Seed to Harvest (Patternist 1-4)
by Octavia Butler (1976-84)
Sadly this volume contains the least compelling Butler novel I’ve ever encountered, with only two of the four books actually feeling essential to the overall story. (And I bet I’m in disagreement with just about everyone on which book I liked least.)
I deliberated on the order of reading, and I even checked various people’s opinions on whether I should read it chronologically (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster) or in order of publication (PM, MoMM, WS, CA). My opinion probably would have been drastically altered had I read it chronologically, but ultimately it made the most sense to me to read it in the order that Butler wrote it. Perhaps my resulting disappointment is more a criticism of the narrative choices Butler made in deciding how to expand her Patternist universe.
Because I began with Patternmaster, a captivating albeit too-brief story of power politics in a highly intriguing sci-fi dystopia, I was excited to learn more about the background of that world as I moved on with the series. Mind of My Mindwas a welcome addition in this sense as it gave us the origins of the very first Patternmaster and her struggles against the godlike creator of their “race.” Sure it was replete with the standard Butleristic duo of awkwardness (pace and dialogue), but it was engaging and a satisfying extension of her Patternist universe. It also delved more deeply into the enslavement of humanity in Butler’s world, a topic she keeps coming back to (Xenogenesis, Fledgling, Bloodchild) and keeps appearing to endorse (an issue I discuss further in my Lilith’s Brood review.)
Wild Seed, which many people claim as the best standalone novel of the series, was for me the single most boring Butler novel I’ve ever read (I’ve now read them all). Not only did it exist solely to develop a relationship that was utterly tangential to the first two novels, but it did so in a bloated, tedious way that had me skipping large paragraphs of Anyanwo fretting over her impossible situation. There was no climax and very little action, so it certainly is an extraordinary standalone novel in Butler’s canon, but only in the sense that it is the only book of hers that isn’t compulsively readable.
A far better narrative choice, IMHO, would have been to greatly condense WS, by half or so, and then add it to the sparse MoMM, either in chronological order as a “Part I”, or mixed within Mary’s narrative in a sort of “Godfather II” flashback style. Doing so probably would have transformed Mind of My Mind into Butler’s best overall novel.
Clay’s Ark, the “afterthought” of the series, is as inessential as WS though it at least has compelling action to recommend it — thin characters and bottomless misanthropy notwithstanding. But if you think about it for more than a few seconds it’s actually worse than inessential since it actively highlights a narrative absurdity of the entire series, namely: we are witnessing a world that has not only been colonized by a supernatural breeding program but also by an extraterrestrial invasion of microbes. This coincidence is — to put it gently — utterly ludicrous, and if the clayarkbackground had been revealed in the very first novel it would have been a dealbreaker.
It really just feels like poor plotting, and there’s ultimately no reason that the clayark creatures from Patternmaster couldn’t have been replaced by zombified, “infected” hominids — they would have fulfilled the same purpose without severely undermining the world’s credibility. As written, the book feels like a desperate attempt to connect MoMM with PM. A better use of Butler’s time would have been to simply work on a sequel to the original Patternmaster; surely that world was rich enough to mine for another engaging narrative.
As I said above, it’s quite likely that I would have enjoyed parts of this series more had I read it in (Butler’s chosen) chronological order. WS certainly would have been more interesting and CA would have felt more integrated. I suspect I still would have been left wanting more from the PM world, which is where I am now anyway. So it’s probably a wash in the end.
As an aside, it’s fascinating to see the type of vulgar content Butler was getting away with in the 70s and 80s. I had seen the pearl-clutching over the “statutory rape” from Fledgling, but some of the stuff in this series is just as bad, especially in Seed and Clay’s. The latter was somewhat disturbing even to my typically callous sensibilities. I can imagine the outcry if a middle-aged white man had written the same things. Can a young, black female author be lecherous too? ‘Cause this would certainly qualify in a vacuum.
Anyway, thus concludes my great Octavia Butler odyssey. . . my Octavyssey. I’ve now read every one of her novels and her most famous short story collection. They’re all (except Wild Seed) absolutely captivating works of a flawed visionary. Because my society values ranking things I will bow to peer pressure and place them in order of enjoyment:
1. Parable of the Sower
2. Bloodchild and Other Stories
4. Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis 1-3)
6. Seed to Harvest (Patternist 1, 2 and 4)
7. Parable of the Talents
8. Wild Seed (Patternist 3)