followed by many others in his village.
  • Sex Shifter: Especially shown in Wild Seed. Immortal healer Anyanwu is able to change her body at will, which not only includes shapeshifting into animals but also changing sex. The change is so complete, she can even sire children when in a male body, although they're only girls unless she copies the DNA of another male, in which case the resulting sons will be genetically that other man's rather than Anyanwu's. Most of the time, Anyanwu uses that ability to hide from witch hunters.
  • Shapeshifter Baggage: Averted. It is explained that Anyanwu, and later healer-type psychics, can grow, regenerate, and absorb cells at will.
  • Shapeshifting: Anyanwu's hat trick, written as the culmination of her cellular manipulation abilities. She can make subtle changes like increasing her strength and agility, change her sex, even turn into a different animal completely.
  • Super Breeding Program: Doro's grand project to try to produce beings like himself. It Goes Horribly Right and produces a telepath who's capable of absorbing him.
  • Supernatural Elite: The Patternists rule what remains of humanity, presumably including those with psychic powers other than telepathy.
  • Technically Living Zombie: The Clayarks more or less. The topic is one of some debate, as some aspect of the alien virus prevents most Patternists from reading or controlling the Clayark's minds (although they can still fry their brains). Evidence suggests that the Clayarks do retain some remnant of human sentience, although their predatory impulses and instinctive need to spread their disease make chatting them up unrealistic.
  • Telepathy: The defining trait of the Patternists.
  • Was Once a Man: The first Clayarks were astronauts who picked up the virus in space and brought it back home. Although they can reproduce and the children will always be Clayarks, they still have the urge to infect more people.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: At one point, Anyanwu shapeshifts into a white man in order to avoid racist violence. One enslaved man is psychic enough to recognize her for what she is and asks why she isn't doing anything to help.
    "Anyanwu! Does that white skin cover your eyes too?"
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Anyanwu and Doro find themselves drawn to each other because of the extreme loneliness of immortality. Anyanwu in particular is sick of burying her own grandchildren.
  • The Virus: The alien disease brought back to Earth on the spaceship Clay's Ark. The victims and their descendants become the bestial "Clayarks".
  • Voices Are Mental: Anyone who's met Doro can instantly identify him if they hear him speak, regardless of which body he's wearing, though it is noted that his voice sounds different coming from different bodies.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Basically what happened to civilization on Earth when the "Clayark" virus spread. The Patternists were able to carve out reasonably secure fiefdoms due to being able to kill the "Clayarks" with their psychic powers. But even they must constantly be on guard against attacks.

Alternative Title(s): Wild Seed


Example of: