Clay’s Ark (1984) was written last in Octavia Butler’s 4-book PATTERNIST series, but comes third in chronology. It takes place after Wild Seed (1980) and Mind of My Mind (1977), in the post-apocalyptic California desert. Society has collapsed into armed enclaves, marauding ‘car families’, organ hunters, and isolated towns. It’s along the lines of Mad Max, with fuel sources depleted and social infrastructure nonexistent, violent death lurking at any moment, and little room for anything more than survival.
This world is gradually revealed via two storylines, one set in the past and the other in the present. The past story arc is centered on an astronaut named Eli, the only survivor of a spaceship called Clay’s Ark that went on an exploratory mission to Proxima Centauri. The mission encountered an alien microbe that affected and transformed their DNA for its own purposes. Eli survives the return to Earth, but is infected with this microbe, which imparts on its host increased strength, endurance, healing ability, and appetite.
However, it also enslaves humans by forcing them to spread the disease. Namely, the men feel an overwhelming urge to infect unaffected females and mate with them, and infected women also feel the same compulsion. Infected men also feel intense aggression towards other males, which leads to a lion’s pride type of social structure, with the strongest males taking as many females as possible and fighting off competing males. The most disturbing aspect of this book is that infected people are fully aware of these compulsions and rebel against them, but cannot resist. So they are both slaves and puppets to this alien microbe that drives them to animal-like behavior.
In the current timeline we meet Blake, a physician who still remembers pre-collapse society, and his twin daughters Rane and Keira. Rane is healthy and confident, while Keira suffers from an incurable form of leukemia. The story wastes no time in throwing them into trouble, as their car is stopped by two men who force them at gunpoint to return with them to a remote enclave in the desert. As the story progresses, we learn that this community is led by former astronaut Eli and consists of people infected by the sinister alien microbe brought back from Proxima Centauri.
The classic Butler themes of domination, enslavement, power, and strange sexual relations are on full display in Clay’s Ark. It’s not an easy reading experience, and I’m sure that’s one reason that Butler’s books are not more widely read, but they are certainly challenging and force the reader outside their comfort zone. We have no choice but to go along with the difficult decisions the characters face in whether to submit to an alien virus that will transform them.
Butler seems fixated on the idea of humans being transformed into something alien, both more and less than human. The process of transformation is always difficult, painful and invasive, and people often don’t survive. Butler seems to revel in throwing readers and her characters into uncomfortable situations. This was also the case in the previous books Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, though the transformation was psychic in nature. So thematically Clay’s Ark delves into the same territory, but does not feature any of the telepaths from the previous books.
It’s an interesting choice to group this book into the PATTERNIST series, but if we consider the order of publication then the reasons are clear. Patternmaster was Butler’s first book, written in 1976, and features both Patternists and Clayarks in a far-future society, so she was filling in the backstory of that initial book over the next eight years. With the exception of Kindred in 1979, all of Butler’s earlier books are set in the PATTERNIST universe. Her subsequent major works were the XENOGENESIS trilogy and Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (Parable of the Trickster was never finished), and I think her writing met with greater critical acclaim as her ideas gained in sophistication. Her untimely death was a great loss to the science fiction community.
Clay’s Ark is narrated by Neal Ghant, and I liked his strong voice and spare style. This is a harsh story and his delivery is equally harsh. He imbues the characters with the appropriate level of desperation as they face death and fight for survival in this unforgiving world. In particular, he does a good job of depicting the struggle against the Clayark disease, and the horror of being compelled by an alien microbe. This book would make an intense if bleak post-apocalyptic action film, and Denzel Washington would make a great leading man… Hold on, that was already done by the Hughes Brothers, in Book of Eli.
I think you really defined what makes the book so valuable, and so uncomfortable; the idea that these characters are driven by an imperative they can’t master. I don’t know if her short story, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is set in the Patternist world, but the protagonist struggles with the same issue, as the result of a disease. It’s powerful and not quite as bleak.