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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:

  • Absurdly Elderly Mother: Anyanwu is over 300 at the beginning of Wild Seed and continues to have children for centuries afterwards. Justified since her biomancy lets her keep herself fertile and healthy, even when she chooses to look elderly on the outside.
  • After the End: Mind of My Mind heralds the end of the world as we know it with the advent of the Supernatural Elite, Clay's Ark takes it From Bad to Worse with an alien epidemic, and Patternmaster takes place in a future so alien it might as well be a different planet.
  • Animalistic Abilities: As the undisputed master of Voluntary Shapeshifting and Biomanipulation, Anyanwu can analyze an animal's entire genome from a small tissue sample and adopt useful traits at will. For example, after spending some time as a dolphin, she incorporates its ability to conserve oxygen into her human form.
  • Animorphism: Anyanwu has honed her Healing Factor into this power and is able to transform herself into a new species at a genetic level after sampling its DNA.
  • Bad Powers, Bad People:
    • Doro's Body Surfing kills the people he targets, which doesn't matter to him in the slightest — in fact, he enjoys absorbing their minds. Four thousand years spent devouring people out of necessity, unable ever to die, have left him almost completely uncaring of other people.
    • Each of the two telepaths in Wild Seed uses their powers to try to rape women; one also uses them to inflict a Psychic-Assisted Suicide on a woman who turns him down. Doro mentions that people with that power tend to be horribly distorted by it in childhood.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The "Clayarks" were orginally humans infected by an alien virus. Infected humans just turn pale and thin and come down with a bad case of baby fever, 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 rarely meet their own parents.
  • 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.
  • Clean, Pretty Childbirth: Justified in Clay's Ark for people who carry the symbiotic Clayark microorganisms. Thanks to their Healing Factor, childbirth isn't much worse than stomach cramps and the newborn recovers from the ordeal and adapts to the outside world almost immediately.
  • Collector of Forms: Anyanwu can analyze an animal's DNA by consuming a fragment of its flesh, then freely use it with her Biomanipulation. She uses this both for Animorphism and for improving her own body, like gaining a dolphin's ability to conserve oxygen.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Keira in Clay's Ark has the fewest qualms about being infected with the Clayark disease, because it cures her terminal leukemia.
  • 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.
  • Dehumanization: By Patternmaster, neither the Patternists nor the Clayarks see each other as people because they've been vying for control over the world for so long. Either faction will massacre the other at any opportunity.
  • 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.
    • Anyanwu wills herself dead the night after Doro is killed for good. Whether she's tired of outliving everyone she loves and no longer needs to protect them from Doro's predations, can't bear living without the only other immortal on Earth, or doesn't want to live in the Super Supremacist future Mary's building is left ambiguous.
  • 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.
  • Eyes Are Mental: No matter what form Anyanwu takes, her eyes betray a glimpse of the ancient being within:
    People said her eyes were like babies' eyes — the whites too white, the browns too deep and clear. No adult, and certainly no old woman should have such eyes, they said.
  • Fallen States of America: By the late 21st-Century setting of Clay's Ark, the United States has mostly degenerated into walled enclaves of the privileged, crime-infested urban "sewers", and lawless rural areas dominated by gangs. One character is seen as nearly insane for immigrating from Europe. By Patternmaster, America is entirely gone.
  • Fantastic Slurs: In Mind of My Mind, the newly-founded patternists start referring to non-telepaths as "mutes". Anyanwu, who's seen American slavery firsthand, picks up on the implications immediately. She's correct — by the Patternmaster era, "mute-herd" is a profession for low-ranking 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 "Clayarks". 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.
  • Getting Smilies Painted on Your Soul: Patternists program their "mute" Muggle slaves to be happy and compliant — Teray notes that it's impossible for a mute to dislike any Patternist, even the horrifically abusive ones. A careless Patternist can easily reduce a mute to an Empty Shell over time.
  • Grand Theft Me:
    • Doro does this by devouring the host's mind and abandoning 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.
  • Hayseed Name: Asa Elias Doyle of Clay's Ark is a Black and Nerdy Southern-Fried Genius geologist and astronaut despite his double-barreled Puritan name, but is very good at code-switching and playing up his accent when he wants to be underestimated.
  • Healing Factor:
    • Anyanwu has a conscious version of this power, so if she's unconscious she doesn't heal. This ability becomes universal in later Patternists.
    • The Clayark disease makes its victims immune to other diseases and lets them heal injuries at incredible speed — one man survives being stabbed through the heart.
  • Healing Hands: Some psychics learn how to heal other people as well as themselves, and can do so with vastly greater skill then those who can't. Patternmaster clarifies that this is a complementary gift to the default psychic powers.
  • Humanoid 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.
  • Humanshifting: Anyanwu's biomancy makes her a master of this, able to copy other humans, male and female, even at a genetic level. It's implied that other healer-type psychics are capable of it as well, to a more superficial extent.
  • 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.
  • Implacable Man: Doro can track other people with latent or active psychic powers and his own power makes him impossible to stop. When Anyanwu runs from him, he spends a full century hunting her down.
  • 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.
  • Magic Versus Science: By Patternmaster, technological development has backslid, simply because Patternists prefer to rely on their powers and have no respect for mutes' interest in technology. Rayal muses about freeing some mutes to make some inventions in the way one might indulge a pet.
  • The Magic Versus Technology War: The background conflict in Patternmaster is between the psychic Patternists and the firearm-bearing Clayarks.
  • Magitek: The Dana Drive in Clay's Ark enables Faster-Than-Light Travel through "an exotic combination of particle physics and psionics", with the latter drawn from the crew's latent psychic potential. Lampshaded when a crewman admits it took some time for the inventor to convince the scientific community that it wasn't total bunkum.
  • 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.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Anyanwu has had many husbands over her centuries-long life; both she and her husbands seem to accept their circumstances.
  • Meaningful Name: Doro and Anyanwu's names mean "the east" and "the sun" in their respective native languages. The characters themselves take note of this in the beginning of the book as a strange coincidence, or a sign that they were intended to meet each other.
  • 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.
  • No Blood Ties: Psychic parents cannot stand their own offspring due to the constant undirected mental noise, so all children are raised in boarding schools run by specialized psychics and mentally conditioned "mutes". Children know who their parents are, but don't especially care.
  • 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).
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The worst part about agelessness for Anyanwu is a life spent burying generations of her children. The chance of bearing children who would share her agelessness is what tempts her to cooperate with Doro.
  • Possession Burnout: Doro needs to take a new body every year at most, and usually much more frequently. Justified both because he rarely bothers to take care of his bodies and because he needs to feed on the souls of those he absorbs.
  • 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.
  • Prefers Raw Meat: Those infected with the Clayark disease come to prefer raw, unseasoned food — preferably meat, although they enjoy vegetables as well. Some of them simply chase down fresh game by hand.
  • 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.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: Some ruins of modern-day cities are still standing in Patternmaster, centuries later. Since the Clayarks like to inhabit them, the Patternists prefer to destroy them when they can.
  • 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.
  • Shapeshifter Longevity: Whereas other psychics only have limited healing powers at best, Anyanwu's Biomanipulation gives her both shapeshifting and perfect control of her own body. She lives over 600 years and only dies by her own will.
  • Shapeshifting Squick: Anyanwu sometimes transforms into a man to father children, though she's implied not to enjoy it very much. She also mates with dolphins while transformed into one.
  • Soul Eating: The concept of souls isn't touched upon, but Doro absorbs the minds of those he Body Surfs into.
  • 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.
  • Super-Senses: The Clayark disease grants incredibly acute senses to its infectees.
  • Super-Speed: Clayarks are extremely fast and agile, with a running speed of a hundred kilometers per hour.
  • Super Supremacist: Most of the original six Patternists mind-control non-telepaths into obeying their whims, which they scale up to take over their city as soon as they organize in Mind of My Mind. By Patternmaster, "mutes" are treated as little better than draft animals.
  • 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—the first generation of born Clayarks at Eli's compound have human-level intelligence, just not human mindsets or morals—although their predatory impulses and instinctive need to spread their disease make chatting them up unrealistic.
  • Telepathy: The defining trait of the Patternists.
  • To Serve Man: By Patternmaster, the Clayarks ritually devour Patternist flesh when possible, symbolizing their intent to consume the entire Patternist race.
  • Transformation Is a Free Action: Zig-zagged with Anyanwu. She can change forms instantaneously, but the process is utterly agonizing and leaves her almost insane with hunger, so she takes her time except in dire emergencies.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: As Anyanwu gains experience, she learns to transform into various animal forms.
  • Walking Transplant: Most of Doro's "seed villagers" are resigned to the fact that he can and does Body Surf into any of them, and even show a level of Stockholm Syndrome towards him. However, once the first Patternist community forms, they respond to his threat by ganging up and absorbing him in turn.
  • 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.
  • Wizards Live Longer: Zig-zagged. Patternists can live vastly longer than humans thanks to their Healing Factor, but by the time of Patternmaster, those powerful enough to do so tend to fall victim to Klingon Promotion before reaching even a normal human lifespan.
  • You Are Who You Eat: Anyanwu samples animal DNA by consuming fragments of flesh and can transform herself into a genetic copy of the source creature from then on. She also refines her human body by adopting animal traits, like an eagle's vision or a dolphin's improved ability to process oxygen.
  • Younger Than They Look: Older Patternists like Dara tend to use their healing powers to keep themselves looking just shy of middle age, though some let their hair go white as a nod to their true age.
  • Your Normal Is Our Taboo: When Anyanwu moves to Doro's seed village, she's appalled by many things the locals take for granted, from their acceptance of incest to their consumption of animal milk. Some of the disparities are caused by Doro's influence on the seed villages; others, by varying customs between her native Igbo civilization and Western mores.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: Basically what happened to civilization on Earth when the Clayark virus spread—Clayarks see humans as either lunch or potential new hosts, and worse, are capable of bearing young. 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