Roseville Beach Reading: Octavia Butler's Patternist Series

This is a series about beach reads in the summer of 1979: pop fiction and pulp fiction that might show up on the shelves of Sandy Perez’s Paperback Exchange & Newsstand in the back of The Market in Roseville Beach. These aren’t formal reviews, just quick read-throughs with an eye to how ideas from the book could inform your Roseville Beach game.

Octavia Butler launched her novel writing career in 1976 with Patternmaster, the first of the Patternist series. In doing so, she perfected a strategy a lot of series writers were going for: begin the series with a dramatic moment and then work backward to figure out how we got there.

I’m a white, cis, and male. It’d be hubris to imagine I have much to add to the discussion of Butler and her work. This isn’t a review (and it’s not even a first read). Instead, I’m looking at how Butler’s use of psi departs from and interacts with a few other writers whose books would have shown up on a paperback exchange shelf in 1979.

Spoiler Warning: This series of posts are about books at least 40 years old, sometimes older, specifically looking at what kinds of game sessions they might inspire. That means there will often be spoilers. I won’t try to mark them individually: if you prefer to avoid spoilers, you’ll want to skip this post.

The Author

Octavia Butler was a black lesbian in Southern California who studied at CSU LA and UCLA before attending the Clarion Writers Workshop. She went on to become the first SF writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Her first novel was Patternmaster, which kicked off the five-book Patternist series. One of the books, Survivor, was disowned—Butler called it a “Star Trek novel,” but the rest explored how the world of our history and near future became the far-future world of Patternmaster. She’s best known for the critical acclaim for her experimental SF novels like Kindred and Parable of the Talents, but those themes begin appearing in her earliest novels, including the first two Patternist books: Patternmaster and Mind of My Mind.

The Book

Will at Paperback Picnic did a great job of introducing Patternmaster and its themes in his review. Thematically, the book is an exploration of domination, biological determinism, empire, and slavery. Far in Earth’s future, in a city that was once (the fictional) Forsyth, California, a powerful telepath called the Patternmaster is speaking with his wife about killing his sister and brothers to take control of the Pattern is killed by a group of humans who’ve been transformed into sphinx-like creatures by the clayark virus. The world is divided between patternists (themselves divided into multiple classes based on their power and skill), claryarks (made separate by their descent from clayark-infected humans), and “mutes” — typical humans with no telepathic skill, dominated and enslaved by patternists. The attack kills his wife and leaves him struggling to sustain his control for many years while his own most powerful children grow to adulthood.

Several years later, Teray, the patternmaster’s youngest son, barely aware of his parentage, has reached adulthood and is planning to apprentice himself to a housemaster, the uppermost class of patternists. His plans are upset when his older brother, who he doesn’t even know, forces Teray’s housemaster to sell Teray to him. He threatens to make Teray a slave unless Teray agrees to submit to his own control. Being forced to work on his brother’s plantation-style house exposes Teray to the injustices of the housemasters and the class system, and he ultimately attempts to flee, accompanied by his brother’s healer, Amber. There’s ultimately a confrontation between the brothers, and Teray is able to use a combination of skills other than telepathy to win.

The sequel, Mind of My Mind, flashes back to the 20th century. A powerful psychic vampire, born a Nubian in Bronze Age, has been draining living people of energy and taking over their bodies for millennia while using inbreeding to create a powerful race of psychics. His experiments produce some fairly powerful practitioners, but many never gain active control of their gifts, and their uncontrollable, passive reception of other peoples’ thoughts and desires provokes emotional instability and psychotic breaks.

In gaining active control of her powers, Mary, one of Doro’s children, inadvertently creates the telepathic Pattern that joins Doro’s telepathic children and many of those with uncontrolled latent powers, becoming the first Patternmaster. The Pattern also helps those with uncontrolled powers take active control of them. Doro, who does not have telepathic powers and can’t be part of the pattern, grows frustrated with his lack of influence and tries to limit Mary’s authority, and she eventually has to destroy him.

Psi, Social Systems, and Gestalts

While there’s an ongoing temptation in series to read books in the sequence of their internal chronology, with this series, there’s a lot to be said for reading in publication order. When you begin with Patternmaster, my introduction to the series those many years ago when I first read Octavia Butler, you’re introduced to an imperial, slave-holding world with a strict class system based on psi power. In that far future time, the characters believe their best short-term hope was finding a telepath strong enough to become Patternmaster who can also sympathize with the society’s lower classes (mutes and weaker patternists) and show kindness toward the clayarks they’re constantly at war with. The main characters, born with a certain degree of power and privilege, have no vision of a world without war or slavery—just one in which both have become less terrible. Butler doesn’t romanticize the limited imaginations of those who are born with privilege and power. Even when they are often victims of the system they are working to sustain—Amber’s gender and her bisexuality are both sources of oppression for her—Butler’s narrator never romanticizes or apologizes for Teray’s and Amber’s choices. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in the world of Patternmaster is rampant, not only in the plantation-like house system where weaker patternists and mutes are indentured to housemasters but also in the schools and families of the powerful. Butler refuses the Dickensian temptation to use her narrator’s voice to editorialize (unlike King does in ’Salem’s Lot). She simply and briefly shows us a shitty world in all its brutality and introduces us to someone who will, by the end of the novel, rule it. The best result we can hope for from these characters is that they will make it slightly less shitty.

In Mind of My Mind, she takes us back to that system’s beginning. Mary, herself often the victim of abuse, forms the pattern almost involuntarily. However, she sustains it to rescue the other latent and active telepaths that Doro has forgotten, neglected, and abandoned to their fates. Often, even after gaining some control of their power, they can’t maintain even basic daily activities: driving is dangerous when you might be overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions of anyone you pass and self-regulation is difficult when you’re also constantly sorting out your own needs and desires from those of the people around you. Those who achieve a degree of control over their power often do it at the expense of non-psionic humans around them. Rachel, who has psychic healing talents, pretends to be a faith healer so that she can steal energy from the congregations that come to see her. The Pattern changes that: the telepaths who join shield and empower each other, guide each other into gaining control of their powers, and protect non-psychics from psionic abuse. The educational and leadership systems that emerge—that will become sources of abuse, subjugation, and oppression in the future—are what finally break Doro’s abusive control over their lives and ultimately kill him.

This contrasts with the way other writers imagine psi in paperback genre fiction from the 50s through the 70s. I hope to talk about some of them later, but her Pattern is both more and less hopeful than Sturgeon’s 1953 More Than Human, which conceives of a similar gestalt-like effect and contemplates how it connects with humanity on a much smaller scale. Her notion is telepathy is also distinctly amoral, distinct from telepathy as poetic genius (and brilliant command) in Delany’s Babel–17. Her Patternist world is also much more brutal than the Deryni novels of Katherine Kurtz, though Kurtz also imagines both a world in which the psychically powered Deryni are oppressed by “normal” humans (The Chronicles of the Deryni series, 1970–73) and one in which the Deryni are cruel, vindictive, abusive rulers (Camber of Culdi, 1976). King’s Carrie (1974) connects psychic backlash to oppression and abuse (and the epistolary portions of the novel show a society of people with privilege and power trying to come to terms with that in ways that leave their status quo intact), where both The Shining and The Stand imagine (and the much later Dr. Sleep) imagine a world where psi is both a source of power and an opportunity for abusers. The Patternist series has common threads with all of these, but it’s Butler that so powerfully imagines psi as a source of identity and community and also of abuse, power, and corruption.


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